Restoration in the ESL Classroom

A blog post written by Hannah Bonifacius, World Relief Chicago ESL Instructor. 

Inside World Relief’s ESL classrooms the direct, but often forgotten, correlation between language and restoration exists fully.

The term restoration referred to here as rebirth found in relational and cultural forgiveness,

the discoveries and acknowledgements of one’s abilities,

and the eagerness to employ skills, both newfound and those waiting to be uncovered.


World Relief Chicago has three levels of English classes. Our classes consist of immigrants from our neighborhood community and the refugees we resettle through our agency. As the instructor of one of our classes, I’ve grown accustomed to my front row seat to the life, growth, and depth of our students. Day in and out we practice the mantras of “Mistakes are good, they help us learn!” and “Never be afraid to ask a question!” We practice pronunciation. The stress goes on the wrong syllable. We write the weekly vocabulary on our whiteboard. The first word is misspelled. We practice questions of who, what, when, and where so we can apply these to small talk conversations. Our students sit in conversation groups and reveal their differences, their similarities, their quirks, their fears, and their greatest joys. Those of us who work day in and out in this context forget that these stories are not a given to many. It’s important to reflect on what God is doing in this unique setting, through and beyond the language we share.

We know nothing can be done without the work of God: the God of order, promise and consistency. The God of truth and stability. The God of language and communication. He spoke the world into existence. Words. “The Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning.” John 1:1-2.

The God of relationship. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”  John 1:14.

Think of that, the very characteristics of God work in tandem with the needs of those who have had to flee home and family. God is the master of communication: linguistically, relationally, and culturally.

Restoration, in the ESL classroom, is putting back the pieces that are left, and seeing the potential for new ones. Restoration is grief in all that’s been lost and hope for all that lies beyond the grasp. Restoration is done through and in relationships and through and in language. English isn’t the key, but attempting to share who you are, who you have been, and who you would like to become provides an outlet, a means forward.

Our students discover a relationship with language and study. Some of our students become acquainted with an academic setting for the first time.

Our students find relationship with one another; sit shoulder to shoulder with those of opposing worldviews. They learn to respect and search for the similarities in each other. They work to see the person before the conflict, the human being before the political, religious, or cultural differences.

Our students come face to face with a relational God.  It happens when vocabulary words like valuable, worthy, and creative appear in a daily text. Why does a person have value? Who makes us creative? Why are you worthy? In open discussion, we get to the bottom of God’s worth in us, his creativity in mankind. Maybe, I hope, these conversations put a spotlight on the often over-looked Imago Dei inside each of us.

I think of the stories I’ve heard. Words forming up out of the groundwork of language to create meaning to the experience of life.

I think of the woman who lived under abuse, but strove to make it to class every day. “Teacher, this is my second home. This is my family. I feel safe here. I’m not afraid. Now, little by little I feel strong. I’m not cry all the time anymore. ”

I think of the married couple who others refer to as uncle, aunt, grandma, mom, and dad because of their consistent, parental presence in the class. Every person gets a chocolate bar on their birthday, but our class “Mama” got a student initiated and organized surprise party. Students bought roses, balloons, cakes, and streamers for the event.

I think of the concern a body of students’ shared for another student who had been separated from his family. As he worked to reunify his family by bringing them to the United States, his classmates brought him groceries and called him when he didn’t come to class. One day he sat back, looked around, and said, “Here I am alone, but I am not alone, because I have my family in here.”

I think about the tears often shed, or bravely held back during our family and friends unit. The majority of people have lost family and friends. As we draw and label our family trees, the language and the community gives students space to write, to talk, to speak. Their drawings and narrations become a kind of memorial to those loved ones lost.

I think of the different religions, political affiliations, cultures, and worldviews existing in one small space. It baffles me this community even works on a fairly regular basis.

The fact remains; this is still a twenty hour per week English class. Pain that has developed over the years will run deep, will pour over, will keep these students in cyclical patterns of frustration and fear. But this is a start.


Every act of restoration needs a beginning.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s