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Organization Spotlight: Briggs Center for Faith and Action

2 years 6 months 3 weeks 16 hours ago

For this month’s organization spotlight, we spoke with Stacey Fannon. Ms. Fannon is the ESL Program Manager for the center. She holds a Master of Science from Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health (2000).
The Briggs Center for Faith and Action funds and manages the ever-growing ESL initiative. The center engages people who share a passion for social justice and serving the disadvantaged. Briggs has several programs and services. The ESL Program is the central focus.

Briggs offers free, literacy-access, drop-in ESL classes to over 200 learners from 45 countries each year. Thanks to a host of dedicated volunteer teachers, Briggs offers English classes on Sunday morning, Tuesday evening and Wednesday & Thursday mornings. Citizenship classes are also offered. The purpose is to facilitate English conversation and socialization. The goal is for learners to become more proficient and confident in English. Literacy acquired will empower learners to achieve their goals and strengthen communities and workforces.

Classes aim to assist LEP-learners living/working in/near Bethesda. Briggs participates in a “Know Your Neighbor” campaign which seeks to welcome and help our neighbors in need. Historically the program has reached childcare providers, retirees, homemakers, international students and some men. The primary population served are women eager to develop English skills to improve their lives in America.

The top five countries where the majority of our learners were born in is China, Colombia, Brazil, Japan, and Italy. A small percentage of the students are also from countries like Poland, Tunisia, Argentina, France and Israel among other countries. The occupation of the learners ranges from childcare providers to teachers to homemakers. Based on our FY19 midyear data, we are currently serving 158 learners from 41 countries. 

All of our teachers are volunteers. Most of our instructors are retired educators, lawyers, and public servants who are passionate about immigration and social justice issues. Some hold full-time jobs (e.g. nurse, psychologist) with the flexibility to volunteer. Others are pursuing TESOL as a second career and wish to gain teaching experience at the Briggs ESL Program. 

Recent success stories:
One of Leslie Layne’s Beginning Literacy students, Giselle, started off the year knowing very little English. One of her goals was to get a job. Giselle recently informed Leslie that she got a job at a local restaurant. Giselle brought the menu into the ESL class to practice with her teacher and role-played ordering food. Leslie was so happy and felt proud of her student’s accomplishment. Giselle is grateful for Leslie’s help building her confidence and English skills needed to get the job.

The Briggs Center ESL Program offers citizenship and civics classes. Learners improve their English while gaining knowledge about U.S. history, civics and culture. The classes help prepare learners for the U.S. citizenship test and interview. Stacy Parkinson, MCAEL board member and Briggs volunteer, was elated when two of her students became U.S. citizens.

Since we offer drop-in classes, attendance varies widely. Instructors don’t know exactly how many students will show up on any given day. However, some students do notify their teacher if they know they’ll be absent. Sharing cell phone numbers, email addresses, and forming WhatsApp groups improves communication and helps instructors plan accordingly.

Our teachers have discovered that reading short stories is more appropriate for drop-in classes. Our advanced class is currently reading Great American Short Stories (Dover Thrift Editions). Reading full-length books in class can be a challenge, especially for students entering midway through the book. As a solution, before the new student begins class, he/she reads the part of the book they missed at home in their native language. Then, the student reads the rest of the book in English with the class. 

An exciting new project:
As an outgrowth of the ESL Program, the Briggs Center is in the process of creating an Immigration Services Clinic under the leadership of Ferew Haile. Last year, the Briggs Center became affiliated with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. The Briggs Center is awaiting approval from the Department of Justice to provide legal immigration services. 

Tips for recruiting and retaining volunteers: 
Volunteers are our greatest natural resource! The Briggs Center ESL Program recruits via word-of-mouth, email lists (neighborhoods, schools, churches), and websites (Briggs Center, MCAEL, Montgomery County Volunteer Center). I try to recruit teachers that live nearby. This makes it more convenient for them, so they don’t have to deal with a long commute or traffic.  I retain volunteers in many ways. If a teacher is unable to make a class, I help the teacher find a substitute (or teach the class myself – which is very fun and rewarding!). If a teacher has a good idea or resource, he/she shares it with me, then I share it with the others. I share what I learn from MCAEL provider meetings and internet research. Before or after class, or during a coffee break, I check in with the teachers to see if they need anything from me or if they can take any more students. When the teachers come to me with a problem, we brainstorm solutions together. I also give them homemade baked goods and cards around the holidays and at the end of the year to show them my appreciation.  

