Most Buddhist monks spend their day dedicated to prayer and meditation. For a group of monks in Brooklyn, learning English is also a way to help bring peace to their home country of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Linda Ong reports from an E.S.L. class in Brooklyn.
Burmese Monks go to E.S.L. Class
By Linda Ong
When U Gawsita walks into Donna Korol’s adult E.S.L. class in Brooklyn, the room snaps to life. New students stare at his heavy red robes, while regulars casually wave and say, “Good morning, Ko-Sada.” Gawsita acknowledges the greeting with a nod and sits in the back of the classroom. While most Burmese Buddhist monks in the city dedicate their time to prayer and meditation, Gawsita is learning English.
“My English isn’t so good,” said Gawsita. “But, I like it- learning English.”
Every weekday from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., Gawsita, 29, attends E.S.L. class at P.S. 19 in Brooklyn. The class, which is run by the New York State’s Office of Education, is offered free to the public and draws in many locals from the neighborhood. Korol’s students, ranging in age from 22 to 81, are a mix of Dominicans, Hispanics, Polish, Bangladeshis, Russians, and Gawsita, a Burmese Buddhist monk. They sit intermingled with one another in individual student desks that are organized in neat rows that face the chalkboard at the front of the room.
On a recent day, the lesson plan began with a class discussion focused on the question, “What is your idea of fun?” The students spontaneously chime in, responding with “helping my kids with homework,” “going to a play,” and “the park,” while others who are early English learners, shy away. Korol conducts her class with ease, flowing from one topic to the next, from reviewing past vocabulary words and tenses to tips on how to pronounce words.
“It’s easier to pair words, like instead of bread, say slice of bread,” she said.
Learning topics often turn into discussions about the news. Prepositions, adverbs, and other parts of speech are lost in conversation, but that doesn’t bother Korol.
“I’ve been teaching E.S.L. for 25 years, and I’ve learned so much from my students,” she said. “They come from so many different backgrounds and I am sensitive to that- I take that into consideration. I want them to be comfortable enough to talk in class.”
The program accepts students at different learning levels, and many join based on their comfort with the current curriculum. For Gawsita, this is his second year in Korol’s class.
“The teacher is very nice, she doesn’t mind if we are late,” he said, laughing. “She teach us very good.”
For Gawsita, the opportunity to learn is still a new idea that he never experienced in his native country of Myanmar, where oppression enforced by the then military-led government made receiving an education difficult for monks and for the majority of civilians.
“I had no chance to learn in Burma, so now I love it,” he said, constantly referring to his iPhone 4S to look up Burmese translations for English vocabulary words.
Prior to coming to America, Gawsita was one of thousands of monks who fled Myanmar to live as refugees at the Thai-Myanmar border of Mae Sot after participating in the 2007 Saffron Revolution. The revolution started as a peaceful protest led by monks, but ended with a military crackdown and many casualties. After testifying in front of the United States Congress as a witness of the revolution, Gawsita came to the U.S. and first settled in Utica. In 2009, he moved to Brooklyn’s Metta Parami Monastery where he now resides with two other monks, U Pyinya and U Agga. U Pyinya occasionally joins U Gawsita to work on his English in Korol’s class, while U Agga is taking G.E.D. classes.
The monks said that learning English is vital to help them to continue to promote democracy in their home country, especially with the increasing number of political prisoner being released in Myanmar. As part of the All Monks Burma Alliance, the three monks work with many international, non-profit, and relief organizations, so communication, they said, is key.
“We work with a lot of American speakers,” said U Agga. “We give presentations at universities, too. We need to improve our English so people know us, what we do, what is happening in Burma.”
The monks’ 18 months of English training has paid dividends, Korol said.
“They have come a long way since they came here,” said Korol. “And, it’s not easy- Burmese and English are very different languages. They’re doing great.”
Israel Leonardo, a native of the Dominican Republic and one of Korol’s top students, speaks often in class and serves as translator to native Spanish speakers who want to join the class. Like many of the adults in the E.S.L. class, Leonardo splits his time between school in the morning, work as an expeditor in a Manhattan restaurant in the afternoon and the evening, and quality time with his kids in between.
“I learn here and then I teach my kids and help them with their homework,” said Leonardo, who is in the mid-20’s, beaming as he talks about his children. “I’m very busy, but it’s worth it.”
Leonardo began taking Korol’s classes around the same time as Gawsita. Since then, Leonardo said that he has developed a sense of camaraderie with Gawsita.
“I was curious at first,” said Leonardo. “But then I got to know them and he’s really nice. Ko-Sada has encouraged me a lot.”
Korol, too, admitted to being initially intrigued by Gawsita, but said she enjoys teaching them and seeing their progress.
“His pronunciation has improved so much from last year,” she said, referring to Gawsita.
Since U Gawsita and U Pyinya joined her course, Korol said that the class has transformed from a predominantly Hispanic class to an international one. In this mix, Korol said that she is not only the teacher, but also the student.
“When you’re here, you’re in the moment. We get to share our experiences, which are very different,” she said. “My students never cease to amaze me. It’s truly a joy.”