Second Language is Second Nature at John Jermain Memorial Library

Posted on 08 April 2010


In its first years of existence as Sag Harbor’s community library, John Jermain Memorial Library director Olive Pratt Young offered English as a Second Language for immigrant workers from the Bulova Watchcase Factory, cultivating a foreign language collection that reached 2,000 volumes by 1915. The collection was primarily written in Lithuanian, Polish, German, Italian, Czechoslovakian, Hungarian and French, and at the request of villagers even provided residents a Lithuanian newspaper to thumb through.

“From the first years of the library we were doing this kind of programming and collection development,” said current library director Catherine Creedon.

The library continues its all-inclusive community mission to this day. On Tuesday evenings, JJML hosts a 4 p.m. preparation of naturalization, or the citizenship exam given by the United States government, followed by a two-hour English conversation class, geared towards all nationalities. The programs are free, in large part, Creedon said this week, because library program director Martha Potter and JJML staffer Aracely Garcia are willing to lend their time to the cause, along with volunteers from the community.

A public school teacher in Brooklyn and Northern Westchester for 30 years, Potter came to JJML with the desire to teach English as a Second Language, in part because of a promise she made to her young students as a school teacher – that in retirement she would give back to the community, as she had often preached to her own pupils. Shortly before BOCES shut down its own ESL program in Sag Harbor two years ago, Potter approached the newly-hired Creedon, who was enthusiastic about the prospect.

While JJML’s courses have benefited immigrants from Central and South America, Potter said the program has also served Moroccan, Russian, Korean, Polish and French immigrants, and after two years has jumped from two students a session to 20 on some Tuesday nights, educating roughly 100 in English language.

“We are very flexible and the classes are very flexible,” said Potter, noting students can come and go, some weekly, others attending the course when work and family obligations allow.

Garcia has lived in Sag Harbor for 16 years, but it was after Creedon was hired in 2007 that she became a part of the JJML family. After years as a patron, Creedon hired Garcia, and since that day, the Guatemalan native has actively tried to engage the Latino community with the library. Finding success, and patronage, throughout the Sag Harbor community, Garcia said the Latino community, in particular, feels a level of comfort at the library, in large part due to the staff who welcome everyone with open arms, and more importantly, valuable resources.

Potter’s naturalization class focuses on United States history and the U.S. Constitution – the backbone of the five to 10 questions, out of 100, immigrants vying to become citizens will be asked during their citizenship exam.

The English Conversation Class is taught by both Garcia and Potter, with Garcia leading the beginners class and Potter handling intermediate to advance students. The classes focus largely on conversation as a means of engaging the students, tackling grammar as they become more comfortable with the language. Childcare, provided by Susan Farrell and Creedon, is also free of charge for students.

“What we need to do is recognize that with true literacy, spoken language is just a part of it,” said Creedon, noting in addition to English language, teaching real literacy involves educating patrons about technology and online resources, how to fill out a job application and a resume. “Literacy is really a spectrum of skills.”

In addition to those skills, JJML also tries to provide as many bi-lingual and multi-lingual resources as possible, including a collection of 120 volumes of literature, as well as DVDs. It also hosts a foreign language database, and a travel information program, Global Road Warrior, that Creedon explores herself to understand the intricacies of the culture of a new patron. Websites like, also available at the library, offer GED information, citizenship information, a live tutor and are readily accessible with a library card.

Creedon and Potter dream of having an ongoing children’s bi-lingual reading hour, as well as a GED program for the library as the program expands.

“Aracely is a great gift to us because she understands the challenge of becoming part of a new culture, making a life and having a foot, if not a heart, in two cultures,” said Creedon. “Her gift to this program is what has made the library a comfortable place to come into.”

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