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International Students Fall in Love with New York City and NYU History

Mark-Ameen Johnson's English as a Second Language (ESL) (American Language Institute School of Professional Studies) visit Bobst Library

Mark-Ameen Johnson’s English as a Second Language (ESL) students visit Bobst Library

This post was authored by Mark-Ameen Johnson, Adjunct Assistant Professor, American Language Institute, School of Professional Studies.

What could be more amazing than watching your low-intermediate English as a Second Language (ESL) students toss around references to

  • Gothic Revival architecture
  • Fiorello LaGuardia
  • What is located on each floor of Vanderbilt Hall
  • 1963 as the year all traffic ceased to run through Washington Square Park
  • Edward Hopper
  • The first NYU classes in 1832

and so much more? I sat spellbound in class this morning as my international students gave rich PowerPoint presentations even as they struggled with English grammar.

Yes, there were a couple of errors that needed correcting. No, Henry James’ Washington Square was not a comic book. No, Robert Moses did not lead anyone out of Egypt. But even the errors helped us learn about context. (And besides, I also teach Americans at St. Francis College, where I hear the same type of errors.)

My students felt a wonderful sense of accomplishment at the end of the three hour class–as well as a stronger connection to New York City and NYU. “Now we’re New Yorkers!”

The class visits Washington Square Park

While I would love to take credit for the amazing series of lessons that culminated in these capstone presentations, they were as actually the brainchild of NYU University Archivist Janet Bunde. I had originally contacted her in hopes of using vintage NYU photos on the American Language Institute’s (ALI’s) Instagram account. A joy to talk to and as enamored of New York City history as I, Janet quickly convinced me to bring a class of ALI students to the archives and have them do a small project. If it worked (and it did!), we would then discuss additional classes and more detailed projects in future semesters.

Fascination reigned as students walked around the reading room’s exhibition, then focused on the library of Juan Carlos Aponte, a 19th century Cuban carpenter, artist, and soldier. My Spanish speakers were delighted to find primary sources in Spanish on display; my Chinese speakers were shocked to discover that Cuba had once had Chinese slaves.

My students then sat at three small tables in a conference room where, with props and projections, Janet explained what archives are and what archivists do. She then had each table look at a different folder of vintage photos and drawings of a target NYU building located across from Washington Square Park:

University Building, 1891; New York University Archives Photograph Collection; box III.3, folder 2, item 1; New York University Archives

  • The original 19th-century NYU building that once stood where the Silver Center now stands (image to the right)
  • 1 Washington Square North, the hub of today’s School of Social Work
  • The NYU Law School at Vanderbilt Hall

With help from Janet and me—although they did not need much—students compared and discussed the pictures, looking at them as historians to glean whatever information they could. After a long and lively discussion as a class once group work ended, we visited and photographed the buildings in their current incarnations.

In addition to their regular classwork, each group had a few weeks to do a little research in English on its building (Moan! Groan! No native language work allowed!) in order to prepare presentations plus some simple writing.

I led up to this by reworking many lessons as models for this type of work.

We had started the semester with picture descriptions that encouraged students to envision the world with cultural perspective, an eye for detail, clock directions (“The woman is sitting at two o’clock”), imagined stories about people in photos, and so on.

We also did a four part interactive history of New York from Native Americans and the arrival of the Dutch to 21st-century New York as a city reborn. Students looked at and discussed

Washington Square North

  • An idealistic version of New Amsterdam (via Washington Irving) vs. the drunk, debauched reality
  • British soldiers and wealthy New Yorkers dancing at high society balls amidst the ruins of Trinity Church, which burned down with one third of the city in 1776
  • Photos of Civil War soldiers from New York sporting sad, expressive eyes into which students looked to read emotions
  • Jacob Riis’ photos of Five Points contrasted with Gilded Age finery
  • The Harlem Renaissance as the birth of modern American culture
  • Anguish in the Sixties from the cries of the underrepresented

and much more. They were surprised that so much of this rich history had not been part of history courses and was unknown even to many Americans. We further focused on the strange and bizarre.

And New York ghosts.

Washington Mews

Later on, we took an interactive walking tour of Greenwich Village beginning at Cooper Square and McSorley’s and ending at the statue of Fiorello LaGuardia. The Washington Mews in particular led to gasps, with every student whipping out a phone in unison to photograph this place they said could not possibly be in Manhattan.

Greenwich Village ghosts abounded.

By the time we met Janet Bunde at the Astor Place Starbucks and went to Bobst Library with her, my students were open to what she was about to teach, ready to be absorbed in a newfound love for history and culture. Mind you, months earlier a number of them had confessed to not reading for pleasure or finding history interesting. It was a win-win situation all around.

It was an educational moment and a New York moment made possible by the New York University Archives.

Perstare et praestare.

One thought on “International Students Fall in Love with New York City and NYU History”

  1. marie honan says:

    What a fantastic project – great for international students AND American-born as well.

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