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Nursery Workers Flourish in PCC Language Classes

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"Morale is higher and our employees are motivated to learn"

–Grace Dinsdale, Blooming Nursery

by Nancy Leon

Photo: Hipolito Urbina Garduno, left, and Benito Miranda work on a sentence construction exercise.

After a long day’s work in the December cold, 11 men and women gather and greet each other with smiles and anticipation. One last decaf latte, extra sprinkles, with your fellow cubicle dwellers? Not for these tired, cold and probably hungry workers. It’s time instead to find a chair, one closest to the little space heater if you can, in the converted chicken coop that is now a lunchroom and classroom, and prepare your eyes, ears and brains for the arduous task of learning to speak one of the most difficult, inexplicably goofiest languages on the planet. It’s the English language, for two hours, every Tuesday and Thursday evening, at Blooming Nursery in Cornelius.

The students are Hispanic nursery workers from area nurseries who believe that communication skills contribute to a more productive workplace.

The class is led by Catherine Murphy of PCC’s Customized Workforce Training program. Program funding comes from a grant supplied by the Regional Strategies Board of Multnomah and Washington counties and matched by a consortium of nurseries. ESL (English as as second language) classes and supervisory training for Hispanic workers taught in Spanish have been held at various nurseries since January 1997. The participating nurseries are Blooming Nursery, R & S Nursery, Iwasaki Bros, Inc., Fisher Farms and EF Nursery.

The class begins promptly, in English, as each student focuses intently on the teacher and the words she prints on the big tablet attached to the easel. Darkness falls and the concrete floor intensifies the cold as the students listen and repeat words and phrases in English, nodding to Ms. Murphy, assuring her that they understand. The difficulty increases as they break into groups and complete an assignment that requires them to read aloud to each other and solve a story problem in English. There are no slackers in this class. No Discman plugged in, no gum snapping, no snoozing. The eight men and three women knit their brows, blow on their hands, puzzle over the written words and try them tentatively out loud.

"Tulip Bulb."

Veronica says, "Bulm."

Instructor Murphy says, "Bulb."

"Bulm."

"Bulb Bulb."

"Bulb!" says Veronica, with relief.

Past and present tense are practiced by rote; there is no logical explanation for buy, bought; sing, sang; wear, wore; meet, met; read, read.

Murphy keeps the class lively, and the last half hour is consumed by the students creating sentences out of words she has printed on colored construction paper. Each student holds one word. They line up with their word cards: "must, a, when, respirator, You, wear, spray, you." Then they move each other around to fix the sentence. The atmosphere is jovial. The nouns are easiest; the students know what a respirator is, and they are familiar with spray. The teacher defines "must" and a few minutes later the puzzle is solved. "You must wear a respirator when you spray."

Where is the place on the bottom line where you measure the smile of a nursery worker who helped unscramble a sentence in a language that confounds him? The members of the nursery consortium understand their contribution to a world that is becoming ever smaller, where languages, cultures and work overlap. Supervisory training in Spanish connects the workers to the supervisors to the managers and owners.

George Bear of Fisher Farms says that his Spanish-speaking supervisors are stepping up with solutions to problems and confident enough to engage in planning and decision making. Bear no longer has to tackle every problem himself.

Grace Dinsdale, owner of Blooming Nursery, says of the classes, "What they’ve done is phenomenal. It’s much more than we anticipated morale is higher and our employees are motivated to learn. It’s more than just learning English, it’s learning they are important to us."

PCC’s Customized Workforce Training makes it possible for businesses, large and small, to train their employees with a focused and specific curriculum, on-site, in chicken coops and boardrooms, with accomplished, professional teachers. Beyond the workplace, workers gain confidence in their ability to learn and move ahead in life.

One student at Blooming Nursery said, "Learning English helps me when I go places, to the store. I can understand. I can talk to people. This is very good!"

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