Progressive Tense

Progressive Tense

Imagine moving to a country with a language and a culture completely foreign to you. Imagine you’re there not because you’re looking for an adventure but because you had to flee for the safety of you and your family.

Now imagine that learning your new language is made even harder by another challenge: You’ve never been to school before.

It may be difficult to imagine not knowing how to hold a pencil or how to take one handout and pass the rest on, but these are among the skills many refugees in English classes have to learn, says Jennifer Fitzgerald, Family Literacy Project Manager for Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS).

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In a spacious basement room at Church of the Redeemer on the corner of Whitney Avenue and Cold Spring Street, about 18 students—refugees from Congo, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Syria and Sudan—sit clustered around two groups of tables on a Wednesday morning. In one area, students are combining different pronouns with verbs in the present progressive tense—“I am running,” “They are playing music.” In another, a white board lists vocabulary words that include a silent “e.” Students work on letter sounds, punctuation and sentences related to the theme of “play.” They’ve written the definition of the word “recess” and read a short article: “Play is good for children. Play helps children learn. Scientists and doctors say children learn many skills…”

Aside from the fact that many of these students have had no formal schooling before, their language learning varies in at least one other way from the sort of second language learning many of us experienced in high school. Fitzgerald calls it “survival English.” Their immediate need is to learn to answer basic questions like, “What’s your name? What’s your address? What language do you speak? Do you need an interpreter?”

Beyond “survival,” there’s another powerful incentive at work for many of IRIS’s students: their own children. “One of their goals is to be able to help their children with their homework. That’s a goal that’s across the board,” Fitzgerald says. It can be difficult, she says, “when your children, and maybe your husband, and other members of your family have a higher English level than you, and you feel like you’re left behind and you get isolated because you need to talk through them to talk to the outside world.”

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Many of those attending IRIS’s English classes (held under the auspices of the New Haven Adult & Continuing Education Program) bring along their infants and preschoolers. They have their own class in a brightly colored room next door, where the walls are covered with storybook-inspired art projects, and a barn big enough to crawl into displays picture books on its roof. As Fitzgerald shows me around, the outside door is ajar, and the children are playing in the church’s sunny backyard. Their structured morning also includes free play centers focused on reading, writing, construction, science, math and dramatic play as well as scheduled time for art, music and movement, plus a story during snack time.

The preschool readiness program, serving about 10 to 15 kids depending on the day, is part of the four-pronged IRIS Family Literacy Program, which, in addition to language instruction for parents, offers interactive literacy activities for both parents and children (for example, reading a recipe for play dough and making it together) and parent education classes on topics such as positive discipline and car seat safety. There’s another lesson embedded as well, Fitzgerald points out: the value of preschool. So far, two parents have even enrolled their children in formal preschool programs, putting them on track for success later when they go to school.

Not everything in the classes is smooth sailing. Attendance varies, so despite the fact that Fitzgerald creates monthly themes, the daily lessons have to be compartmentalized. Afghan cultural norms bar men and women from being in mixed company, posing logistical challenges as the program has recently evolved from a “Mommy and Me” model to one that includes some adult male students. And of course, learning English is often a long, slow process.

Progress is made in increments, some big, some small. One of the proudest moments, Fitzgerald says, is when a student learns to write her name in English for the first time. Fitzgerald reaches into a basket of name tags, like the kind designed to mark one’s place at a table, and pulls one out: Palwasha. Being able to write their name is “like a kind of empowerment for them: ‘I just spelled my own name on my name tag. This is me,’” Fitzgerald says. “They’re really proud when they do that, and I’m really proud of them.”

It’s among the first of many, many lessons to come.

Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS)
235 Nicoll St, New Haven (map)
(203) 562-2095 |

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 features Jennifer Fitzgerald with students. Image 2 features volunteer Carol Poling with students.

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