From Passion to Project: MC Volunteers Teach ESOL

Students in the beginner ESOL class are taught basic words and phrases. Photo by Daniel Wallace.
Students in the beginner ESOL class are taught basic words and phrases. Photo by Daniel Wallace.

As a Manhattan College kinesiology professor by day and an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) instructor by night, Christoph Lienert is a man of many trades.

Every week, Lienert and two MC students take the trip down to Joseph H. Wade intermediate school to volunteer teaching English, a service hosted by the Community Association of Progressive Dominicans.

“It feels good to volunteer and do something useful with my time,” Lienert said.

Morris Heights, where the school and many of the students’ homes are located, is a predominantly Dominican neighborhood. As such, many of the students have little need for English in their typical routine. However, when going to the bank, completing government forms, working, going to the hospital and other necessary errands, English is the preferred language.

“If somebody asks you something in English, not knowing how to respond feels awful,” Ycelsa Amanzar, a student in the beginner level class, said.

During one class, Juana Baez, one of the more advanced students, asked how to say “fiel” in English. She wanted to express to her boss how hard she works, because her boss tends to give better hours and more raises to the younger, attractive seamstresses.

“Fiel” means faithful, or loyal in Spanish.

“Most of them work really hard all day and then come, they motivate me,” Lienert said.

Another student, Juan Cordero, came to the United States in the 1980s to play baseball for a minor league team in Florida. Cordero takes classes in part to better communicate with his American wife, whom he met while playing baseball.

And although the lessons are free for those who wish to enroll, students do not underestimate the value of the classes.

“For me, it’s very important to know two languages, English and Spanish,” Oscar Maldonado, a student in beginner level course, said.

Every week that MC and the elementary school are in session, Lienert and Anna Cahill, a junior studying education at MC, teach a class designed for intermediate and advanced level speakers. Their class focuses primarily on conversational English.

Many of the students took the class with Lienert last year, so each class is something of a reunion among friends. As he walked from the bus stop to the intermediate school one night, a mere two blocks, he was greeted with a hug by one of his former students that he happened to run into.

“They are very warm, very open,” Lienert said. “They’re just fun.”

Lienert’s classroom manner is invigorating and enthusiastic. He understands that learning English can be frustrating more often than not. He tries to keep the atmosphere jovial in order to keep his students interested.

“He’s driven and really involved,” Cahill said. “He’s very eager for them to learn.”

Cahill hopes to become a high school Spanish teacher, so she started to help teach English to the native Spanish speakers. In order to handle a growing class size, last semester Lienert sent an e-mail to Marlene Gottlieb, chair of the modern languages department, soliciting Spanish students to volunteer teaching ESOL with him. Gottlieb forwarded the e-mail to Spanish professors, and from them it ended up Cahill’s inbox.

Of the three students who volunteered last semester, only Cahill is still participating this semester.

Hope Miedema, a freshman math major at MC, joined the group this semester after hearing about it from Cahill. Miedema travels down on Tuesdays and Thursdays to lead the beginner class, which is meant to introduce the language and teach simple English.

Even though the volunteers are more than capable Spanish speakers, and though the students often start the classes already understanding some English, the language barrier can still be difficult to overcome.

During one class, Miedema introduced verb conjugation, which is how verbs change according to the subject of a sentence. In Spanish, there are rules for conjugating verbs that are almost universal, with a handful of exceptions. In English, however, there is little rhyme or reason to how verbs are conjugated.

“This is a more hands-on volunteering experience,” Miedema said.

As unpaid volunteers, Lienert and the MC students are limited in their teaching materials. Lienert makes copies from a textbook for the students, and they use what can be found for free online.

“I’d like to be able to use more technology,” Lienert said.

Lienert first began teaching ESOL classes in January 2012. His interest in Spanish, however, far predates his role as an English instructor.

Lienert’s passion for Spanish and the Hispanic culture began when he was working and living in Texas. Being close to Mexico, Lienert developed an interest in the culture. He also had a Mexican roommate, which helped him become more familiar with the culture. Lienert took his sabbatical in Nicaragua, and he is planning on traveling there again over spring break.

Having learned English as a second language as well, German being his first, Lienert searched for an opportunity to join his desire to practice Spanish and his desire to help those trying to learn English, a situation with which he is quite familiar.

“I’m not trained to teach ESL [English as a Second Language],” Lienert said. “I have experience learning English, but I am not trained.”

He found his opportunity on, a website that matches those interested in volunteering their time with organizations looking for volunteers.

The classes are every Monday and Thursday, from 6 to 8 p.m. In addition to the hour it takes to get there and the preparations that have to be made, the volunteers spend about eight hours on the program every week.

Although they aren’t paid for the time they put into the program, the volunteers find compensation in other ways.

“What is really nice is seeing progress,” Lienert said. “Seeing someone get something, that’s rewarding.”