ESL college students put their struggles on stage

MEDFORD — Two years ago, Francisco Severiano was riding a bus from Medford to Ashland to visit Lithia Park when a girl started putting him down.

"A teenager, about 17 or 18, was saying bad words about me being a Mexican," Severiano recalled.

The experience made him frustrated that his English language skills weren't advanced enough to respond to her, afraid that more people on the bus would gang up on him, and angry and sad about being belittled, he said.

Recently, the 25-year-old Medford man and seven other students from Rogue Community College's English as a Second Language adult education class re-enacted his experience as part of a new RCC interactive literacy theater project. The extracurricular program is designed to give ESL students more practice in speaking English, while raising community awareness about social problems such as racial discrimination. Participants performed June 8 for the ESL program's end-of-term celebration.

The students and their ESL teachers hope eventually to bring the theater performances to community groups, such as Rotary clubs, chambers of commerce and schools.

In the skit about Severiano's experience, ESL student Karla Ceballos, who is from Mexico, portrayed the teenage girl who slurred Severiano.

In the middle of the action, the actors stopped to allow the audience to ask questions about their characters' motivations and perceptions.

ESL student Claudia Dias, who moved to Medford from Brazil, asked Ceballos, "Where are your parents from?"

"England," Ceballos answered matter-of-factly, drawing laughter from the audience of students, most of whom knew that she hails from Mexico.

"The message is we are all the same," Dias said after the performance. "We can't treat people differently because of their skin color, hair or sex."

Dias said she thinks the theater program is a good technique for practicing English and for providing a community dialogue.

The theater program for ESL students at RCC was established this spring after two of the college's ESL teachers, Evalyn Hansen and Kiersta Fricke-Gostnell, attended a meeting of Intercambio Oregon, an organization dedicated to highlighting local multicultural artistic talent. Members of the group were concerned about cultural and racial tensions in the community.

Hansen had used literacy theater at Oregon Coast Community College in Newport to instruct adult students with limited reading and writing skills. She suggested the technique could be used with ESL students, who also could reach out to the greater community to promote understanding between different cultures in the Rogue Valley.

"Acting and repetition are the key to learning how to express yourself in another language," Hansen said. "Theater is valuable because it brings out emotions where you might not have expected it. The audience becomes involved in the characters. They learn to solve problems in a new way. When you speak from the heart, that breaks a lot of language barriers."

She and Fricke-Gostnell decided to launch the RCC literacy theater and invited students from the community college's ESL program in Medford to participate. RCC's Medford campus serves about 160 ESL students each term, Fricke-Gostnell said.

RCC and Intercambio Oregon sponsored a literacy theater workshop May 21 for the ESL students to learn improvisation skills and how to prompt thought-provoking questions and answers from the audience.

Fricke-Gostnell said improvisational skits are "a startling and effective way of making groups aware of what people with limited English language skills or low literacy skills face in our society."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or

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