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title. A Civics and ESL Curriculum for Older Refugees

date. 2009 - 2012

location. Dallas, Texas

Role: Senior Instructor and Curriculum Designer at Refugee Empowerment Services at Catholic Charities of Dallas

Challenge: Providing literacy and civics education to older refugees from Bhutan, Burma, Iran, Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq, so that they may pass the citizenship exam to be a U.S. Citizen.

Process: Co-developed an ongoing curriculum and volunteer teacher training manual that included research-based teaching strategies such as collaborative learning and multi-sensory methods

Outcome: A group of trained, talented and committed volunteers continued through the program to teach the refugees for years. Over a third of clients (much higher than the expected rate) passed the citizenship test within 5 - 7 years after arrival to the U.S.

The mission that drove me at my time at Catholic Charities, Refugee Empowerment Services was to provide literacy instruction and civic education to a classes of older refugee (age 60+) coming from different countries (Burmese, Bhutanese, Congolese and Iraqi nationalities), many of whom did not have prior education even in their own languages.


The challenges were plenty for this group - learning a new language at a ripened age, shifts in cultural dynamics, and grasping civic lessons that would prepare this group for taking the U.S. Naturalization exam so they could be eligible for benefits such as Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid for the remainder of their lives. 


As a teacher with flexibility to evolve the curriculum, designing lessons are always naturally based off of the learning gaps and needs of students.  As an advocate for the students that observes the unique ways in which they learn, I was constantly embedding their feedback into future lessons.

Prior to taking the job, I was pursuing alternative certification in Special Education and the coursework had included classes like Foundations of Literacy, and Teaching to Learning Styles. I integrated research-based strategies like cooperative learning or multi-sensory methods to deliver lesson plans that would fit the needs of a student-pool of very diverse cultural backgrounds and levels of education. I also worked with other volunteer teachers where we played off of each others’ teaching styles and broke off into small groups for more directed instruction.

We not only identified learning gaps of students but the different ways in which they learn. For example, all students’ loved talking about their families, and also seemed to enjoy singing in music as this was prominent in the cultures they came from. So every class lesson often integrated some form of music and our role-play conversations often centered around family, even in the introduction of new vocabulary.


Over the course of weeks and months iterating different methods for this special population, we determined a few set of methods that were more promising in delivering results. Most were all interactive that enabled the students to practice language-learning in a live environment. They had fun playing show-n-tell, movement games, picture talk, jeopardy, role-play and theatre, singing songs and going on multiple field trips throughout the Dallas Area metroplex. We also worked with students’ family members who could seamlessly integrate English lessons into everyday life or offer intergenerational learning through practice of language with grandchildren.


By the end of my tenure, we had trained an established group of volunteer teachers through the design of a curriculum, training manual and many lessons of co-teaching. The same students continued showing up at classes with about a third gaining U.S. citizenship from passing the USCIS citizenship exam.

Lesson plans and labor Day weekend 2010
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