Immigrant Restaurant Workers Learn English, Write Haiku in Unique ESL Program

Cormac Symington with ESL students Macedonio, Juan and Luis at the New School

Cormac Symington with ESL students Macedonio Vasquez, Juan Garcia and Luis Lee at the New School. (Photo: Cristina DC Pastor)

I work in New York
New York City is a fart
I love Central Park

This haiku was written by Macedonio Vasquez, a Mexican immigrant. Before he moved to New York two months ago, his English was limited to a few words and a smile. Today, he is dabbling with writing English in the form of Japanese poetry.

His teacher, Cormac Symington, asked Vasquez if he knew what the word “fart” meant. Vasquez nodded and made a motion to cover his nose. The class erupted in laughter.

Vasquez and dozens more newly arrived immigrants are learning to read and speak English in The New School’s unique English as a Second Language class. The program, now in its third year, is a collaboration with The New School’s Food Studies department. It is taught by Master’s candidates in the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) program as a requirement for completing their studies and is aimed at restaurant workers—although not every student works in the food industry. In the session Fi2W attended, the eight students, including Vasquez, were immigrants from Mexico, Senegal, Malaysia, China and Italy.

“I’m not good [at English], I want to learn,” said Vasquez, a busboy at a huge pizzeria chain, in unsteady English. He said his co-workers and customers “talk so fast” he can’t keep up.

His friend and co-worker Juan Garcia nodded heartily. Garcia, a salad preparer, said the class is helping him to speak English socially, because at home, family members speak only Spanish.

“I do not learn English [at home],” he said.

Asked how they heard about the class, Garcia and Vasquez reported they found posters and fliers circulating around the restaurant’s Fifth Avenue neighborhood. The classes were being offered “free,” a word they already understood. The co-workers laughed softly, glancing at one another.

“This is an intermediate level class,” said Symington, one of about 15 instructors. “Which means they have a basic knowledge of key grammatical structures, but still need some work on speaking and communicating ability.”

Coordinator Lesley Painter-Farrell, an ESL/EFL teacher of more than 20 years, said the program seeks to teach English to new immigrants to help them “function” in a new city, like New York. For instance, some students in the basic level class need help reading street maps or following a doctor’s dosing instructions, such as “swallow on an empty stomach” or “take two of this everyday.” Others need to be shown photos of a mailbox to associate the image with the place to send their letters home.

“It’s that kind of a thing,” she said.

There were three such classes offered by The New School this summer. Each class had anywhere from eight to 12 students. Attendance is on a come-when-you-can basis, recognizing the students’ irregular work shifts. The classes do not lead toward a degree.

“There is no certificate at the end of the course, but there is a party,” said New School press officer Sam Biederman.

Since many of the students are restaurant workers, class discussions often center around food, but mostly the students talk about things that are of interest to them as new Americans.

“They want to talk about soccer, so we talk about soccer. We talk about dancing, they want to go dancing,” said Painter-Farrell.

Following recipes is not a problem.

“We talk about food quite a bit, and they actually know food quite well. They are able to deal with recipes, they can do pizza from scratch,” she said. It’s learning to small-talk with New Yorkers—to potentially open a conversation in an elevator, for example, that the students would like to learn. They want to be able to express themselves to co-workers or customers, she said.

In Symington’s writing class—a portion of the ESL curriculum that also includes speaking, reading and listening—the students tried their hand at crafting haiku.

“Poetry is art,” he told his students. “Don’t worry too much about words.”

One student wrote the following haiku, which the class loved and voted as the best:

We watch the blue sky
The stars are in the blue sky
We are together

“You are very good poets,” Symington declared after all the students read their haikus. He then led an applause for the class.

Malaysian immigrant Luis Lee said he applied to the ESL class to improve his speaking skills.

“I know more now,” said the 18-year-old student, who arrived in the U.S. about two months ago. “I can talk better.”

In Adriana Scheidegger’s speaking-skills class, the same students learned to express themselves in day-to-day conversations. Scheidegger asked them to react to simple statements without using ‘yes,’ ‘no’ or the standard physical variations, such as a nod or a shake of the head.

Scheidegger: I had a bad day yesterday.
Student 1: I’m sorry to hear that.
Student 2: Oh, I see.
Student 3: Me too.

Lee said the class has given him some “confidence” in communicating, which is what the program essentially is about, said Painter-Farrell.

“Some of them managed to land jobs right away, and they’ve managed quite well,” she said. But when some of these immigrants move to new jobs where the co-workers are not of the same ethnic group, they often need additional communication skills.

“They want to be able to function better,” she said.

AboutCristina DC Pastor
Cristina DC Pastor, a former Fi2W Business and Economics Reporting fellow, is the publisher and editor of The FilAm ( Her book, “Scratch the News: Filipino Americans in Our Midst” (Inkwater, 2005), is a celebration of ordinary citizens at the center of extraordinary stories. She is a graduate of The New School.