As the words “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” from Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” echoded through the UC Berkeley Wada Tower multipurpose room on Wednesday evening, you could see five excited pair of eyes in the last couple of rows.
They belonged to ten new students. These students were UC Berkeley Housing and Dining custodians who were enrolled in Vocational English as a Second Language class taught as a special project by Laney Community College.
They were guests that evening at UC Berkeley’s “Poetry for the People”—the popular poet-in-residence program which focuses on poetry as a means of social action.
According to Jarralynne Agee, CALS Project coordinator, “merging the classes together with the custodians and the Cal students will give a new approach to helping service workers build their English skills on campus. It is a dream for us to be sitting in a class with UC Berkeley students.”
Close to 70 percent of service workers on the UC Berkeley campus speak English as a second language, including a very large number of those who have limited English proficiency, Agee told the Planet.
The custodians received credits for their vocational English class at Laney for attending that evening. Laney professor Sonja Franeta and UC Berkeley staff member and Laney lecturer Candace Khanna instruct the custodians every week. They are supported by CALS Project interns Alyce Ford Gilbert and Ann Linsley. UCB students Bryant Park and Jennifer Chang assist with multi-level classroom needs.
“It’s a great way to break down borders,” said Franeta of bringing the custodians to the UC Berkeley event. “Everyone gets to learn from each other. We really need student volunteers who would help my students with their spoken English conversations.”
As the class unfolded, around a dozen of the 150 undergraduate students read poetry which covered topics as diverse as odes to daddies, human rights, and the twin hurricanes down in New Orleans. The word of the day was “magnificent” and the subject “odes.”
Francisco X. Alarcon, a visiting professor from UC Davis, read aloud from his original work. A professor in UCD’s Spanish for Natives Program, Alarcon praised the idea of bringing the custodians into the classroom that day.
“Borders don’t exist,” he said. “The more windows you have, the more access you have to the universe. It’s O.K. to be who you are—dark, latino, Chicano, Mexicano. Poetry is a universal form bridging all the borders. This was a wonderful way of showing that.”
Kim Lang, a cook at Berkeley’s International House, told the Planet at the end of the class that he had enjoyed Alarcon’s readings.
“It was definitely more difficult than what the students were reading out, but I still found it very interesting,” he said.
Richard Huang, who waxes and cleans on campus, admitted to liking Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to an Onion.”
“I hope we get to come for these classes more often. I love interacting with students. It helps brush up my English,” he said smiling.
Francesco Azuara, who works at the Zellerbach Theatre, and Daniel Pizano, who works in dining services at the International House said they were still shy when it came to conversing freely with students.
“We need to practice more English grammer,” Francesco said pointing to his Grammar 3—Step by Step book.
Poto by Riya Bhattacharjee
Daniel Pizano, who works at the I-House, and Francesco Azuara, a custodian at the Zellerback Theatre, listen to poetry with UC Berkeley students Wednesday.