What motivates our teachers to volunteers:
Most of our volunteers are retired. They are looking to doing something meaningful with their time. I think volunteering with immigrants is their way of making the United States a welcoming place. I think they are motivated to teach because it makes them feel good and it makes the students feel good. The students teach the teachers just as much as the teachers teach the students! It’s a win-win situation!

For more information about the Briggs Center for Faith and Action, please visit their website

Interview by Halima Ahmed

Have you ever visited a local ESOL class?

2 years 6 months 3 weeks 1 day ago

ESOL classes vary from organization to organization and one thing you may notice is the male to female ratio in a classroom. You might even notice the instructor is a woman. 

Male vs. Female
The local ESOL world is dominated by women. A look into student demographics in MCAEL funded classes reveals that there are significantly more women than men.
Some assumptions could be that women feel less inhibited from taking an English class or their schedules might be steadier than their male counterparts who often labor outdoors in construction or landscaping jobs. It might be easier for women to take classes. 
Instructors and administrators are often women. Public education K-12 also has a gender imbalance which seems to have translated over into the adult ESOL world. There are many retired school teachers in the MCAEL network who continue on to work in ESOL and this could account for the abundance of women teaching and administering adult English language programs.

There is a unique challenge to female learner persistence and retention centered around childcare. ESOL programs that offer childcare remove the barrier to learning for parents and moms. 

The National Institutes of Health have found that a mother's reading skill is the greatest determinant of her children’s future academic success, outweighing other factors, such as neighborhood and family income. Work with women and mothers in particular, has an exponential impact in the community. A child’s first teacher is their mother – supportive services which include early education and childcare are key to preventing a cycle of poverty and to helping families succeed.

As we close out women’s heritage month we want to thank the women who are helping immigrant women succeed. We invite you to donate or purchase a bee ticket or letter to support the network of providers, instructors and learners in their continued work of supporting women in the community.

Five Nuggets for Improving Classroom Participation

2 years 7 months 1 week 4 days ago

MCAEL recently provided a training session, led by Laura Irwin, to the Gaithersburg Beloved Community Initiative (GBCI) English Conversation Group. The session focused on ways to improve English classes for the group. Below are five gems to improve classrooms by Laura Irwin:

  • Building community
  • The importance of having an organized lesson so that the learners know what to expect
  • Understanding the learners: what are their needs and what are their goals
  • Setting an expectation of what goals, you want to have for the lesson that is being taught
  • Having many opportunities for talking amongst themselves and talking in the group so that there is more speaking and less teaching.

Laura Irwin is the Program Supervisor for ESOL at Catholic Charities in Gaithersburg. She runs daily operations, provides teacher and class coordination and supervision, and tracks statistics. Laura is a bilingual professional with over 20 years of experience in education, administration, training, and ESOL instruction. She focuses on an understanding of the importance of personal interaction with learners, plus utilizes her areas of expertise in academic achievement, retention, registration, and language acquisition.

Organization Spotlight: Community Ministries of Rockville (CMR), Inc.

2 years 7 months 2 weeks 16 hours ago
Many people in the Montgomery County ESOL world know the face and name of Cecilia Rojas. Cecilia has been in the MCAEL coalition for at least a decade, attending workshops, meetings and serving on different committees. She is an advocate, a teacher and a leader. We reached out to her to share her story.

Cecilia began her ESOL career in 1993, she describes “I was approached by Agnes Saenz who was the accountant at Community Ministries of Rockville (CMR) at the time. CMR wanted to begin a Latino Outreach Program (LOP) with the goal of helping the Latino community learn English as well as other communication skills. I started as a volunteer Spanish Literacy Teacher and as a child tutor.” Seven years later she became the director of the Language Outreach Program.

In line with American Community Survey data, Cecilia reports that approximately 51% of learners come from El Salvador, 35% from Honduras, 22% from Peru. 28% are from other countries, primarily in Central and South America. Some Asians, West Africans, Haitians, Russians, and other Eastern Europeans. About three-quarters of her learners are female with a quarter being men. They have jobs in construction, landscaping, child care, and housekeeping.

Cecilia is a perfect fit for the demographic the program serves. As a Latina she understands the language, culture and backgrounds of the learners who come to LOP. When asked why she thinks so many of the students are female she says, “LOP offers free childcare and child tutoring for students. This is a great help for mothers who tend to have the responsibility of childcare in their families. LOP is the best choice for learners who cannot afford additional childcare costs and want the ease of childcare at the same time and location as their classes.”

