Warner Students Launch Literacy Program for English Language Learners

Warner School students’ investment in the Rochester community continues to grow as an area library is now up-and-running with a new English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) literacy program that two doctoral students helped launch. Michelle Palermo-Biggs and Jennifer Smith, who are both in the teaching and curriculum program at Warner, first got the idea to create a family literacy program when they were enrolled in Professor Joanne Larson’s course, EDU 498 Literacy Learning as Social Practice.

The program, Literacy and Lunch (Almorzamos y Aprendemos), which got its start in fall 2008, is now functioning at the Lincoln Branch Library on Joseph Avenue in the City of Rochester. The library, which is located in an ethnically diverse neighborhood with a population base of approximately 25,000 people, provides a range of services to a growing number of Spanish-speaking people, Asians, African Americans, and a remnant of the Russian-Jewish, Polish, and Ukrainian populations that were once dominant.

Literacy and Lunch, which promotes English family literacy while supporting native language skills, aims to improve communication skills and reading practices among Spanish-speaking and immigrant families. The program is unique in that it also provides parents with the skills they need to help their children succeed in school.

“I really believe that the community makes up the school, and I think you need to start at the community level in order to really improve schools,” says Palermo-Biggs, who spent 12 years as a Spanish teacher. “The building itself doesn’t really determine why the school is good. The community that pushes for good initiatives and that supports their children at home—it’s those types of things that foster good education. If you help parents understand and grow as individuals, thinkers, and learners, that will help improve education as a whole.”

The program is part of Mayor Robert Duffy’s Literacy Initiative, which acknowledges the city’s illiteracy issues and aims to make Rochester the most literate mid-sized city in the country. The Mayor’s community-wide initiative promotes awareness and involvement in advancing literacy, as well as identifying and developing partnerships to enhance local literacy programs.

Palermo-Biggs is working hand-in-hand with doctoral students Jennifer Smith and Eileen Radigan and master’s student Clare Zuraw to implement the family literacy program. The four students volunteer their own time each month—every first and third Saturday—to working with families who want to improve their English skills. The program includes bilingual book talks, family activities, and themes based on participants’ interests.

“I always wanted to do something where I can give back, and that’s why I went into teaching,” recalls Palermo-Biggs. “I love helping people and working with kids. I missed the daily interactions and connections that I made with my students in the classroom, so doing something—whether it’s family literacy or working with my own children in their schools—keeps it alive in me.”

Tags: community service, literacy, teaching and curriculum