Immigrants take advantage of weekly English poetry classes to learn language

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ST. CLOUD, Minnesota (AP) – A group of writers gathered in a room at the Great River Regional Library Thursday evening, sipping cups of Somali tea and enjoying slices of cake while reading through poetry displayed in small glass centerpieces at the front of the room.

The event celebrated the work of immigrants who enrolled in a weekly English course held from the La Cruz Community Center. Since 2020, the adult primary education class has been teaching students English and other life skills through the medium of poetry, reported the St. Cloud Times.

Rounding the tables one could read poetry about Somalia, adjust to life in the United States, and leave the emotional journey of home and family.


When the class switched online during the pandemic, teacher and literary accountability specialist Kelly Travis said the class would read poetry together and talk about the feelings some poems sparked.

Sometimes they wrote poetry in class and other days they would come in and type their poems to improve their computer skills. Then students emailed the poem to their teachers and learned how to write an email and navigate an inbox.

Travis said many of the students have been in the class for five or more years, and some move on and return later. Usually students work full-time, parents and come with previous education, be it here in the US or in the county they emigrated from.

Courses like this before the pandemic were very popular, but now Travis said there is no waiting list.

“All of these (students) don’t have to do that. And it shows how much they want to learn and assimilate English and how much they want to go to school, ”she said. “They take pride in it. They have their own goals and they get through.”

The class held such an event for the first time on Thursday. Headmistress Mary Mulbah said she wanted to connect students with the larger St. Cloud community.

Throughout the pandemic, Travis said she and Mulbah noticed that students needed more mental breaks while taking the online class, and worked with community health worker and psychotherapist Kahin Adam on a weekly journaling-for-healing component to integrate.

“(Somalia is) known as a nation of poets,” said Adam. “For centuries Somalis have used poetry to express their feelings and the things they want to tell other parishioners.”

Adam said that writing helps people organize their thoughts and make sense of traumatic experiences. Journaling can also reduce stress by releasing negative emotions.

“I remember it was really really hard to listen when they really wrote and talked about their personal stories,” he said. “But at the same time, at the end of the day, when you’ve written, and then we’ve reflected and summarized the things you’ve written, you can say the relief of saying it together … and understand that, ‘Hey, I see, what you write, thank you for being vulnerable. ‘”

Mulbah said teaching poetry is difficult at first because you have to teach both what different styles and genres of poetry are and how to express what you are feeling in English.

“It’s kind of nice to see the choice of words, their reaction to poetry, because I think like reading a book, everyone reacts to it differently,” she said.

Although some students decided not to put their names on the poems on display Thursday, it makes sense to have the space to share those poems, Mulbah said.

“I wanted to … show them, ‘Look what we did,’ right? Because when you write something in your notebook, it often gets wrinkled or put away and you no longer look at it, ”she said. “Even our students sometimes have low self-esteem when they think, ‘I don’t speak English.’ … Maybe we gave you a list of vocabulary, or maybe we gave you a structure, but you did that, you wrote it down, you practiced. And you did it over and over again. So it’s cool to see the product of what they did and see that. “


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