GSE Students Teach English in Penn Communities Through PEDAL Program

The room is packed. The 24 adults seated in the class, from at least a dozen countries, are each connected to someone at the University of Pennsylvania. They are here to learn to speak English, free of charge.

The teacher is a student herself, in the second year of the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages master’s program in Penn’s Graduate School of Education. Assisting her are four first-year Penn GSE students, all volunteers.

Named Practical English for Daily Living, or PEDAL, the program is designed to give TESOL students experience teaching in the classroom, while also contributing to the community at Penn and beyond. 

“It’s a dual mission,” says Hannah Brenneman, PEDAL program coordinator, “to help teach English to English-language learners and also to help train our novice teachers.” 

PEDAL@GSE offers classes weekly at GSE for people connected to Penn. The Community PEDAL@GSE program offers classes to West Philadelphia community members at the Walnut West Philadelphia Library. Last fall, Community PEDAL became partners with Philadelphia Mayor James Kenny’s Office of Adult Education, which promotes adult literacy.

“The PEDAL program is another example of Penn GSE’s leadership in aligning its educational mission with the needs of the Philadelphia community,” says Jeffrey Cooper, Penn vice president for government and community affairs. “By providing a critical service to those learning to speak English, Penn GSE students also learn skills necessary to advance their careers.” ​​​​​​​

The PEDAL courses emphasize English that is useful in everyday encounters, like banking, shopping, housing, transportation, health care, school.  

“We focus on speaking and listening more than reading and writing,” says Brenneman, who taught in PEDAL while earning her master’s in the TESOL program.  

Launched in 2012, PEDAL has grown to four proficiency levels of classes for Penn-affiliated people and three levels for the general public. Each fall and spring semester consists of 10 weeks of instruction, and an 11th week celebration. Community PEDAL classes are also offered in the summer. 

“PEDAL was created as a steppingstone,” says Sarah Peyton Kaufman, program manager of GSE’s Educational Linguistics Division, who previously was PEDAL coordinator. “That’s why we consider the experience invaluable to our program.”

Kaufman says it is one of the only programs of its kind in the country, allowing the second-year students to take full responsibility for creating and teaching the classes while also mentoring first-year students.  

“I feel like PEDAL is an invaluable part of my education,” says GSE student teacher Aaron Brown. “It is almost like a workshop or laboratory. But it’s more than that. These are our neighbors. They have family members. We are reaching out and doing service work while using what we learn in classroom in a real, authentic way.”

​​​​​​​Currently only about a third of the 65 GSE students in the first year of the TESOL program can participate in PEDAL@GSE, and a handful more teach at Community PEDAL. The goal is to expand the sought-after PEDAL experience so it can become a mandatory component of the coursework for novice student teachers. 

“We would love to continue to grow so that we can support all of our TESOL students who arrive with little to no teaching experience and not just the 12 per semester we currently support,” Kaufman says.

“We’ve seen a noticeable difference in the development of students who are able to participate in PEDAL, versus their peers who are not able to do the program,” says PEDAL founder Santoi Wagner, a senior lecturer in educational linguistics.

On a Friday morning, the two dozen students in the intermediate PEDAL@GSE class were learning about English needed to navigate at a bank: how to open a checking account, how to use an ATM card and how to most effectively ask questions to resolve a problem.

Registration is ongoing and online, available to those older than 17 who have an affiliation with someone at Penn, including faculty, staff, students and visiting scholars. Often the class participants are spouses, but there are also siblings, children, au pairs.

The student teachers had prepared detailed PowerPoints, worksheets and a role-playing segment involving a conversation between pairs of students, one playing the customer and the other a bank teller. 

The lead teacher was Yuxiao Li, who is from China. 

“I like how we get to design what we want to teach. We don’t have a textbook. We have to create everything from scratch,” Li says. “We get to apply what we are learning in class to an actual classroom.”

One of the class participants, Minako Honda, is in Philadelphia with her husband, a first-year student at Wharton. She says she likes that Li covers many topics in each class. 

“I use several sentences that she teaches me with my friends and my husband,” says Honda, who is from Tokyo. 

Jeff Chen came to Philadelphia from China with his sister, a Ph.D. candidate in archaeology at Penn, and is studying at the International House. The PEDAL class, he said, has helped him overcome his nervousness speaking in English with people from other countries. 

“Sometimes I don’t know how to express the word correctly for what I mean,” he says. “I’m not as nervous now. I have more confidence.”  

Building the confidence of the first-year team teachers is also an important part of the PEDAL approach. The lead PEDAL@GSE teachers are second-year students like Li, who have completed at least a year of training in the master’s program. Part of their responsibility is to be peer-mentors for their team.

“PEDAL is designed in a way that is hand-holding,” Brenneman says. “As the semester goes on the role shifts, with the lead teacher gradually taking a back seat and allowing the team of first-year students to make the lesson plans and put their skills to the test with the class.”

​​​​​​​Managing the classes takes hours of preparation for the lesson plans, the materials, the methods. They also meet after each class to discuss how it went.

“It is a lot of work but it is definitely very rewarding,” Li says. “It helped me understand about mentoring and coaching: how I can help the other teachers to be more confident in teaching a class, and together how we can improve as a team, and how to provide the best experience for the students.” ​​​​​​​

The first-years, all from China, say the experience is an integral part of their education. 

“As a teacher we need to keep interacting with the students,” says Mingyuan Tian. “PEDAL provides us a chance to interact with students weekly. It’s not good enough to just stay with the textbook.”

The Community PEDAL program helps address the need for high-quality programs for language learners in Philadelphia, be they international students, immigrants or refugees, says Ann Pomerantz, a senior lecturer in educational linguistics.

“This is a place where Penn GSE students can make a deep and lasting impact on the lives of new Philadelphia residents,” she says. 

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Community PEDAL brings an added set of challenges. The range of English language abilities is broader, and the attendance less consistent. Most students are refugees and immigrants, some did not complete a formal education in their own language. This semester there are more than 20 countries and 15 languages represented.

GSE student teacher Aaron Brown says he recently discovered that one of the class participants doesn’t know how to write. 

“That’s something that we need to focus on, what skill sets they bring to classroom, and how to capitalize and build on what they already know to function in society,” says Brown. 

The classes are taught by a team of two Penn GSE TESOL students who have previous teaching experience. 

“You see where things aren’t working, and you can craft your own teaching experience and philosophy,” says Brown, who co-teaches the class with first-year GSE student Yi Li. “You can only do that by practice.”

For additional photos click here.  Photos and text by Louisa Shepard.