Communication connection

I’m starting to see a connection with all the classes I’ve been taking on my own, the art I’ve been making, and the tutoring I’m doing. It is all about communication – in as many different ways as possible. It is about giving other people permission, as well as different ways, to express themselves.

Pastoral care, the Circle Process, Dialogue in Diversity training, the Remo Healthrhythms Facilitator training – they are all classes I’ve paid for. Tutoring and the classes I’ve taught in prayer bracelets – that has been without pay (mostly) and taken my free time. This is all in addition to working a full-time job.

Something has driven me to take these classes, but I didn’t know what the unifying theme was until now. At the heart of it, all conversation is about communion – our connection with each other, with our own selves, with the Divine. If that sounds too out there, I can say it is about connection to yourself and others.

And that is part of it too. I want to include as many people at once. All races, all cultures, all levels of understanding and ability. This involves learning about different ways of learning, different cultural norms, different myths and legends that shape us. This involves leveling the playing field for everybody – nobody is higher. We are all working together.

I also want people to be able to express themselves not only so they will feel understood, but so that they will understand themselves. Just because English is your native language doesn’t mean that you feel comfortable communicating in it. You may write well, but don’t like speaking out loud. You may speak well, but are embarrassed about your handwriting. Or you can’t spell because you are dyslexic.

I want to remove all of these barriers between people. I want to learn as many tools as possible to get people not only talking with each other but also listening to themselves. Dance, singing, drumming, fingerpainting, puppetry, beading – whatever. I want to learn as many ways to communicate as possible.

It is critical to get out feelings. I believe that unexpressed feelings are the source of all addiction and many diseases. I believe that giving people different ways to communicate is as important as providing equal access to buildings by making them handicap accessible.

We are all handicapped in one way or another. Written and spoken language is artificial. We aren’t born speaking or writing our “native” language. It is an arbitrary system of sounds and shapes assigned to the things around us. It is symbolic, and often difficult to use.

ESL and LD tutoring

When I first started tutoring, I thought I was just going to work with ESL students.

There are a surprising number of people from all around the world who move to Nashville. In my little suburb there are people from China, Somalia, Uzbekistan, and the Congo, as well as people from Mexico. They either bring their children with them, or they give birth to them here. Either way, they are entitled to a free public education.

Going to school for the first time is hard enough. Not sharing the same language as your classmates and teacher is extra hard.

Sometimes the class is comprised entirely of children who don’t have English as their first language. Sometimes the ESL children and the EL children are mixed together. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.

I never thought of myself as an ESL tutor, much less a tutor to kindergartners, but I’d been praying about a way to help others and this opened up. Helping people assimilate is one of the many ways to make the world better.

So many people say “Why don’t they learn our language?” when talking about immigrants, but they don’t take the time to teach “them” the language. Learning a language is very hard and it takes a lot of time. You can try to teach yourself, but working with another person is the best way. Be part of the solution, you know.

I was helping a man from Haiti get his library card. He had a friend with him who was helping out. I was explaining things in English, but somehow how I was explaining it got in. His friend noticed and commented that I should be an ESL teacher.

All Metro employees had been offered the opportunity to volunteer in the schools for an hour a week on work time, so I contacted a patron who teaches ESL kindergartners. She was delighted to have me help. I think she was delighted to have help, period. I did all the paperwork and started as soon as I could.

Something I quickly realized was that I didn’t have to know the child’s language at all in order to help them. I have to know mine. Their goal is to learn to read and write in English. So it had nothing to do with my ability with their language. That was helpful to realize, and got me over my fear.

Teaching is scary. You never know if you are doing it right. What works with one student totally bombs with another. There is never enough time, and there are never enough tutors. You just keep on trying. You just keep on showing up.

Then I noticed that the teacher kept assigning me students who spoke English as a first language but were struggling for some reason. I balked at first. I thought I was there for the ESL kids. But the more I worked with these other kids, the more I realized I was needed for them as well. I was often able to diagnose a learning disability before anyone else had caught it. This resulted in an early intervention and a better outcome.

