In class, language joins workers and students

by Christina Bartson / Beacon Staff • October 3, 2013

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Tamera Marko teaches a group of students and maintenance workers English.
Tamera Marko teaches a group of students and maintenance workers English.

Students sit shoulder to shoulder around a long table, each holding lyrics to “Here I Am,” a song the group wrote about immigrating to a new country. 

The music’s composer, Sandrayati Fay, a sophomore performing arts major, strums her guitar.

In a fusion of Spanish and English, they sing, “It’s not our tongues that need to be tamed, it’s our ears that need to be tuned. Learning is easy, aquí.”

On the 10th floor of the Walker Building each Wednesday, seven Emerson maintenance workers and nine undergraduates meet with Tamera Marko and Eric Sepenoski, professors in the writing, literature, and publishing department, to learn and teach each other English and Spanish. 

During its weekly meetings in the conference room, the group speaks, writes, and sings in English and Spanish in a curriculum they created themselves, said Marko. 

The English class is in its fourth year, and in that time they’ve published two books, Aquí No Hay Verguenza, which is the class’s mantra, meaning “Here there is no shame”, and English Conversation and Writing Class, said Marko. 

Students have given readings of their work at cafes in Boston, and the group was recently accepted into two national academic conferences on writing studies, said Marko.

The project began when maintenance workers approached Emerson’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion and requested English language classes. Marko said she was the only professor to reply.

Marko, who teaches the first-year translingual writing course at Emerson, grew up on the Tijuana/San Diego border speaking Spanish with her peers, she said. Later, she taught English in that region for years, mostly with Spanish-speaking immigrants, she said. 

Within one week of the original request, Marko said she hosted the first English class. The group didn’t have any funding or a permanent class space, but attendees forfeited their lunch hour to meet weekly and begin learning, said Marko. 

Two years ago, Marko opened the class up to undergraduates in her first-year translingual writing course. The dynamics of the class changed positively, she said—the students teach the workers, but the workers also teach the students.

“It’s a true exchange of ideas, perspectives, and lived experiences,” said Marko.

This year, Sylvia Spears, the vice president of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, recognized that this program needed to be fully supported by the school.

“An institution cannot be excellent unless it embraces diversity,” said Spears.

Spears found the group a permanent meeting space and the Office of Service Learning and Community Action gave the group a $750 grant, which paid for the student’s books, publishing costs, and a couple of meals they shared, said Marko.

Last spring, Spears said she sat in on a class when the maintenance workers were reading some of their own writing. 

“You could not be in that room without being moved by the honesty, sincerity, and power of their work,” said Spears. “There’s a language of the heart that’s sometimes more useful than words.”

 Marko said she believes the most important thing the class has done is transform the workers’ experience in the community at Emerson.

 Maria Gutierrez, an Emerson worker in the class, has been living in the U.S. for 17 years since she moved from El Salvador, she said. 

“I feel happy when I go to the classes because I can meet with the other people, and share with the other people, and it’s really nice,” she said.

Natalia Menses, a sophomore performing arts major, joined the class this September after being in Marko’s translingual first year writing course, she said.

“This class is a little piece of home,” Menses, a Colombia native, said. 

Sepenoski, who teaches the first-year translingual writing course and graduated from the college with an MFA in poetry in 2012, said the ethos of the class should be translated into the world: the diversity of a community, and on a broader scale, the country, should not divide it, but strengthen it.

“We cannot afford to live in a world where we don’t recognize everybody as a part of the community,” said Sepenoski. “We’re living in a world of diverse people and diverse languages. I think that class reflects that and honors that.”