Posted May 21st 2013 at 10:56 am by
in From the Editor

Learning How to Learn in Syracuse, New York

When I arrived at the Multimedia Immersion Workshop in Syracuse, I had never even picked up a fancy camera. The video function on my iPhone only has one button: “record.” The workshop’s Canon rep handed me a 6D to borrow for my week-long adventure in moviemaking, and I wanted to hand it right back. It had at least ten mysterious buttons, and each button presented about 100 options, and each option had to be combined with another option from another menu. Plus I had to account for sunlight and a load of other things.

Then I got my story assignment: An English for Speakers of Other Languages class at White Branch Public Library in Syracuse. I found a room full of refugees from Thailand and Bhutan. Most of them could boast two generations of offspring and the ability to make it out of refugee camps, but had never been to school or learned to read. They’d started working at the age when most Americans start kindergarten.

Their teacher, Mary Jane Monsour, took on the class when a refugee school down the street overflowed with students. She loves the students, and they love her. Mary Jane once dreamed of teaching English in Vietnam in the last years of her career, but then she had a rash of grandchildren. Now, she says, it’s like Vietnam (and Thailand, and Bhutan) came to her.

Learning English in Syracuse, New York

The students like to practice writing in English, so I tried to get a shot of one woman printing out her name and address. I wanted to focus on the scratchy letters coming out, but I couldn’t make the camera do it. Instead I got a clear view of her hand, wrinkles and all.

My grandmother launched a blog when she was 87 years old. My mom called me one day and said that grandma thought she had created a blog. Could I call grandma to find out if it was true? I called grandma and she told me the same thing. She said, “Here, try this earl,” and then she gave me the URL, one character at a time. It was true. My grandmother had launched a blog. When I told her it was true, she just couldn’t say enough for the kind people at WordPress who’d helped her through it. I wish I’d been able to figure out if and how she extracted a teacher out of She died last spring, so I have to settle with the mystery of it.

In the end, it only took little extra courage to handle the fancy camera. I found it in the people I was recording. Fearlessness is a young person’s thing, and I don’t have it anymore. But courage might come with age.

Post and video by Alexa Mills.

3 responses to “Learning How to Learn in Syracuse, New York”

  1. What a touching film – and an inspiring link to the theme of learning and acquiring new skills whatever your age! It must take immense courage for those students to face a bewildering new world and take the plunge into learning its language – ie the tools to learn yet more about their new world. I will certainly be passing the ‘earl’ of this site on to my friend who teaches asylum seekers in Norway with the same passion and dedication as Mary Jane. And in the meantime, here’s the ‘earl’ to my Mum’s blog

    At the age of 80 she has mastered, blogs, twitter and facebook in order to promote her novels, some of which are being re-released by publishers Bloomsbury… as e-books.

  2. Alexa Mills says:

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, Sabita! And congratulations to your mom on her beautiful blog. Yes, the students in this video are incredibly courageous and smart. I hope I can go back in 5 years and talk with them.

  3. Photo Restore says:

    Thank you for this inspiring post!