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New Horizons

Finding a Common Language

Nadine Simpson

Elizabeth Cygan’s ESL classes are a learning experience for her as well as for her students.

When she could not fall asleep one night, instead of counting sheep, Elizabeth Cygan was in her kitchen counting out cups of flour in an effort to duplicate a Hungarian apricot roll-up that one of her students had brought to class.

That student was a grandmother from Eastern Europe who brought the dessert to a holiday party Cygan hosted for the community ESL program. Cygan asked for the recipe, but it was in Hungarian, so she attempted it using a basic recipe she found in a cookbook she had.

Although her student had noted that her success was due to an Austrian type of spoon and flour, Cygan made do with pre-sifted flour, orange marmalade and confectioners sugar, and what utensils she had available.

“My version was not quite as good,” she admits. “It really is an experience to share other’s culture, food and tradition, but attempting to duplicate never succeeds as well as done by a native.”

For 28 years, Cygan worked as a guidance counselor and special education teacher at Ephraim Curtis Middle School in Sudbury, Massachusetts. After retiring in 2003, she found she missed teaching.

She soon became involved with the Literacy Volunteers of America chapter in Framingham. After earning her certification, she decided to become a trainer herself.

“I used to get a lot of kids who didn’t speak English and we didn’t have ESL in school so I sort of got to teach them. It [was] a natural fit,” she says.

In addition to Cygan, there are other retired teachers involved in the program. Julie Heagney, the coordinator of Literacy Unlimited in Framingham, says about a third of retirees who volunteer for LVA were once teachers.

Cygan’s weekly class meets in the local library for an hour and a half. Typically, between six and 14 students attend.

“People aren’t obligated to come . . .  It takes guts to come out to a class like this,” she says.

Apparently, there are a lot of people in the Framingham area who are similarly brave, because the program is successful to the point of a waiting list to get into it. According to Heagney, there are currently 350 students and 300 tutors. “We could always use more tutors,” she says.

In addition to group meetings like Cygan’s, the program also operates on a one-on-one level. “We have to test all the people in the program,” says Sherry Glatfelter, the testing coordinator and one of the program’s trainers.

“We have a short interview with a student to find out their goals and once we have a tutor, we match them with the tutor.”

Students come from a variety of backgrounds. “I’ve had women from Bolivia, Cuba and Algeria, and Japan and China and Thailand, Brazil, Colombia, etc,” says Cygan.

The classes provide a laid-back atmosphere. “It’s a drop-in program,” she says. “Either I’ll give a lesson or we’ll just talk.”

She loves the cultural discussions and sharing of ethnic foods. She remembers showing a class how and why Thanksgiving is celebrated and they shared their traditions for Christmas, New Year’s and other holidays that were important to them.

Over the years, she has enjoyed them all, but there are some that immediately stand out from the rest.

An example is a Russian group she once taught.

“They were all over 80, and we had two married couples. We just had the best time,” she says. “One of them couldn’t hear, and he was a doctor in World War II, and his wife was a soprano with the Leningrad opera. They were all college–educated, some even had Ph.D.s.”

The class is among the highlights of each week for Cygan. “I love my job. That’s why I can’t get away from teaching.”

Though she says it doesn’t quite match up to the cake her Hungarian student shared with the ESL class, Elizabeth Cygan found this recipe makes a good runner-up.

Jelly-Roll Cake


4 eggs
3/4 cup sifted cake flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 cup raspberry preserves
Confectioner’s sugar


  1. In a small bowl set the eggs to warm up to room temperature.
  2. Preheat oven to 400, grease jelly roll pan and line with wax paper.
  3. Sift flour, salt and baking powder-into separate bowl.
  4. At hi speed beat eggs until lemony color; add 2 Tbs. sugar at a time and beat 5 minutes more until very thick.
  5. Gently fold flour mixture into eggs with scraper.
  6. 6. Turn into prepared pan-smoothe out.and bake 9 minutes.
  7. On a clean towel sift confectioners sugar; invert pan onto sugar and peel back wax paper.
  8. Starting at narrow end roll up cake (towel and all)-place seam side down on wire rack-cool for 20 minutes.
  9. Unroll cake and remove towel. Spread with preserves (filling) and roll up again.
  10. Place on serving plate, seam side down; let stand covered at least an hour.
  11. To serve: Sift confectioners sugar over top; slice on diagonal.
  12.  Serve with chilled sweetened heavy whipped cream.

Makes 8-10 servings.

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