Community Literacy Program Continues to Reach Out to Immigrants

Posted: July 21, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Catherine Ferraro

In the fall of 2007, Lisa Rabin, associate professor of Spanish in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages, and her students Ulysses Ramírez, a recent Mason graduate, and Ximena Suárez de Cornejo, a graduate student majoring in foreign languages, developed an idea to launch a unique program for Spanish-speaking immigrants in the United States.

The Culmore Literacy and Popular Education Project brought together faculty and students of Spanish at Mason with Tenants and Workers United, a worker’s rights and social justice organization in Northern Virginia.

The program offered free Spanish and English literacy and popular education courses in the Culmore, Va., community. Over the course of the year, the program has served more than 25 students in beginning Spanish and advanced Spanish/beginning English courses.

Based on the success of the program, Rabin applied for and was awarded a Community Partnership Grant from the American Studies Association last spring. This grant will help sustain and expand upon the program in the 2008-09 year.

Culmore is a predominantly low-income immigrant community in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. About 90 percent of its residents are Spanish-speaking. Most residents have had little formal education, if any, in their home countries, and one of the goals of the program is for students to learn literacy in their home languages before and while they attempt to learn English.

The program also focuses on social empowerment instead of merely functional literacy. It does this by taking a participatory approach to literacy: placing students at the center of the learning process and basing their lessons in understanding power structures in U.S. society.

Under the Community Partnership Grant, the program next year will include interdisciplinary curricula in American studies, grounding Culmore students’ local experience within the larger history of Latinos and Spanish speakers in the United States.

Courses offered through the program are free and open to women and men who are immigrants from Latin America.

“As community leaders in Culmore attest, literacy support can help Culmore residents toward the realization of their social, political and economic goals,” says Rabin. “This program tries to help residents achieve these goals through literacy classes in Spanish and English that are combined with lessons in popular education for social empowerment. We hope that Culmore students will become teachers themselves in the program.”

This month, Spanish undergraduate student Catherine Berrouet and Spanish graduate student Noelia Olivera began training for teaching fall literacy classes in Culmore. Berrouet and Olivera will teach in three course cycles, each 10 weeks long, beginning in October.

The Community Partnership Grant provides $3,000 to be used as stipends for the teachers.

A team of Mason professors are leading the teacher workshops, which include strategies on the teaching of heritage language Spanish, English as a Second Language (ESL), and the history of Latinos in the United States. The team includes Rabin; Jennifer Leeman, associate professor of Spanish; Michelle Ramos-Pellicia, assistant professor of Spanish; and ESL trainer Lynda Terrill.

For more information about the Culmore Literacy and Popular Education Project, contact Rabin at

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