For more than a decade, McLaurin has used the gift of music to teach English to non-native international students at Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh. Her methods have proved both innovative and successful; McLaurin was recently awarded a community college systemwide volunteer award for her ESL classes.
The story goes back farther than just the past decade, however.
“I have to thank Stella for getting me into music,” McLaurin said. “She used to organize what she called ‘the autumn leaf train excursion’ that went between West Jefferson and Abingdon, Va., and I always did my best to go along.”
McLaurin’s musical journey began decades ago, on the Virginia Creeper, while working for Stella Anderson, owner and editor of The Skyland Post, which later became the Jefferson Post.
Those trips included groups of high school students that sang songs and performed for the passengers. “I approached Stella about playing with those groups, so I could go on the train trips,” said McLaurin. “Stella asked me what I played, and I said, ‘Nothing.’ She told me that if I learned to play, I could come along.”
McLaurin, with Sears and Roebuck catalog in hand, set out to find an instrument to play. “I settled on a baritone ukulele because it fit my tiny hands. I learned three or four chords and went back to Stella. True to her word, she included me on the trips,” McLaurin said, laughing.
“We had a lot of fun, and for that I thank Stella; I’ve played ever since. She really believed in young people,” said McLaurin.
Years later, McLaurin again turned to music when seeking a way to connect with international students and share with them the love of Christ. After successful mission trips abroad, McLaurin continually felt the tug to return home.
“I had such a heart for internationals, but I just kept feeling like I needed to return home to Raleigh,” said McLaurin. “I couldn’t quite figure it out. I felt like we were doing good work, but something always told me I needed to come back to the States.”
McLaurin said a chance introduction to an English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor sparked her imagination; after an ESL certification earned at Duke University, McLaurin started her volunteer work mere blocks from her home.
“Here I’d spent so much time trying to figure out how to help people around the world,” said McLaurin, “and I never saw that so many people could use my help just down the road. I walked four blocks from my house to the classroom. The Lord had brought my international work to Raleigh.”
The first year, McLaurin worked with people from 91 different nations, but only introduced music after it was mentioned by another ESL teacher.
“The students seemed to enjoy it, and it seemed to help, so I went to six different ESL classes a week, and we’d work with the students on songs,” said McLaurin.
Today, she helps students to write songs in English and perform them.
“These people come from so many different cultures, and it’s a bittersweet experience for many of them,” said McLaurin. “We try to provide language lessons and encouragement, so they could tell their stories and express what they’re feeling in this new place.”
McLaurin said helping students write songs about their life in their home country, and the challenges they face in their new home, provides an emotional hook that helps people learn English.
“There is music in every culture, it crosses borders,” said McLaurin. “We just help people take everything they’re feeling and put it to song. It’s emotional and gives the students confidence that they can be successful learning English.”
So far, McLaurin seems to be breaking new ground in the ESL field.
“We’ve talked with ESL teachers all across the nation, and nobody else seems to be doing it quite like this,” said McLaurin. “We seem to be the first that use music in this manner.”
McLaurin’s efforts even extend beyond the classroom to include organizing trips for international students that help them feel more at home in the United States, including bringing groups of students to western North Carolina, and West Jefferson.
“We try to open someone’s home for lunch or dinner, so the students can get an idea what a typical American home might be like,” said McLaurin. “It helps the students get acclimated quicker, and it’s so much fun.”
McLaurin said she plans to continue using music in the classroom, and hopes to create teaching material that might help spread the method to other classrooms.
“We have so much fun, and music seems to be very helpful in teaching,” said McLaurin. “I’d like to spread the method, so other ESL teachers can try it, too.”