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Rosie Maum: Making Connections for English Language Learners

Rosie Maum
"When you find yourself in a new culture, you have to figure out how to fit the old and the new together. A lot of it is cultural. A lot of teachers don't deal with that at all, but it is a very important aspect of keeping adults motivated and helping them be more comfortable learning."

With almost 20 years of experience, Rosie Maum is an adult educator in the Jefferson County Public Schools Adult Education Department in Louisville, Kentucky. She is also vice president of Kentucky TESOL and conference chair of the Kentucky TESOL Conference, held in Louisville on September 9-10, 2005.

When Rosie Maum first moved to the United States, she was disappointed when May 1st came and went as just another day. In her native Europe, it was Labor Day, a significant holiday, and everyone took the day off to celebrate. Then on July 4th, fireworks lit up the sky and smoke rose from barbecue grills throughout her neighborhood. Maum felt only confusion and a deep loneliness.

"It is quite challenging to move to a new country," says Maum. "The food is different. The holidays are different. You try to make friends, but you don't understand them and they don't understand you. Nothing is familiar, and you don't have any of the support systems you once did."

The frustration, loneliness, and confusion Maum felt during her first year in the states eventually came to serve her well, however, and to serve as a springboard to help many other adults through a unique literacy program called Project Connect.

Biography
Helping others wasn't on her mind yet as Maum grew up in Europe. Born to an Italian mother and an American father, Maum spent her first six years in Germany, where her father was stationed in the military. After her parents separated, Maum moved with her mother to Rijeka, Croatia, where she completed her elementary and secondary education.

Her adventurous spirit showed up in high school when Maum says she was "a wild teenager who tried a little bit of everything," including a gig with a rock 'n' roll band. Even so, Maum excelled in academics and earned a degree from the University of Rijeka as a correspondent in foreign languages.

At age 18, Maum's father, now living in America, invited her to come for a visit. Her dad confessed that he never really stopped loving Maum's mother, and he decided to return to Europe with Maum. Her parents re-united and remained in Europe for three more years before the entire family—Maum, mother Anita, father Reinald, and brother Robert-came to the United States.

Excitement mingled with culture shock for the young Maum.

"It was exciting at first," Maum recalls. It was cars and hamburgers and rock 'n' roll. There was so much technology, and everything was hands-on. There were also so many choices. In the stores there are hundreds of different brands. I was raised in Eastern Europe where there is one brand of toothpaste. That's it, and they run out of that sometimes."

When the excitement wore off, though, a kind of sadness Maum had never known set in.

"When you move to a new country with a new culture, you have to give up who you were and find a new identity," she says. "You have to deal with new roles and a new identity and figure out how to fit the old you with the new you."

Maum had one important advantage. She was fluent in four languages, one of them English.

"In adult education, literacy is gaining the skills that can empower you to function as a citizen, a family member, and in a work setting."

Views on Literacy
That advantage helped her as she worked on a master's degree in foreign language education at the University of Louisville (U of L) and then went on to earn a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction, also from U of L.

As she worked on her degrees, Maum also taught high school Spanish and ESL (English as a Second Language) classes with the Jefferson County Public School (JCPS) System. Then she landed a job as an ESL resource teacher in the district's adult education Program. She didn't know it yet, but her personal experience and education would soon culminate in an exciting new way.

First, though, Maum needed to write her dissertation. Her work with JCPS introduced her to the world of adult education-a world she loved. Maum decided to bring her interests in ESL and adult education together in her dissertation.

She sent out a questionnaire to compare beliefs about teaching English as a second language among both native and non-native ESL teachers. Then she delved deeper into the subject with 16 teachers, eight of them native English speaking and eight non-native.

When it comes to teaching non-English speaking adults, Maum concluded that the non-native teachers had a distinct edge. Her personal experiences provided the perspective to help her understand why.

"When you find yourself in a new culture, you have to figure out how to fit the old and the new together," Maum observes. "A lot of it is cultural. A lot of teachers don't deal with that at all, but it is a very important aspect of keeping adults motivated and helping them be more comfortable learning."

About that time, Maum attended her first TESOL (Teachers of English TO SPEAKERS OF OTHER LANGUAGES) conference. For the first time in many years, she felt completely comfortable. A few years later, in 2003-2004, Maum chaired the adult education interest section of TESOL Along the way, she also discovered the unique skills she and her fellow non-native teachers bring to the classroom.

Two items stand out to Maum: the understanding and corresponding empathy of what it really means to acquire another language and the emotional aspects of adapting to a new culture.

"It takes most immigrants about a year to adjust," Maum says. "You have to get through all the major holidays and to start accepting some things.

For Maum, that year of adjustment faded into 18 years of teaching second languages in the public schools, the last five in adult education. But just as she was getting totally comfortable with her job, another challenge came along—develop an on-line program to help non-English speaking adults become literate in English, a challenge that would come to be known as Project Connect.

With ambitious goals from the onset, Project Connect needed a team to make it a reality. Maum joined forces with Fran Keenan, project manager, and Donna Moss, Susan Riley, Kate Silc, and Melanie Daniels, who worked with the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), the National Center for Adult Literacy (NCAL), and SRI, Inc respectively. Each of the teammates brought diverse geographical and academic backgrounds. The process of developing Project Connect was grueling because nothing like it existed. The first few years were used to develop content and pilot test those sections. Simultaneously, the team researched what was available on-line, which turned out to be not much. Today, Project Connect is the only on-line product designed and crafted specifically for adult English language learners.

Questions pelted the team: how can language teaching be presented on line" What are the most important features" How can you design materials that are relevant to adults with an appropriate language level" Can teachers get used to the culture on-line" After five and one-half years the questions were answered and Project Connect was officially launched at the 2005 TESOL conference.

Project Connect has three main areas:

  1. Learning in the USA-understanding of how the American educational system works and where to get education
  2. Working in the USA-learning about the culture of the workplace, how to apply for a job, what it means to interview, and where to look for job training
  3. Living in the USA-understanding American culture, community resources, and civic involvement

The advantages of learning on-line are many, according to Maum.

"Learners can use it 24/7, can do it at their own pace," she says of two advantages. "With English language learners, if they want to hear how something is pronounced, they can click on the audio button as many times as they want. In a classroom setting with other students, that would not be possible. There is not enough time to practice over and over.

Maum says another advantage is that students are able to take more ownership of their learning. "They can see what they still need to work on or what they want to concentrate on," she says.

That is important because adult English language learners come to the classroom with such diverse needs and backgrounds. Some are not literate in their own language, while others have a Ph.D. in their native tongue. Some want survival English-just enough to get by-while others want to learn enough English to get a job or advance in a job. In the classroom, all these learners come to class together under the same teacher.

"On-line programs provide a lot more interactivity, a lot more opportunities to access culture because so much is available on the Internet," Maum says. "Before, the only way to learn about culture was to take a field trip. Now you can take virtual tours and get cultural feedback not possible before."

Still, Maum stresses that the teacher remains an important and necessary part of the educational process.

"Teachers need to remember that these programs supplement instruction. They cannot replace the teacher. You cannot expect someone to learn a language completely on-line, but this is a wonderful way to supplement instruction not available before."

For Maum, the end result is what really matters.

"In adult education, literacy is gaining the skills that can empower you to function as a citizen, a family member, and in a work setting," she says. "On-line language learning is so full of possibilities. It is an exciting way to learn those skills."

Meet some other Forum guests.

Questions and Answer Forum
Visitors to the website are invited to read literacy-related questions to Rosie Maum.


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