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Profiles in Volunteering: Teaching English to Immigrants

While instructing Latin American adults, a writer gets a second chance to teach

By Barbara Bedway | August 2, 2013

This is the latest in Next Avenue’s series: Profiles in Volunteering. Earlier pieces featured a stoneworker, a '60s activist who now advises abused mothers and children, a submarine tour guide and a former software engineer who now volunteers in many ways.
 
Graham Greene wrote, “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” In my case, that moment arrived when my 72-year-old Lebanese grandmother asked me, at age 6, to help her learn to read.

She was eager to communicate in the language of the country she migrated to as a young woman but had never learned. Her near-reverence of the power of language no doubt figured into my becoming a writer, but I’ve long wished I could’ve been a better English teacher for her. 
 
(MORE: Tips for Becoming a Teacher in Your Second Career)
 
A Second Chance to Teach English
 
Five decades later, when a friend tells me about her volunteer work teaching English to adult immigrants through the One to One Learning Program – a not-for-profit in Nyack, N.Y., founded by the Dominican Congregation of Our Lady of the Rosary in nearby Sparkill, my second chance arrives.
 
I start my volunteer work as a teacher in early December, offering free, 90-minute classes one evening a week. About 10 others and I conduct our sessions in a conference center dining hall, each of us heading a table with adult students from Nicaragua, Ecuador, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic.
 
Because I’ve arrived in the middle of the school year, my preparation has been compressed into a single intense session with One to One’s indomitable director, Sister Cecilia La Pietra.
 
Hace una frase. “Make a sentence."
 
Sister Cecilia urges me to get the students speaking and writing basic English sentences right away.
 
Changing the Course’s Course
 
She’d planned for me to do something simple at my first session – to read a play with some advanced students in a separate room – but the evening’s influx of new students causes her to change course.
 
Sister Cecilia deploys her teachers, who range from high school students to retirees, like a grandmaster strategist as she tries to group people of similar skill levels together in a constantly shifting landscape of new arrivals. No one is turned away.
 
(MORE: Turning Volunteer Work Into an Encore Career)
 
I quickly learn to be a utility player and adapt my English lessons to whomever I’m matched up with.
 
Challenges With Pupil No. 1
 
My first student is Nube, in her early 20s and newly arrived in the United States from Guatemala. We start slowly with the alphabet and essential, explanatory phrases: My name is. My address is.
 
The alphabet is a tad boring to repeat over and over, especially at this time of night, so it seems almost natural to start singing the letters back and forth in a kind of call-and-response to keep things interesting.
 
Certain sounds are instant challenges.
 
Spanish words that have an "s + consonant" near the beginning often start with an "e" as the first letter, so the all-important “United States” requires some oral gymnastics for Nube to avoid saying “United Estates.” 
 
After my exaggerated mouth contortions fail to be of much help, I try a more athletic approach.
 
This involves getting Nube to take a sort of running jump at the word by means of a long hissing sound that gets her over the hump between “United” and right into the single “s” of States. It works. High fives between us.
 
Body Language
 
After Christmas, Nube stops coming and, for a while, I have Doris, Carmen, Alida and Luis as pupils. That’s the week we spend on body parts. How many arms, legs, feet, hands, do you have? Hace una frase.
 
Alida slyly insists she has four of everything. She is of course pregnant, which everyone in the group has noticed but me.
 
(MORE: What Will You Do With the Rest of Your Life?)

Toward the end of class, I let my students turn the tables and ask me questions. 
 
Right away, I’m asked: Am I soltera, single? I am not.
 
All in the Family
 
No lesson or activity sparks such a torrent of conversational offerings as the subject of family.
 
Do I have children? I do, one son. 
 
They show me on their cell phones pictures of their parents, siblings and children and tell me their names. Some near, some muy lejos, far away. We have stumbled into our lesson on contrarios: opposites.
 
My own antediluvian cell phone quite neatly illustrates the concept of contrarios: “My cell phone is cheap. It is not expensive.”
 
At one point Sister Cecilia conveniently circles by, and we include her in our opposites: “Sister Cecilia is not married. She is single.”
 
Sister Cecilia does have two arms and two legs, but we all agree she needs many more because on this night we have many students and a problem: The lights in the building where the students’ children are being cared for while their parents study have gone out again.
 
For a time, my group is joined by Luis’ 6-year-old brother, Angelo, who carries a Star Wars book and is happy to thumb through the pictures while rolling his eyes at our conversation using opposites.
 
A Life in Four Sentences
 
We talk about jobs: They're housecleaners, manicurists; they work in a chicken factory, in construction. Work begins early; it never begins late.
 
By June, I’m down to one student, Greis, 29, from Guatemala. She cleans three houses a day and always arrives at class on time with homework completed and questions like “What is the difference between close the window and clothes that you wear?”
 
She is happy to write out for me the names of her brothers and sisters: Mayra, Yadeni, Yaqui, Esteysi, Estuardo. Her daughter has the most beautiful name of all: Genesis Juliana.

Tomorrow, Greis must take her to school for a kindergarten interview, so she is especially, intensely focused tonight. She gets all questions correct using "is there/are there" and completes all the workbook questions about what is in Jane's living room. (Is there a desk? Are there books on the sofa?)
 
Hace una frase. Make a sentence or two about your own life, I tell her; this is our last class together.
 
Never doubt how moving a sentence can be when it's composed of simple nouns, the present tense and a beating heart:
 
I have a daughter. She is 5 years old.  She is my life. We work hard for a better future.
 
Barbara Bedway is a writer in Nyack, N.Y., whose work has appeared previously on Next Avenue. Her essays and fiction will appear in the forthcoming Talking Through the Door: An Anthology of Contemporary Middle Eastern Writing, from Syracuse University Press.

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