For seven years, Mary Leming, a former public school English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, has given up time every Thursday and Saturday to continue her passion – teaching. After retiring early, Leming found an opportunity to teach ESL voluntarily at the Port Jefferson library. Leming teaches beginner English to locals from all backgrounds from France to China.
As of 2018, about 15% of Suffolk County’s population is foreign-born residents in comparison to the majority 80% white population. This population grew since the start of the decade and is still continuing. Within Suffolk libraries, there are a total of 14 different ESL classes having a range of all levels of difficulty.
“Because my classes at the library meet only twice a week with not always the same students on each day, I usually focus on cultural topics such as American holidays and local history,” wrote Leming in an email. “We trade recipes and talk about music, movies and books in all different languages.”
Because of the current pandemic, the Port Jefferson library classes moved online. Although the students and Leming are unable to meet in person, they made the best of the situation by allowing the class to be more inclusive.
“Now that we are online instead of in person, sometimes my local students invite their friends who live in other places,” wrote Leming in an email. “Right now one of my students is actually joining online from Texas and a former student who moved to Chicago was able to join online too for a couple of sessions.”
Shades of Long Island got to sit in on one of Leming’s Saturday afternoon classes where she taught her students about Thanksgiving. Even before the lesson began, students chatted with each other about what was going on in their lives. Wei, a Chinese mother with two kids was talking about how she is getting ready to move soon. The topic of sickness and COVID-19 was also brought up because Tony, who is American, but logged in with his wife, Tamara, who is from Russia, was not feeling well the day of the class.
“The thing that they [students] really benefit from is the interaction among themselves,” said Leming. “What happens is one person would come in and maybe she’d have a five-year-old. And then the next week, someone else would come in from another country, another language and she’d have a five-year-old. And so the children would make friends and they would make friends.”
Leming’s good friend, Deborah Quigley, teaches the Comsewogue Library class at a slightly more advanced level. Her class takes place on Tuesdays from 2:30-3:30 p.m. where she focuses more on learning new vocabulary with a mix of grammar lessons.
“I try to find interesting subjects and then sometimes try to link them to current events,” said Quigley. “And then other times I’m trying to do a grammar lesson of some sort or a vocabulary lesson.”
Quigley became certified to teach language through a program called Literacy Suffolk at Comsewogue Public Library. She started volunteering her time as a tutor for the program teaching ESL. While she was tutoring, she also attended language classes at the library. Once a spot opened up, she took it.
The class always begins with students interacting with each other and then formally introducing themselves. Like Leming’s students, Quigley’s come from an array of countries like Turkey, Portugal and Brazil. Quigley uses a lot of visuals when teaching. A consistent one she uses is the daily introductions where she holds up a piece of paper in which students must state their name, what country they are from and how long they have been living on Long Island.
“We learn how we can communicate better,” said Gilmar, one of Quigley’s students from Brazil. “Usually we start alone but the interaction is the better part to memorize the words and sentences. Deborah helps us with this every week and brings a lot of examples.”
For a full list of classes check below: