Thursday, July 9, 2009
Soft thuds and shouts from the martial arts class next door carry through the walls of the Peace Resource Center’s back room. But the eight students of English focus on their own rhythm, metered by the tapping of their teacher’s wooden stick.
“I always get to work on time, I’m usually here by eight,” they recite, stressing the beats. “I sometimes get here early. I never get here late.”
Some of the students stumble on sounds unfamiliar to their native Spanish, but teacher Stefani Mistretta bubbles with encouragement.
This intermediate English as a Second Language class meets three evenings a week at the PRC in Seaside. A beginners’ class convenes in the afternoons. Together they constitute a new PRC program called Peace Through Understanding, offering free ESL classes June 15-Aug. 6.
“I LOVE THE RHYTHM OF LANGUAGE.”
The idea grew out of the state budget crisis. The Monterey Adult School cut its evening ESL class this summer in anticipation of reduced state funding, and Mistretta, who taught the class, wanted to give her students a chance to keep up their studies in a central, walkable location.
An anonymous donor provided funding for two months of classes at the PRC. Signs in the center’s windows drew community interest; and three weeks in, up to 10 students attend each class.
Now Mistretta’s looking for some $500 per week to support a fall session. She’s targeting the local hospitality and restaurant industries, since many of their employees are Spanish-speaking. “Sometimes the only thing holding them back from a promotion is their English,” she says.
Locals may remember Mistretta as one of the three songbirds in the local trio Rhythm & Rouge – hence the musical ESL lessons. “I love the rhythm of language,” she says. “English is what you call a stress-based language. We go up and we go down with intonation. It’s a melody.”
As a resident of Sonoma Avenue, in a largely Hispanic neighborhood just a few blocks from the PRC, Mistretta sees the classes filling a critical community need. In that sense, the Peace Through Understanding program broadens the PRC’s traditional focus on nonviolence.
“Being able to speak each other’s languages leads to an understanding that can lead to peace,” says Joyce Vandevere, board president of the Monterey Peace and Justice Center, which runs the PRC. “If we’re not meeting the community needs, we shouldn’t be here.”
Katharina Harlow, a local teacher and peace activist who has taken on the beginner class, agrees. “We’ve got quite an array we’re working with here,” she says. “Housewives and their babies, older people and younger people, people who are working and people who are unemployed, people who are immigrants and some people who are desperate.”
Her beginner class doesn’t tackle verb conjugations and subjunctive phrases, but rather focuses on day-to-day communications like reading street signs, dealing with money and filling out government paperwork. “Every day I ask them what they need to know,” Harlow says. “It’s basic survival English.”
Progress can be tedious, but the payoff makes it worth it.
“I can see them smile when they get a phrase,” Harlow says. “I love to see that breakthrough point when they can put a sentence together.”