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This Is an English Class, Yet Even the Moroccan Is Speaking Spanish

AA: I'm Avi Arditti and this week on WORDMASTER: Another interview from the 2008 convention of TESOL, Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, which was held this year in New York.

LEE SPENCER: "My name is Lee Spencer. I'm an instructor with the Language Immersion Program at Bronx Community College, which is part of the City University of New York. Well, I've been teaching English for a zillion years. I've worked in higher ed my whole career, both here in New York and I worked for some time in China as well."

AA: "What part of China?"

LEE SPENCER: "In Beijing."

AA: "So tell me about your students at the City University of New York."

LEE SPENCER: "This program has nine different sites and the site where I am, at Bronx Community College, in the Bronx, most of our students are Spanish speaking, but we also have students from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and South America as well."

AA: "So what's a typical day like for you?"

LEE SPENCER: "We have class from nine to three, five days a week, with the same group of students, so it's like a big family. We work really hard, we're very close, and we do all kinds of things. We read, write, speak, do drama, work with the computers. We study what's called sustained content, which means we have a topic that we study for the whole semester."

AA: "And what's the topic this semester?"

LEE SPENCER: "Well, my class this semester studies ancient civilizations, which is interesting in a lot of ways, but I'm looking for a topic now that's a little more relevant to people's everyday lives. [Ancient] gods are interesting, but, you know, it's pretty remote."

AA: "So what for you is the greatest challenge in teaching a class with such a diverse student population?"

LEE SPENCER: "Well, at our site actually it's not so diverse because most of the students speak Spanish. So it's a big challenge to use English as the medium of communication when it's so much easier for all of the students to speak to each other in their native language. However, those few students who don't speak Spanish are challenged as well. I have a Moroccan student now who comes up with Spanish quite regularly."

AA: "So you're talking about encouraging your students to use English in the class, and I'm curious, what's your philosophy about students using their first language in class."

LEE SPENCER: "O.K., well, in our situation it's very difficult because the students do need to practice English. And I know for many people this is a big issue. They try to find ways to actually 'outlaw' first-language use in the classroom. I don't do that. I think it's very important for students' identities to be affirmed. At the same time, we need to recognize that to learn English, practicing and speaking it a lot helps. We work on that. It's challenging."

AA: "So now our listeners overseas are English learners and English teachers, and I'm curious if you have any advice or tips you'd like to offer."

LEE SPENCER: "Well, I think the most exciting thing is that so many people are learning English and this gives us all an opportunity to speak with each other. I think the more people who have a language that they share, the closer we can become.

"And the students in our program are immigrant students. They've come here, they're working, they're raising their families, they're trying to learn English so they can go to college and get more professional jobs."

AA: "And so their ages are what?"

LEE SPENCER: "Well, most of the students are in their twenties. We get a few students that might be forty. I have someone in my class now [who] is fifty-two, a woman from Korea. She works in a nail salon. She's a wonderful student. She's the oldest student I have right now. I have another student who's eighteen. So it's a wide range of people really."

AA: Lee Spencer is an instructor in the Language Immersion Program at Bronx Community College, part of the City University of New York. For some insights into English teaching in other countries, visit our Web site, And that's all for WORDMASTER this week. Our e-mail address is I'm Avi Arditti.