Of the many learner success stories she has, one she remembers is the resilient spirit of Sylvia:

Sylvia was a baby when she came to LOP with her mother who was taking English classes. In childcare at LOP, she was introduced to some English words. Later, Sylvia received help with her homework through the program. She went to University for a degree in teaching and is currently working as a teacher with MCPS. Sylvia continues to study as well, and she will receive her master’s degree this year. She has returned to LOP as an English teacher in the Program.

In the story of Sylvia, we see the hard work and dedication of LOP learners. When asked what makes LOP programs unique, Cecilia says “free childcare and preschool readiness for children under five is offered as well as tutoring assistance for all school age children."

Students often have to navigate through multiple challenges in their quest of learning. By providing free childcare for those who need it, LOP makes it possible for mothers (and fathers), who would otherwise not be able to attend English classes.

For more information about CMR and the different services they provide, please click here.

What's Your Motivation? by Kathy Stevens, Executive Director

2 years 7 months 2 weeks 1 day ago

Seek first to understand, then to be understood (Dr. Stephen Covey). 

This seems like a very easy concept, but how many times in a day do we start from the opposite direction in trying to "get our work done."  We often say this is what I need you to know and this is what I need to do as a starting point; and then we wonder why we are met with resistance at best, or sometimes just ignored at worst.  I was thinking about this last week when I was lucky enough to have time in my schedule to have face to face meetings (two of which were even over a meal!) with people who I work with, know pretty well, but had not had time recently to ask what they were working on and what they were most interested in trying to do.  With time and space to have that conversation, in each instance we came up with some really interesting areas where our motivations were overlapping.  In the moment, once we knew we had aligned motivations, our creative juices were flowing to identify some next steps and ideas we could work on together.

This idea translates into the work that adult ESOL instructors do to.  With the providers in the MCAEL network, we know that learner centered instruction is key.  We base this on  research, such as:

Motivation is “why people decide to do something, how long they are willing to sustain the activity, [and] how hard they are going to pursue it”
(Dornyei, 2002, p. 8). In this respect, it is also important to remember that adult ESL students in community programs are a shifting population; they move and change jobs often, and their motivation to learn ESL also transforms  and evolves with the changes they face in their lives outside the classroom. As stated by Dornyei and Kormos (2000), motivation is not static; it may change from day to day, from task to task, and from learning community to learning community. (Schwarzer, David. (2009). Best practices for teaching the “whole” adult ESL learner. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education. 2009. 25 - 33. 10.1002/ace.322. )

Teaching English to adults is not a static practice and as we all continue to refine what we do, understanding the motivations of our learners and partners is key to our success.

An innovative partnership brings ESOL home.

2 years 7 months 4 weeks 1 day ago

The Ethiopian Community Center (ECC) has been in the MCAEL coalition for many years and in operation in the community for forty. As of 2018, the organization became a MCAEL grantee. With grant funding the ECC is providing vocational English literacy classes to Montgomery County’s limited English proficient (LEP) African immigrant residents who live in Takoma Park’s Maple Avenue corridor. 

Organizations like the ECC are serving an under-served population using innovative partnerships. Partnering with the Community Preservation and Development Corporation (CPDC) an affiliate of Enterprise Homes, English classes are being held in an apartment building called The Essex House. The Essex House is home to over 400 residents and a predominantly African immigrant population. This innovative place-based approach meets learners where they are - in the home, removing any of the usual barriers a learner might encounter: distance, transportation, and time.

CPDC Resident Services Coordinator Seble Seyoum shares:
“Through direct engagement and resident feedback, CPDC has observed limited English proficiency as being one of the most significant barriers to economic security for Essex House residents who are predominantly African immigrants, with a significant Ethiopian population. Essex House community is located along Maple Avenue, home to an even more extensive African immigrant community. When ECC approached us and said they were interested in providing English classes to Takoma Park residents, we saw this as a perfect fit. ECC’s has a long history of providing quality English Language and job readiness programming to African Immigrants in the DMV and the population has responded positively.  ECC currently implements weekly English classes at CPDC through funding received by MCAEL. These classes are open to all, so we are able to serve CPDC residents and also impact the greater community which is along with CPDC’s mission. We have seen that these classes are meeting the demand of the community, with 47 students registering for the program since September 2018.  The feedback from students and response from the community has been positive as we are addressing one of the many challenges faced by a large percentage of Takoma Park residents. English classes not only better prepare adults, but it has a direct IMPACT on the children of these families as parents gain essential resources to help which assist their children to thrive in school and life.”

