Alison Douglas, Ed.D., professor of English, and Colleen Stribling, Ed.D., professor of English as a Second Language (ESL), have been working together since 2013 to build a bridge between their two departments at Elgin Community College. Their goal is to increase student success and create a system enhanced through equity, diversity, and inclusion, or EDI. This led to the creation of a Learning Community that allows students enrolled in the Advanced ESL Transitions course to simultaneously enroll in English 101 while also allowing them to forego the placement test required by the English department. The ESL department determines which students are ready to be a part of the Learning Community.
The Learning Community first took off when Douglas and Stribling realized their current system was working against ESL students by setting them back and ultimately discouraging them to keep moving forward. “The reason we chose to start this was we felt we weren’t appropriately placing students and inadvertently putting up barriers that weren’t necessarily needed for their success,” said Stribling. Previously, when an ESL student was unable to pass the placement test to move into English 101, they were placed in developmental courses. This not only required them to spend more time and money before they could even begin their college education, but it also sent the wrong message. Stribling spent a semester studying abroad in Spain, and although her Spanish writing was not nearly as good as her English writing, she knew she was not in the position to be put in a developmental course. Using this experience, Stribling could clearly understand what they were doing was not reflecting the knowledge base of these students.
Instead of punishing the students for not being native speakers, the Learning Community works to embrace these differences and lift students up. “One of the really awesome things about the Learning Community is we are consciously helping these students use their strengths and to see their immigrant experience and language as assets,” said Douglas.
Not only did the Learning Community create a more equitable foundation for ESL students to transition into college courses, but it helped the English department understand how to better teach their students. “This has been life-changing for me in terms of my instruction. It has changed the way I teach, and it’s given me the language to talk to students and comment on their papers in ways that no class has ever given me,” said Douglas. When language patterns show up, Stribling and her team are there to explain and walk them through it.
Creating this bridge for ECC’s ESL students is something Douglas and Stribling review each year on how they can keep improving the Learning Community to function through an EDI lens. Early on in the program, Douglas would travel to Building K to teach English 101 to the ESL students in the cohort. After a semester, they put a half-hour between classes so the students could come to Building B and be more connected to the main campus and student body. “I have these students that need to get across the street, but the people across the street need to have them there, too,” said Stribling. “It’s those things that keep reminding me of how important this work is from an equitable standpoint because if we want to embrace all the students in our college, that means taking those students from Building K and helping them literally and figuratively bridge across the campus,” added Douglas.
By meeting the needs of these students, Douglas and the English department were able to see their accented writing in a whole new light, allowing for celebration of their differences rather than confusion. “We don’t want to get rid of their accents completely in their writing. They are not native speakers and there is no reason they should speak or write as if they were,” said Douglas. “I keep telling them that is the music in your voice and writing.” When posed with the question ‘is this right,’ Douglas has learned throughout this experience that although it may not be the way she would say it, it doesn’t mean it is wrong and can’t be understood.
For the past three years, of the students who participated in the Learning Community, there has been a 94 percent overall pass rate. Since its conception in 2013, the Learning Community has expanded to night classes and connect with speech and business courses. “What we are doing for a lot of these students is giving them that opportunity to regain their educational status here. We need them and we need their skills,” said Stribling.