"Did everyone do their homework?" Kathy Diaz asked a group of 12 Latino women sitting in a small classroom at Sacred Heart Church on Thursday afternoon.
"Yes," the women replied in unison.
Last week, Diaz, a California State University, Stanislaus, master's student, began to offer an English class in the south Merced church. The 40-year-old Merced resident is getting her degree in English with an emphasis in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.
Diaz has taught English to non-native speakers before. She said she saw the need in south Merced and decided to volunteer her time to teach the class, which is held once a week and runs for 12 more weeks.
She approached the Rev. Alex Chavez of Sacred Heart Church about hosting the program, and he offered the space. She also reached out to the Merced County Community Action Agency for support to make the class possible.
"This class is very needed in the south side," Diaz said.
English classes need to be more accessible for people in that part of town, she added.
"They are motivated to learn it," she said. "They want to talk with their children and their grandchildren."
Carolina Martinez-Ramirez, 59, said the interest that Diaz has placed on her students has motivated her. She said Diaz makes them feel comfortable.
Most importantly, she wants to make the effort to learn English to better herself. She felt it was time to take advantage of the opportunity, especially since the class falls on a day she doesn't work.
"It is necessary," she said in Spanish. "It's important because we are in this country. We need to try to improve ourselves."
Rosario Ayala, 51, said she knows how to read and write English a little bit, but doesn't know how to speak it. The conversational English class seemed a perfect fit for her to learn and practice speaking the language.
"I want to be able to talk with my sons and my grandsons," she said in Spanish. "This was really needed."
Patience earns praise
Rosa Del Real, 59, said the method Diaz is using to teach the class is helpful.
"The teacher has a lot of patience," she said in Spanish.
During class, Diaz asked the women, "What is this?"
The women responded, "Table."
Thursday, the women learned how to say the names of the objects inside the classroom.
Diaz said she developed the lessons on her own, but she used some material from her adviser, Stephen Stryker.
The class involves physical movement, such as pointing to things and walking to the objects they are talking about. The women get to listen and speak in a comfortable environment.
Diaz said it's very stressful to learn a second language. She tries to bring down her students' anxiety so they can concentrate on the material and understand what's taking place in the classroom.
"To bring down their fear of learning a language," she said. "They seem to enjoy it."
Brenda Callahan-Johnson, executive director of the Merced County Community Action Agency, said Diaz reached out to her by email.
She said many organizations contact her for assistance, but Diaz's request touched her because it's aligned with the agency's mission of helping people become self-sufficient and giving back to the community.
Callahan-Johnson said she also realized there's a need for such services. The agency is helping Diaz get the classroom supplies.
"I think that language barriers are one of the key things in Merced County that keep people in poverty," she said. "Because it stops you from getting jobs ... it makes you insecure about what you can do."
Diaz's hope is that the class participants will have more confidence in going out and interacting with other people in English after they complete the 14-week program.
"They've been very responsive," she said.
Minutes before class ended, Diaz gave them their homework assignment -- to name 10 body parts in English.
The women got their notebooks and began to write down their homework assignment. Some who didn't understand turned to their neighbors and asked them in Spanish to explain the assignment.
Besides working together to figure it out, the students will benefit from this homework assignment in another important way: It will prove helpful when they go see the doctor because "they don't know how to describe the parts that hurt," Diaz said.
Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or firstname.lastname@example.org.