Cornella Ver Halen ’83: Teaching ESL With a Novella and a Rolling Chair

Cornella Ver Halen sits across a wood desk from a student and has an open spiral notebook in front of her as she explains something. Ver Halen has short white hair and wears glasses and a black jacket vest over a blue long-sleeved shirt.
Cornella Ver Halen ’83. Photo courtesy of Tri-Community Adult Education/Pioneer Center.

Claremont, Calif. (April 26, 2023)—As a teacher, Pitzer alumna Cornella Ver Halen ’83 did not stand by a whiteboard and lecture to students snoozing at their desks. Instead, she rolled. Her chair’s little wheels squeaked as she maneuvered to sit beside each student and guide them through whatever they were working on in their workbooks.

This was Ver Halen’s teaching style for over 50 years. Until her retirement in December 2022, she was an English as a Second Language (ESL) and sewing teacher at Tri-Community Adult Education/Pioneer Center in Covina.

“In the early days, people were teaching ESL like you teach a foreign language,” said Ver Halen. “You only teach a foreign language to the best students in high school. In an ESL class, you might have a student who is a professor next to someone who only went to school for three years. You cannot teach them the same.”

When people are experiencing culture shock and coming into the classroom with different abilities, ESL is not one-size-fits-all.

“By working one on one, I let them progress at their own speed,” said Ver Halen. “I said if I couldn’t make grammar interesting, I would quit. I think I succeeded.”

Indeed, students became so enthusiastic that they would chase after Ver Halen when she rolled away.

“I’d say ‘I have no reverse on this chair,’ so they would hop onto the next empty chair to see me a second time,” said Ver Halen.

“In an ESL class, you might have a student who is a professor next to someone who only went to school for three years. You cannot teach them the same.”

Cornella Ver Halen ’83

Ver Halen said she became more creative when she started writing a novella for her class. She left the verbs blank for her students to fill in and presented them with a chapter every week. Her story opens with an interior designer who is supposed to meet her attorney husband at a charity benefit—only for a police detective to tell her that her husband died in a car accident.

“The characters came alive,” said Ver Halen. “My class kept saying, ‘Give us more!’ I’ll try to get it published as a textbook for English someday.”

Ver Halen was a nontraditional student as well as a nontraditional teacher. She attended college for a year before getting married and raising four sons. After her divorce, she resumed her studies to learn how to teach ESL better. When she took every possible community college class, she started courses at a Cal State, but she was told to submit an SAT score. She had never heard of this test.

When she was told by an administrative assistant that the SAT was used “to see if you’re college ready,” Ver Halen offered a frank reply: “I transferred from a community college, doesn’t that tell you?”

She had to go to a local high school to take the SAT, and this was frustrating; she was ready to quit. Her aunt offered to support her and her kids if she continued her education, so Ver Halen decided to try a private college. Ver Halen joined the New Resources program at Pitzer, which didn’t ask for test scores.

“They gave me classes that helped me become a better teacher,” said Ver Halen. “Sometimes there were only 10 or 12 students in a class, so we had lots of personal attention. Everyone was so helpful, and I just loved it there.”

After finishing her coursework in sociology, linguistics, and cognitive science, Ver Halen earned her degree at the age of 51. Since then, she has poured her heart and energy into many students over the years. She even hosted students at her home when her sons moved out, and some have become like family.

Ver Halen has also loved giving hands-on instruction in sewing. After her fourth son was born, she took a two-year masterclass from a designer trained in Paris who had converted her garage into a school. Ver Halen learned how to make beautiful clothes and passed on her knowledge. She continues teaching sewing and English from her own home to this day.

“Some beautiful quilts have been made at my house by people who have never sewed before,” said Ver Halen. “I love to see people learn and produce things.”

Teaching is Ver Halen’s lifelong calling, and she will continue opening the door for anyone who is ready to learn.

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