By leveraging resources and partnerships, ECC & CPDC are a great example of how we can expand English classes in Montgomery County in ways that make sense and that meets learners where they are.

Organization Spotlight: Ethiopian Community Center (ECC), Inc.

2 years 8 months 2 weeks 2 days ago

The Ethiopian Community Center (ECC) has been providing English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) for African immigrants for over a decade. As an established organization which has been in existence for close to 40 years, the ECC is in a strong position to help us understand their community. As a grantee for fiscal year 2019 – we asked the ECC to help us share their story:

Can you describe your history and how your organization came to be?
An estimated 350,000 Ethiopians have made the DMV area their home. Prior to 1980 many Ethiopians came as students, diplomats and visitors. Due to military conflicts in the late 1970’s Ethiopian migration to the DMV area increased. The DMV saw a large influx of Ethiopians affected by displacement coming as refugees and political asylees. Established in 1980, The Ethiopian Community Center was created to address the single and important issue of settlement and adaptation. The main objective was to help the new arrivals settle and make a smooth transition into the community. 

As an established organization in the African community, can you describe the Ethiopian community?
Today Montgomery County is home to one of the largest African-born populations in the US, second to Bronx County in NY. Ethiopians represent the fourth largest foreign-born population in MC, and the top country of origin for African immigrants. While desegregated county-level data specific to the African or Ethiopian population is unavailable, regional trends show high rates of limited English proficiency among Ethiopians. Up to 53% of Amharic speakers are limited English proficient, and a large number of households are linguistically isolated with no English-speaking adult in the household. Given this population’s strong desire and need to learn English, ECC's ESOL program offers a doorway to participating more fully in community life, and an opportunity to achieving greater educational and economic success. 

African immigrants make pivotal contributions to the county's economy; however, they are disproportionately concentrated in low-wage jobs, largely due to cultural and linguistic barriers. Learning English is the first step to eliminating barriers and ensuring that this population can make an even greater contribution to the county's economy. 

A coalition member:
The ECC has been in the MCAEL network for many years. In FY19, as part of MCAEL’s Grant Program in partnership with Montgomery County Government, the ECC was awarded $22,650 to support their African Immigrant Vocational ESOL Program. The ECC, in partnership with the Community Preservation and Development Corporation (CPDC) an affiliate of Enterprise Homes, offers three levels of vocational English literacy classes to African immigrant residents who live in Takoma Park’s Maple Ave corridor. The objective of the program is to equip immigrants in low wage and low skill jobs with employment-related English language skills that will allow them to successfully access educational and workforce development opportunities. 

A recent success story:
Most recently the ECC toured Montgomery College’s Takoma Park Campus and Workforce Development & Continuing Education Department. Representatives from Health Sciences, Early Childhood, and the office of Community Engagement gave a presentation on non-credit and credit programs, licensing programs, and the college’s Career Pathways Scholarship. As a result, ECC were able to assist 4 ESL students in applying for the Clinical Medical Assistance Program, of which 3 students were awarded $2000 funds through the Career Pathways Scholarship in December 2018.

The ECC today:
Thanks to the collective support of staff, volunteers, private and government agencies, the Center has expanded its services and diversified its funding base. Over the years, it has grown to become a multi-service agency serving not only Ethiopians but other immigrants. Thousands of people have benefited from the Center’s ESOL and computer programs, immigration counseling and referrals, translation and interpretation services, health, career and employment counseling and other support services. As one of the dominant immigrant tax contributors in the area, Ethiopians have established businesses, restaurants, churches, and introduced their unique culture to the American community.  

MCAEL partnerships with organizations like the ECC helps equip immigrant residents with the language skills necessary to build strong communities and workforces.

To learn more about ECC, please visit their website

Interview by Halima Ahmed

Community Partnerships

2 years 9 months 2 days 15 hours ago


Collaboration and connection between organizations and agencies that serve residents helps increase access to English classes that our immigrant neighbors want and need. Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) is a key partner to MCAEL. We want to thank the Board of Education for hearing testimony from MCAEL last month.

Public schools are a hub not only for educating our young residents – schools have opened their doors to host English classes for parents as well. Programs like Casa's Life Skills program or Linkages to Learning's Adult English Literacy program for parents, host rigorous evening programs for adults. Immigrant families are setting goals and are going back to school together.

Programs like these are key to success for kids and adults. Quality instruction leads to educational outcomes for adults just as it does for children. One of the key indicators of a child’s success in school is their parents’ (in particular mother’s) literacy.

