Weather Forecast


Easy as pie? Not quite

Zinnat Rahman from Bangladesh reads a book in the upper intermediate ESL class offered at the R.H. Stafford Library. Staff photo by Riham Feshir

"Let's hang out."

A simple idiom understood and used regularly by Americans.

Now try looking up the phrase word for word. Let: to allow or to permit. Us: the objective case of we. Hang: to fasten from above. Out: away from the inside.

"Allow we to fasten away from the inside."


That may be the reaction by an English Language Learner using a handheld translator to understand the sentence on the go.

"These are expressions that we take for granted and understand what they mean," said Linda Melin, an adult basic education ESL teacher for South Washington County schools. "If you translate every word, it would not make sense."

On a Wednesday afternoon, Melin led a class of students from countries including Romania, India, Vietnam, Iran, Brazil and Cameroon, as they read "The Soloist" by Steve Lopez at Central Park.

"This book is the treasure troves of idioms," she said, before asking one of her students to read aloud an excerpt.

The advanced class is practicing fluency and comprehension, a goal the ESL program strives to reach by offering beginning, intermediate and advanced courses to area residents.

The program, which holds classes at the R.H. Stafford Library as well, has speakers of more than 52 languages.

It began years ago and as the communities of south Washington County grew, the district began offering a more structured registration process that enhances students' reading, writing and speaking abilities.

Many of the participants have college or graduate degrees from their home countries but are unable to work in the United States until they earn additional certificates, said Susie Evans, adult basic education coordinator.

"When you see people start at 70 years old with no English and they end up at Inver Hills (Community College), it's just beautiful," she said.

The classes, comprising students aged 18 to 70, have a variety of ethnicities and skills - from the mom of four who needs to learn how to communicate with teachers, to many 3M spouses who accompanied their partners on journeys to the United States to advance their careers.

Mousmi Kumari moved to Minnesota from India one month ago and has been taking the upper intermediate ESL class since.

With a master's degree in world history and aspirations to earn a nursing degree here, she passed a placement test at Century College this month.

The ESL class "gave me more confidence," she said with a smile.

For Beyenesh Tesema, a mother who moved to the U.S. with her four children from Eretria -- an African country bordering Ethiopia -- it's often difficult to speak with teachers.

"Communication is more one way," her ESL teacher Joan Nichols said. "It's not back and forth."

Evans said it's important for parents to be able to attend parent-teacher conferences, sign on to online portals and keep tabs on their children's attendance records.

Something as simple as "my kid is sick today" can be hard to say for some.

"Really to help them become more involved in the community," Evans said is one of the program's goals. "And that would trickle down to helping their students be more successful."

ESL class attendance and level gains have been growing by 10 percent annually, she said. The data is based on a post-test that students are required to take in order for the district to receive federal and state funding.

Eight certified teachers practice the curriculum that meets guidelines, however, they add their own touches to the program with opportunities to engage in conversation outside of class.

This month, Melin's class is planning field trips to Stillwater to understand how it became the birthplace of Minnesota. They will also visit the Mill City Museum and a goat farm.

Once in a while ESL students would go to Stonecrest Senior Living to practice conversing with the residents there.

"That's why we like to be talking," student Varsha Pavagadhi said. "We learn fast."

It's not just about the language for the 234 ESL students in this year's program. It's about building a bond, friendships, sharing meals, exploring cultures and making connections over common interests.

Melin's class will soon end for the year, but before the group says farewell, they'll be cooking up a storm at a luncheon she's hosting at her home.

Now that's easy as pie.

Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.