Learning English with the world classics

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By Ergulen Toprak

The Kingsborough English Language Institute (KELI) brings international students from all around the world into a single class. Every semester around 200 students study English in the program. Most of the students study in the program for around two years with a 25-hour-schedule a week. In the advanced levels they prepare for the academic programs, and use the world classics books for the materials such as The Great Expectations, Heart of Darkness, Siddhartha, The Scarlett Letter, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Besides learning a new language, they become friends with other students and create a sense of a community with their teachers as the Director of KELI Frank Milano calls it “a family,” while the teacher of the advanced class Jon Jensen says “That is a heaven to me.”

The KELI program was founded in 1997 by Kingsborough Community College (KCC). There are 10 English classes in the program, in different levels. Each class has around 20 students. Milano, who has been director of the program since 1997, says some of the students are permanent residents, and study English full-time to get prepared for the CUNY Language Immersion Program. Milano says around 50 percent of students are international students, who have a F1 student visa.

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25 hours a week

According to Milano, KELI is the only program where students can study with just one teacher for 25 hours a week and learn all the skills. Usually students study about some topics or themes. It can be the American history, or anything about New York, or Brooklyn. Religions, philosophy and politics are some of the other topics.

In addition, Milano indicates that learning English takes more or less time depending on the student’s level. “If someone starts at the beginning, they usually spend at least two years within the KELI,” Milano said. “By the time they get to level 10, they have a very good chance of passing the CUNY placement test in reading and writing.”

‘An immersive experience with English’

Jon Jensen has been in the program for 14 years. He is teaching the advanced level. Jensen indicated that the program was originally designed to integrate skills of reading, writing, listening, and speaking together. “The program allows students to have an immersive experience with English,” said Jensen. “So that, they would be completely surrounded by the use of English for five hours a day, and the focus would be on the use of English rather than just the learning in the study of ESL.”

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Jensen said that his students mostly learn academic English in the program. He teaches some topics such as literature, religion, politics, philosophy, and gender studies that can help the students to get prepared for the college.

Most of the materials Jensen uses for his class are classic books. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, The Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Another Country by James Baldwin, Jazz by Toni Morrison, Malcolm X by Alex Haley are some of the books Jensen has been teaching for many years depending on the topic of the semester. He also uses some books of contemporary authors such as Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.

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Jensen says that the reason he chooses these books is because they help critical thinking, which many students need to improve before getting into a college.

Every semester a different topic

This semester the topic is “Discovering America, Discovering Self” in Jensen’s class. “It looks specifically at Americans relationship to individualism and equality. So, we look at the roots of American identity. We read The Crucible by Arthur Miller, we read The Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne,” he said. “Last semester the topic was ‘The Globalism and Post-Colonial Issues.’ Everyone in our group covered a different continent of the globe, and focused on the effects of the colonial expansion, and globalism on our contemporary world. So we read an extremely wide variety of the text all written by people whose native language was not English. So, that list actually one that a student could show a college professor, and they would be extremely impressed.”

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‘It is struggling but I like it’

Svetlana Lak, who is from Ukraine, has been studying in the KELI program for two years. She says she didn’t know English before she started the program. “I really like this program. It really teaches you and very helpful,” she said. “It is also struggling every day doing homework, and a lot of reading.” She says she feels more comfortable after learning English. “I want to go to college to study psychiatry after my ESL class” she said.

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‘My goal is studying journalism’

Mariedy Algarra, who is from Venezuela, started the program in January. She says that she studied English before KELI. “Other classes were mostly teaching grammar, but this class more reading and writing. I am learning a lot. My goal is to study master degree on journalism and then find a job in the USA.”

However, Jensen says that he learns from his students too. “I learn about the complexity of the world. Even though I have lived in Russia, the longer that I have taught here the more that I have seen the complexity of Russian people. Meaning that there are dozens of ethnicities, dozens of languages. Also, I used to think of Turkey is just being Turks. And then you get in the class where you got Kurdish students,” he said.

According to Milano, KELI mainly consist of students from former Soviet Union countries, such as Russia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. Others are from Turkey, China, Japan, Korea, Italy, France, Spain, Africa, and South America.

‘That is heaven to me…’

“The fact that everybody comes from different part of the world is one of the major reasons why I have stayed here for fourteen years. I have 17 students on the roll and they come from 11 different nations. That is heaven to me,” Jensen said.

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Jensen has taught almost a thousand of students, but he does not know the exact number. He says, “I often dream that I develop an app on my smartphone, so I could have GPS of the location all of my former students, and the number of them.”

According to Jensen there are some benefits for the students in the program besides learning English. Jensen said that students in the program get a great network from all over the world, which they will use for a long period of time.

Moreover, Milano says that after the program some of the students go to Kingsborough and other CUNY colleges, some go to different universities. Milano tells that many students study for a bachelor degree, some go to for master degree programs. “The only thing you really need to learn is English, and that is the only obstacle preventing you from going to school,” said he.

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‘We are proud of our students’

“Our price is very competitive,” Milano said. “We are probably have the lowest rate within NYC for a comparable program. Our price is $850 for a 10-week-session.”

“We are proud of our students,” said Milano. “One of our students became valedictorian of KCC a few years ago. A lot of our students go on to great colleges and universities, they get wonderful jobs, and they come back to visit us. It is a sense of a family here, a sense of community.”

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