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Growing up in Texas, Cameron Allen knew he wanted to be a teacher.
How could Allen be the best teacher possible in Texas? Where could he make the most impact?
He got a higher education in both English and Spanish—an effort that planted a “seed” for his desire to help Spanish-speakers of all ages gain a path to better, healthier lives.
Growing the seeds of knowledge
Allen began his collegiate career studying early childhood education at UT Austin in 2002.
He also minored in Spanish, and did student teaching and studying in Mexico and in Ecuador. This strongly influenced his life and career.
“It exposed me to another part of the world, to another culture, to another way of life,” Allen said. “It opened my eyes to other possibilities and to what could really be done through education.”
Also, while in Austin (34.5% Latino), Allen saw many Latino immigrant families arrive in Texas and struggle with English. Of the 23.7 million people in Texas who are age 5 or older, more than one-third speak a language other than English at home (mostly Spanish), The Texas Tribune reported.
Learning English can have many benefits, according to the New York Language Learning Center:
- help people find work;
- help young students fit in with their English-speaking peers;
- have the ability to understand their rights, responsibilities, and benefits as residents of the U.S.; and
- provide a way for everyone to better understand differing cultures.
When Allen moved on to study at Harvard, this issue continued freshly in his mind.
As part of master-degree thesis at Harvard, he discussed how he wanted to “inspire and facilitate cultivation in learners of all ages.” He recognized Spanish-only speakers back in Austin were in danger of being left behind because of their lack of English ability.
He returned to Austin, excited to begin his teaching career.
“Coming back to Austin, I felt that [teaching English as a second language] was my best bet for making a difference,” Allen said.
He began teaching at American Youthworks School in Austin in 2009. He met and learned from other teachers who valued teaching English as a second language to all ages.
“I started teaching a part-time adult ESL class through a program called EL/Civics, a federally-funded program, English Literacy/Civics,” Allen said. “I started by creating curriculum based on the work of Paulo Freire and others, and initially worked with a group of five amazing and diverse women. They taught me a great deal, mostly about how much I had to learn.”
After discussing their varied philosophies on teaching, Allen had a big idea…
Expand options for adult English language learners (ELL).
“The one thing I really noticed was that people from a certain group or background tended to learn ‘better,’ if you will, from someone of a similar background,” Allen said.
“I wanted to find a way to minimize the role that the teacher has as the one in charge of everything in a classroom, and I wanted to make the learners more involved in the process.”
But how could he start his own adult ELL program?
Finding a safe space for learning
Allen envisioned a new program.
He wanted to do far more than teach English as a second language (although that’s the foundation). These three concepts emerged:
- Language Classes: English as a second language (ESL) or other Language (ESOL) classes.
- Students as Teachers: The learner becomes the teacher, exploring education and curriculum theory while creating and implementing courses related to passions, skills, or questions.
- Family Engagement: Work with families to better navigate the K-12 school system, including the language and customs.
“I had seen and was energized by the beauty in getting out of the way as a teacher and letting learners lead during our time at American YouthWorks,” Allen said.
First, Allen needed space.
Through connections with his fellow educators, he learned of vacant spaces/portable buildings at Houston Elementary School in Austin Independent School District in the largely Latino Dove Springs neighborhood in South Austin.
His connections helped introduce him to school administrators.
He told them what he wanted to do—create a new learning environment for adult ELL students, many of which lived in the surrounding neighborhood.
“It wasn’t the traditional setting for adult learning, but I think the administration understood the value of having these types of classes,” he said. “If the parents of these students could become more engaged and involved, then it would ‘lift up’ their children and enhance their educational experience.”
He made several presentations to the school and Austin ISD school board.
After several months of negotiations, he started SEED Adult & Family Learning Community in Austin. The program, from the beginning, knew it wanted to provide a different type of learning environment. The foundation of education that The Seed is built on is offering English as a Second or Other Language (ESOL) classes. He recruited fellow teachers from those he knew shared his vision.
Teaching, though, would be different than at any other place he had been. SEED learners and teachers would hold “meaningful discussions” rather than have rote lesson plans and standardized testing. Participants are pushed to be aware of being “embedded” in their learning experience, this helps them develop a deeper understanding and context of what they are learning.
“SEED is an attempt to democratize our community, allowing everybody to participate as leaders, learners, and teachers,” Allen said. “Emotionally I think it was the same one might feel on a roller coaster or skydiving. I had so much faith in the community to do the work of building a powerful organization, but I couldn’t help but think it was kind of a crazy decision to start without funding, a building, or an organizational infrastructure.”
Growing from small beginnings
Initially, it was hard to find participants. But as it began to be promoted by the students of the school, word soon spread and soon he found adult students.
With just him and a handful of volunteers leading the way, SEED was off and running.
“We tried to be creative in the way we did our outreach,” he said. “We started a community garden at the school, we did small fundraisers through grassroots events, we even sold chicarrones plates. Eventually, for one reason or another, people found us.”
SEED was officially granted its 501(c)(3) status in 2016.
“I’ve been dedicated to making a go of it with our participants as my partners since then, and it continues to reinforce my belief that people will – when given actual power and space – build and lead amazing programs,” Allen said.
“While I still have moments in which I recognize that what we’re doing is kind of bonkers, to do it otherwise would dishonor our principles.”
Since that time, they have branched out across the city with other ESL programs, thanks to a partnership with the Literacy Coalition of Central Texas and the Goodwill Industries of Central Texas. They now offer ESL Workshops for adults (age 17-50) at the Goodwill Excel Center in Austin.
“A lot of the people that come here have been living in the country for decades,” Allen said. “They didn’t become engaged in anything outside of the bubble that they have had to live in because they didn’t have a grasp of the language. Giving them access to the rest of the world thanks to an understanding of English is truly empowering and it makes everything we’ve gone through completely worthwhile.”
Hundreds of students have come to the classes of SEED.
Many find the offices at Houston Elementary as a home away from home—a safe place to congregate, talk, and learn, Allen said.
“We rarely say no to potential participants. Technically, we serve adults 18 and up and their children or grandchildren who don’t yet attend school,” he explained. “We expect people to try to attend the core class in the morning from Monday through Friday. There are exceptions, of course, but the majority of folks attend at least 12 hours per week.”
Many of the former students are now helping as coordinators and facilitators with the program, including long-time associates of SEED Rocío Valderrábano and Lupita Gonzalez.
“I have been living in the United States for about seven years,” said Gonzalez. “I’m a student, I’m a mom, I’m a sister, I’m a woman who wants to grow, and that is why I’m here in this program learning English. The English language is the base to improve my goals.”
With SEED continuing to grow each and every year, Allen is always looking forward to the future.
“One of the mottos I have on our website is ‘education and action are simultaneous ways of being,’” Allen said. “I hope that SEED will always be growing, always be teaching, and always helping make the world a better place.”
Can you plant a SEED in your community?!
Giving [people] access to the rest of the world thanks to an understanding of English is truly empowering and it makes everything we’ve gone through completely worthwhile.Cameron Allen
Founder, SEED Center
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This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
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