I tutored students with learning disabilities when I was in college. I’ve come to realize that almost every job since has involved helping people who have a hard time communicating or expressing themselves. I hadn’t planned this. It just happened. I don’t have any training for this. It is just something I have a knack for.

The funny thing is that I’ve come to realize that ESL and LD are the same thing. They both represent a disability to process ideas into the symbolic language of speech and letters. The letters and sounds of any language are arbitrary and invented. They are not natural. They are an agreed-upon construct that we use to communicate with each other. It is totally normal that some people would have a hard time with these symbols. The only problem is that these particular symbols aren’t optional.

Being able to communicate is essential. While I’m for offering people multiple ways to express themselves such as through art and music, language is a cornerstone. It is something that we all share, and is the basis for much of our culture.

If people cannot communicate they get frustrated. This leads to tension and anger. It is essential that people are able to express what they feel, not only to get it out, but to share it with others. They need to be able to understand themselves, and make themselves understood.

So I’m really not teaching people how to read and write, so much as how to interact with other people in this culture, using English as a bridge. It doesn’t matter whether they come from this culture or not.

On tutoring ESL (and other) kindergartners.

Some of you may be wondering what I do when I tutor ESL kindergartners. I was wondering that myself when I started three years ago. I thought that I would just be reading to them. Boy was I wrong. Reading is the last thing I do.

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At first I was concerned how was I going to communicate with them. I’m not fluent in other languages. I know a smattering of several languages but not enough to really I interact for a long time. Plus, some of the kids start with languages that use different alphabets. I finally realized that I don’t have to know their language or alphabet. I have to know mine. And I know mine pretty well. I have clear handwriting, a clear voice, and a degree in English. I’ve tutored students with learning disabilities. This all helps. But mostly what helps is a desire to help them learn, and a willingness to try anything to get this information in. Half of my job is just showing up and trying whatever works.

There are children from the Congo, Uzbekistan, Ethiopia, and Mexico. I was amazed when I first started how many people from all around the world make my little section of Nashville home. I’ve come to realize that is part of what makes Nashville so amazing.

I also tutor kids whose first language is English. I tutor whoever needs me. Often the English-speakers need me because they have other issues going on. Some are possibly dyslexic. Some get no attention at home because their parents are not really ready or able to be parents.

The teacher gives me lists of who to work with and what to work on. I use this as a guideline. Sometimes the child will see something else in my basket of “tools” and want to use that. Sometimes they will not want anything hard at all and they just want to have me read books to them or go over their ABCs. I have to be flexible, yet also aware when they are just trying to play and not work at all.

Here are some examples of the lists. WordPress might have turned these around. The uploader isn’t doing what I want today, but something, even turned sideways, is better than nothing.

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We have different games we use to teach them. I don’t invent these games. The teacher provides them to me on the day I arrive and I use them with the kids. I’m glad that she has all this figured out. Sometimes it takes a while for me to understand what I’m supposed to do with these games, but eventually it makes sense.

I started tutoring for one basic reason. I realized I was saying “How come they don’t learn our language?” way too much. I turned it around and said “How come I’m not teaching them our language?” There are a lot of immigrants here, and a lot of them don’t know English. They can’t speak it or read it. Sometimes they can’t read at all, even in their own language. It is common for people to expect government offices to accommodate them with their different languages. Rather than expecting each employee to have to learn each different language, it makes more sense for us to take the time to teach them English. Work on one language rather than thirty. It seemed easiest to start with children. I can’t teach everybody, but I’ll do what I can.

We use all sorts of tools, and they look like toys.
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Here’s something that helps with vocabulary. The items are in a brown paper bag.

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A child will put her hand in and I’ll ask her to find a specific item without looking. In this particular bag are a bat, a pig, and an egg.

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When she pulls out an item, we then match it up with the card and we use plastic letters to spell the word. They learn vocabulary, and that these letters represent this thing. They also get to practice fine motor skills.

