An upbeat group of health professionals check into Norma Nieto’s English as a second language Zoom class. Isaac Acquah, a Ghana native, is talking about moving to a new apartment in Houston. Nima Ahmadi, from Iran, chimes in as crime becomes the topic.
The English conversation class offered as a collaboration between Harris County Department of Education’s Adult Education and Houston Methodist is unique because all its students have earned their doctorate degrees and are foreign professionals. The highly educated group shares vast cultural differences but are joined by the goal to acclimate.
Ahmadi is a computer analytics expert, a problem-solver who reduces computer errors for medical professionals. Acquah is a post-doctorate student working in cardiovascular research who is intent on improving his writing skills.
The project between Methodist and HCDE wraps up a first semester this month, with more classes planned in 2021. It came about as a Methodist recruiter visited with Workforce Solutions and the benefits of HCDE’s ESL classes were mentioned. Methodist’s academic institute employs approximately 900 employees, and a predominate portion are foreign nationals.
“Sometimes communication can be an issue,” said Amber Kennedy, recruitment team, Methodist Hospital human resources. “The ESL program seemed to be a perfect fit.”
Conversation skills and business writing are the main goals of the program. Situational conversation requires customized lesson plans that might include safety issues, American customs and traditions and idioms, sarcasm and slang.
“It has been a great satisfaction to help them improve their English skills, help them understand American culture and learn about the culture from the countries they come from,” said Nieto, who expresses gratitude upon teaching the inaugural class.
Each student underwent an assessment test as they entered the program. In the beginning, students shared their language challenges with Nieto.
“The curriculum was heavily involved by their needs,” she said. “They would let me know what they wanted to learn, and I would come up with material to meet those needs.”
Tonight, the conversation settles on Christmas traditions and the problems of crime in a large city. In past weeks Nieto helped students craft email greetings and worked through various communication scenarios.
Ahmadi is working on informal conversation skills. During the holidays, he will take advantage of the USA Learns software, an ESL software offered by HCDE which complements classroom learning.
Idioms are a source of intrigue to the 38-year-old professional. Out-of-the-box is one he now understands along with “every cloud has a silver lining.”
The class gives the professionals a no judgement space to practice conversation, pronunciation and join in a sense of camaraderie.
Acquah looks forward to the class advancing to the next level so he can gain more English writing skills. As a researcher, he is required to produce papers.
“I hate it when there are red marks,” he said, jesting about his intermediate English writing skills.
Nieto says she is honored to teach the researchers from Methodist.
“I have enjoyed our time together getting to know about them and the great research they are doing at Methodist that will benefit our community,” she said.
Kennedy stresses the benefits of the collaborative between HCDE and Methodist. Other departments in Houston Methodist are considering using the ESL professional classes.
“We’ve had a great relationship with HCDE,” Kennedy said. “We’ve put in a good amount of hours with our partnership, we’re glad we have even able to initiate this and look forward to expanding it.”
(HCDE Adult Education provides classes in GED preparation, English as a second language and other workforce development programs in construction and medical fields throughout Harris County. Programs are supported through the Texas Workforce Commission. To inquire about future classes in the medical assistant certification program, go to www.hcde-texas.org/adulteducation.)