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Classroom on Wheels

  • Classroom on Wheels

Imagine teaching an English class in a mobile truck and traveling to different neighbourhoods around your city or town. ESL To Go, a mobile ESL classroom for refugees in Tennessee, is doing exactly that. In this week's blog, ESL To Go program manager Leah Hashinger and curriculum coordinator Ashley Ekers share their experiences with this innovative program. 

How does ESL To Go work? Do learners register for specific classes or are the classes drop-in? 

Leah: ESL To Go is a mobile ESL program for refugees. The 34 foot truck is a fully-functioning ESL classroom on wheels. The unit comfortably seats ten students and includes a teacher’s work space and cabinetry for storage, as well as amenities such as white boards and a projector.

ESL to Go classes are offered at specific levels based on the students’ needs. Our class offerings range from literacy, where students are not able to write and recognize the English alphabet, to intermediate, where students are able to understand and be understood in basic social and work-related settings.

All students must register for classes prior to attending, and classes operate on thirteen-week trimesters. When a student registers for class, it is expected that he/she will attend the entire trimester. However, since the majority of our students are refugees who have just arrived in the U.S., students are often no longer able to attend class after gaining employment. For this reason, we allow new students to join the class at any point in the term when a seat becomes available. 

How often is the truck “on the road”? Do you offer classes every day? 

Leah:  The ESL to Go truck is in operation six days a week across three sites in South Nashville. Beyond offering classes on the truck, we also offer two classes at an apartment complex that has been converted into a classroom space. This is done in conjunction with a local resettlement agency, the Nashville International Center for Empowerment. 

Our program currently serves roughly 80 students.

Tell us more about the learners. Are the majority of the learners ESL literacy learners? How do they find out about ESL To Go? How long do they stay in the program?

Ashley:  We have eight classes this term, three of which are literacy level classes. All the other class levels vary, so literacy is definitely the highest in demand, though it’s only about 35% of our student base. The majority of our students find out about our classes through their case workers, who refer them to our program so that they can meet the English requirements necessary to receive Refugee Cash Assistance.

Other than referrals from case workers, many students hear about our classes through their friends or community leaders. It’s not uncommon for a student to come to class one week and the next week come with a friend or family member who also wants to learn English. 

We’ve also been approached by refugee community leaders who have suggested various sites for us to bring our truck. We recently added a Saturday class to our schedule in response to an expressed need from the Bhutanese community.

Our students can stay in our classes as long as their schedule allows them, and as long as their English level doesn’t progress beyond our class level offerings. In the case of the latter, we refer them to other community organizations that offer higher level English classes. 

Besides offering English classes, how does ESL To Go support refugees?

Leah: English classes are just a slice of the ESL to Go cake. Our team regularly organizes outings and field trips for our students. Favorites include trips to the Fist Center for Visual Arts, the Downtown Nashville Farmer’s Market, and to see the Christmas decorations at Opryland Hotel.

We’ve also hosted various workshops on the truck including financial literacy trainings, food stamps outreach office hours, health screenings, health orientations, and most recently, Walgreens Pharmacy gave out free flu shots to over 60 refugees and immigrants on our truck.

A favorite event outside of class hours was when we partnered with Thriftsmart, a local thrift store, to set up a pop-up shop on our truck at one of our class sites. Residents were able to buy fall and winter clothing and accessories without having to travel to a store. The event was a huge success and a very exciting evening for the community.

Furthermore, ESL to Go staff work very closely with Nashville’s resettlement and refugee service agencies. Our staff serve on various boards and committees to make Nashville a more welcoming city conducive to refugee resettlement.

What’s it like to teach in a truck? Any surprises? Any challenges?

Ashley: The greatest challenge comes with driving the mobile classroom. Teachers are responsible for driving the truck to their class. It certainly takes some getting used to. After a few weeks of driving, I felt comfortable and settled into a routine, but it’s still nerve-wracking anytime something doesn’t go according to plan, i.e.. a jack temporarily malfunctions, or I need to back out of a parking space. Aside from that it really is a state of the art classroom space specifically designed with teachers in mind.