JFS Citizenship Classes Provide Engaging Lessons in Civic Integration and Community

A student’s glasses sit on his open workbook during a recent class.

Learning to navigate life in the U.S. can be daunting for newly arrived refugees and immigrants. It means learning the social mores and customs of an entirely new community and, for many, a new language. Some may want to become citizens which entails passing a rigorous citizenship exam. The experience can be daunting—and that’s why Jewish Family Service’s Citizenship and English classes are specifically designed to promote inclusion.

JFS currently serves a total of 62 students across the Eastside Citizenship and English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes, both of which are intended for students who live in Bellevue, Kirkland and Redmond. The students—who come from a variety of different countries, including Brazil, Mexico, Vietnam, China, Ukraine, Russia, Turkmenistan, Ecuador, Taiwan, Iran and Afghanistan—also bring with them varying levels of English language skills. Irene Lundquist, the program’s new instructor, says that the goals of the beginner classes are “to get everyone on an even plane, literacy-wise. Some students are illiterate in their first language; some have no knowledge of the English alphabet and others can already read on their own.” Intermediate classes focus more intently on the basic foundations of grammar as well as spelling—but still half of the lessons are dedicated to dialogue, since the classroom also functions as an important social outlet for students.

“I signed up for the classes at JFS because I wanted to understand my new home,” said one student who has been in the ESOL program for four months. “I also wanted to learn how to integrate myself into American life. I really enjoy the instructors and the teaching methods here—it suits me.”

Building Community Within the Classroom

Irene Lundquist, who joined JFS to lead the Citizenship classes and English language classes, has deep experience in teaching adult students in both college and social service settings. Passionate about “building community within the classroom,” she has implemented dynamic components into the classes, including field trips and other activities for applied learning and regular listening comprehension practice. A recent excursion involved taking an offsite trip to Trader Joe’s, right across the street from the Eastside office. The students, who had just finished a unit on shopping, money, and food, paired up in teams and went on a scavenger hunt around the store to locate and name various products.
Soon, Irene plans to take intermediate ESOL students to a nearby Walgreen’s drugstore after completing a unit on doctor’s visits and prescriptions. In the winter, she will accompany all three classes on a special field trip to the Bellevue Botanical Gardens’ Garden d’Lights show thanks to a grant from the City of Bellevue.

A New Layer of Complexity

“I think now, more so than ever, it’s necessary to keep providing these classes and resources,” says Irene. The written portion of the U.S. naturalization exam, which is already intimidating for many, is now delivered via touch screens, adding another layer of complexity for applicants to navigate. Older refugees and immigrants with limited exposure to technology could find this new learning curve especially discouraging. Anticipating this change, JFS has begun using Microsoft Surface tablets in both the Citizenship classes and the English classes to help students prepare for the writing portion of the exam.

This colorful door to the ESOL classroom serves as a representation of the diversity of students.

“Our students are amazing, hardworking individuals, some of whom are here simply to join their families and take care of their grandchildren, others who are here to escape violence and religious persecution. I don’t know my students’ full stories, and I don’t ask—but what they have shared with me paints pictures of unsustainable, challenging lives. I love that we are able to welcome them into our country and into the safe space of our classroom, where we laugh together and learn about our different rich cultures and languages,” adds Irene.
The Jewish Family Service Eastside Office offers English and Citizenship classes, including test preparation, all year long and students may start any time depending on space available. For more information, please call (425) 643-2221, or email ris@jfsseattle.org.

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