Some of MCAEL’s current work vis-à-vis the schools:

  • Funding for programs that are focused on MCPS parents through programs like Linkages to Learning Adult ESOL classes and George B. Thomas Saturday School classes.
  • Many MCAEL funded programs such as the Literacy Council of Montgomery County and CASA reserve space for evening classes at MCPS high schools.
  • MCPS ESOL teachers attend MCAEL Professional Development Institute workshops and trainings, as well as use the Provider Directory to refer parents to classes. 

Looking ahead to our continued work together:
MCAEL has a new strategic plan ( which includes a goal to increase the number of adults served each year from 15,000 to 21,000 by 2021. We are working to increase access points to meet adults’ needs, such as opportunities to bring classes to working adults at their places of employment and to support our youngest community members through early care workers and their parents.

Our data shows that women outnumber men in MCAEL classes by about 2:1. The average age of women in these classes is 38.  If we were to match that with MCPS data, it stands to reason that many of the women in MCAEL classes have school age children.  Our mutual goals and successes are tied together.

MCAEL is often contacted by PTA presidents and other parents and teachers with inquiries about starting classes for parents at schools. We look forward to continued work with MCPS to identify areas of need and connect MCAEL programs with those schools in need.

A More Learning Perspective from a MCAEL insider:

2 years 11 months 3 weeks 6 days ago

Monica Casañas of MCAEL with an English Innovations class of High Beginner Learners

At MCAEL we often describe our More Learning Less Teaching workshop as an intensive two-day master’s program for new instructors. It’s a short way to describe the value of the training. I’d like to share what I got out of it.

I had fallen into the trap, the I know English therefore I can teach English trap. As a little girl I would try and teach my grandparents how to speak English. As my English skills excelled I would correct my mother’s accent and her grammar in letters she’d write at work or letters to my school. Decades later this was a motivating factor in taking a position with MCAEL. I never wanted anyone to have to go through what my Grandparents and family did – not being able to communicate with doctors, missed opportunities and disconnectedness from the larger community.

When I was invited to teach an ESOL class I jumped at the opportunity. I wanted to see what it was like to formally teach. I thought teaching would help me gain perspective on my new position at MCAEL and I wanted to help people. Had I ever taught or had experience teaching? I taught people about their rights as tenants (harking back to my days as a tenant organizer) but had I taught English – no. In my mind I thought – I know English, I learned English in school, I use it every day, I think I can do this.

With dwindling attendance numbers during the first session of my ESOL class I knew I needed to make a change. I attended More Learning Less Teaching and realized I needed training and education to teach ESOL to adults. My eyes were opened. 

Basics like scaffolding, recall and ice-breakers rocked my teaching world! I felt embarrassed to have minimized how enormous the task at hand was. Granted, not everyone has a TESOL degree, nor do you necessarily need this to be a good ESOL teacher. You do however need a good foundation to grow from. I was thankful  to get this crash course through MCAEL's More Learning program.  Following the course, my handbook and other classroom realia received much wear and tear. I met others like myself whose intentions were good but like me lacked ESOL training. It made me realize the role this training has in our community. MCAEL as a convener provides this very crucial puzzle piece – professional support and development to organizations and people who want to help immigrants acquire language skills through quality instruction. The More Learning training introduces new instructors to the foundations of ESOL and supports student learning through instructor professional development – free of charge, a huge benefit to local organizations, ESOL teachers and students.

Connecting and Supporting ESOL Professionals

2 years 11 months 3 weeks 6 days ago

Debi Edick of Linkages to Learning and Cecilia Rojas of Community Ministries of Rockville (CMR) not only have a great friendship but continue to support each other professionally as pictured here at CMR's open house in September. 

One of MCAEL's primary roles is to connect providers with experts by offering professional development, workshops and networking opportunities. The true marker of coalition building is when providers form close connections with one another. This facilitates their ability to refer clients when necessary with the assurance that members of the MCAEL coalition are trusted and up to the task.

Instrumental in building connections, MCAEL has enabled providers to collaborate on unique learning and professional development opportunities. Debi and Cecilia are a good example of that as explained by Debi: 

“Through MCAEL we participated in a peer review project where you would meet with another organization and receive feedback. The [second] year, I did my peer review with Cecilia [Rojas] and it was fabulous. She observed one of my classes, I observed one of her classes. We just formed a connection and a friendship. One day, after talking about budgets and how we liked to offer professional development to our instructors, we decided to join forces and coordinate a workshop for our instructors as a joint effort. By splitting the costs, we got more out of two full days than we could have done individually. This collaboration wouldn't have been possible without MCAEL."


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