We have a sight word slap game.

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There are words they should recognize by a certain part of the year, and this is a fun way to practice. They get a bug swatter and words on a sheet, in ladybugs. I call out a word and the child has to find it and swat it. It can get really exciting when there are two kids playing this together.

There is a neat plastic board with removable letters.

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The letters have little teeth on them that fit with the orange pieces. The orange pieces have pictures on them. We figure out what the word is and then try to match the sound of the word to the letters. The teeth in the orange piece fit the teeth in the letters, so it is self-correcting.

We always read books at the end. They are very simple books. I’m delighted when they get to the point that they can actually read the book to me and not just figure out the story from the pictures.

Towards the end of our time together I can tell they are getting tired. There is only so much one-on-one intense work they can handle. I’ll ask them if they want to go back to class or do something else like read another book. I always make sure they know that they have control. I am there for them, not the other way around.

After each child is through for the day I say “Thank you for working with me.” I realize that it is hard work for them. I’m grateful that they try so hard.

Here are some of them from the first year. They made “glasses” and were wearing them. I love the fact that I see some of them in the hallway when classes are changing and they still recognize me.

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A note on spelling –
Here’s the funny bit. Nobody seems to know what is the standard spelling for what to call kids in kindergarten. Sometimes the spelling is “kindergartener” and sometimes it is “kindergartner”. One spell-checker will challenge me on one, and another will challenge me on another. Whatever. So if I mix it up, it isn’t me.

Easy (schooled by a kindergartner)

I have tutored ESL kindergartners for two years now. I participate in a program that is sponsored by the Mayor of my city. He allows Metro employees to tutor in Metro schools on work time for an hour a week. Since I have a degree in English and I’ve tutored students with learning disabilities before, I thought this would be a great thing to do. I paired up with a ESL kindergarten teacher that I knew from my work who is fun and enthusiastic. I wanted to support her in her mission.

The first year I was tutoring ESL students from as close as Mexico and as far away as Uzbekistan. There were some students who were from America that needed a little extra help as well, as the class has a mixed skill level. Many of these children had never been to school or been away from their parents before. There was a lot for them to learn, and it wasn’t all letters and numbers.

But there was also a lot that they taught me.

I remember one time it was raining very hard. I had two girls, one after the other, who wanted easy work. There was something about the rain that made them want to retreat, to not push. It is like comfort food, the easy work.

I had a range of tools to work with. The easy stuff was a board with magnetic letters. We could make words with it or just write out the alphabet and sing the song. I needed it for some of the other students on my list that day, but I was surprised that Mariela and Maftuna both wanted this easy work. They had gotten past that level a month earlier. But today they both insisted on working on the ABCs and singing the song.

I was amazed, and a little frustrated. I wanted them to work, to push, to grow – not to take it easy and go backwards.

I expressed my frustration with Maftuna, the second girl. Why do you want this? This is easy. You can do more than this.

And this tiny girl, this 5 year old who had just learned English this year, looked at me and thought about it. She figured out how to say her mind with the few words she had so far.

She said “It’s easy for you” with the emphasis on the last word.

True. You got me. It is easy for me. But it is hard for her. I’d forgotten. I wasn’t seeing it from her perspective.

This tiny girl with the dark eyes and serious face schooled me.

Maftuna reminded me that not everything is always easy for everyone. Sometimes we need a break. Sometimes we need to retreat to old standbys. Sometimes we need the simple stuff. And sometimes we forget that just because it is easy for us doesn’t mean it is easy for someone else.

We forget how much work we had to put in to get where we are. The marathoner may not know how to encourage the starting runner. The master gardener may not remember how hard it is to get the mix of fertilizer right to keep the plants alive. Sometimes you have done something so often and for so long you don’t even remember how you got to where you are.

Part of compassion is seeing things from other people’s viewpoints. Sometimes that means literally getting down to their level. That day I was put in my place by a 5 year old from Uzbekistan. And I’m glad. She gave me a gift that day.