Taking ESL Digital! Our Community-Driven Virtual Classrooms


By: Elby Wang, Reference/Outreach Librarian, Cherry Hill Public Library

Keeping a library program alive year after year is a mighty endeavor for any team. At Cherry Hill Public Library, our English as a Second Language (ESL) teammates have become even more than a team. We have become a family, and I am writing to share our ESL family’s quarantine story.

We are proud to share that our volunteer teachers are teaching seven classes a week with remote learning, including conversation, reading, writing, and book club classes. Moreover, new connections continue to be made through our ESL classes during quarantine. In one class, one of our students is helping another with meal delivery during their recovery from a recent car accident. Our quarantine story shows that communities don’t have to be weakened by social distancing. Instead, coming together with generosity and a positive attitude has made us stronger during this pandemic.

The library made the decision to pause our ESL Program during quarantine on March 16. We were midway through the course, which normally runs from January to June. This was not an easy decision. Our free ESL courses offer a lifeline to students who seek to improve their English to achieve career, education, or family goals, and more than 100 students are registered for the program this spring. In early April, I reached out to our ESL teammates about the possibility of going virtual. The team wrote back quickly with enthusiasm. Teachers were worried that their students would lose hard-earned English skills without the opportunity to practice and were concerned about the students' well-being. We quickly trained our teachers to use Zoom video conferencing through YouTube tutorials. Our first virtual class was held on Friday, April 10 by Mark Pinzur, a retired teacher who has been teaching English with our program for three years.

Zoom class

In our first remote learning class, we were greeted by huge smiles from our students, a testament to the warm and genuine connections that are built through our ESL classes. Even though some students are very new to speaking English, all were grateful for the chance to come together and to keep learning. With the success of Mark’s class under our belts, I had a feeling that soon all seven of our classes would find their way online, and they did. The second volunteer, Laura Colau, a busy mom with two homeschooled children, rang the bell to start her class on the following Monday. She was worried about keeping the conversation going in a virtual classroom and experimented with creative ideas like posting YouTube videos. During class, she encouraged her students to describe the videos and share their thoughts. This strategy worked well for higher-level conversation classes.

Two more teachers started up in the week of April 20 with the support of tech-savvy family members. Audrianne Levene, a 78-year old retiree, did not hesitate to volunteer for remote learning, even though she admitted to feeling lost in a digital space. With the help of her husband, she brought all the pieces together in a matter of days, and her class was able to come online too. Another teacher, Lisa Grant, asked her daughter to help with Zoom and with sending emails to her students. Lisa started her virtual class on April 28.

Other teachers even invested in their own equipment to support the library’s programs. Julie Kligerman, a retired attorney, is someone in our ESL family who never hesitates to go the extra mile to create the best possible experience for her students. She quickly extended her personal Zoom account to a professional version even before the library was able to support a paid account. Julie shared recently, “The ninety minutes of class is a great connection between me and my students.” Phyllis Levitas was our last teacher to start her virtual class. Phyllis needed a new laptop for teaching and ordered it as quickly as she could so that she could teach without interruptions.

Our thanks go to our ESL family of teachers, many of whom are retirees, who were brave and bold enough to experiment with new technology in a time of crisis. This family is dedicated to our students’ learning opportunities, and we are committed to supporting each other and our students. Truly, it was the strength of this family that helped us switch gears in a matter of weeks and to keep these acts of service alive in the Cherry Hill community.