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International Welcome Wagon

Teaching English one-on-one is about a lot more than grammar

By Miriam Axel-Lute

Tutors and friends: (l-r) Linda Chaffee, Tatiana and Alex Gusarova, Connie Doran. Photo: John Whipple

Laughter rings through the small side room full of old books and maps in the Guilderland Public Library. It is a Tuesday morning, and Tatiana Gusarova is explaining to her English-language conversation group about Albany’s sister city in Russia, Tula.

“It’s south of Moscow,” explains the Russian native, who has deep crows’ feet around her eyes as testament to her ready smile and jovial nature. “Is small town, like Albany.” A wave of hilarity bursts out. Gusarova, laughing herself and only mildly embarrassed, protests, “Compared to New York, St. Petersburg!”

“Now, I live in Altamont,” begins Dorothy Sager, one of the volunteers, but before she can continue, Gusarova breaks in in a mock-reassuring voice, “Oh, Altamont is big.”

The conversation group meets every other week under the auspices of Literacy Volunteers of America’s Mohawk/Hudson chapter, which covers Albany and Schenectady counties. The group’s membership is fluid and varies from week to week; students use it to supplement the one-on-one work they are doing with their individual tutors, and for a chance to be social.

Today the room is all women—two from China, one from Korea, one from Russia and one from the Czech Republic, along with three volunteer coordinators—and there’s a relaxed, female-bonding atmosphere. “We feel very free and comfortable in this class,” explains Victoria Wu later.

Three of the students have brought compositions on the theme of kindness. They read them out loud, two times each. The second time through, the volunteers—with occasional help from other students—make grammar corrections and discuss word choice. Some changes are simple: “Helping seniors get up a bus” is changed to “Helping seniors get on a bus,” and “She is much elder than me” becomes “She is much older than me.”

But the ambiguity of language is unavoidable, and nothing’s being dumbed down here. There is a lively discussion of what, exactly, to do with “Eight world’s wonder in America are the volunteers,” which settles finally on “The eighth world wonder are America’s volunteers.” Next they take on the tenses in “She helps a Turkish woman who didn’t know English at all,” which they eventually decide is correct. “This is a very subtle sentence,” reassures coordinator Anne Schatt.

Literacy Volunteers of America started in 1962 in order to teach basic reading and writing skills to adults. Ten years later, it added English for Speakers of Other Languages tutoring to its programs and trainings. Since then, in the Capital Region at least, ESOL students have come to outnumber basic literacy students by more than 2 to 1.

According to the 2000 Census, 8.2 percent of the population in the Capital Region speaks a language other than English at home, and 2.6 percent of the population speaks English less than “very well.” Most troubling are the 1.4 percent who live in “linguistically isolated” households, where no one older than 14 speaks English very well.

The local LVA offices see the people behind these numbers every day. “They come to us for survival,” says Debra Fagans, program coordinator at the Greater Rensselaer County LVA. “They have a hard time going to the doctor, the grocery store, can’t understand [their children’s] teachers. They don’t know how to get on a bus, how to get around the city.”

Literacy volunteers—of whom there is a persistent shortage—are trained by the LVA offices, but need no formal qualifications beyond the training except fluency in English themselves. That, and a willingness to serve as a mix of teacher, counselor and cultural tour guide.

Kathy Gibson is very comfortable in American culture. The middle-aged Waterford resident listens to Howard Stern, takes the week after Thanksgiving off from her job in an Albany eye-doctor’s office to decorate for the holidays, and thinks Christmas shopping is no fun unless you’re running around the mall too late in the evening only days ahead of time. And yet, she knows more about Ramadan, Chinese New Year and which higher-up in Afghanistan’s new government owns a bunch of restaurants in the United States than many a self-identified cosmopolitan.

She’s learned it all from her ESOL students.

Gibson got into tutoring through telemarketing. No, the LVA doesn’t use the nonprofit loophole in the Do Not Call Registry to recruit tutors. It was a regular telemarketer, selling a product. But her English was bad enough that Gibson couldn’t even tell what product it was. After a frustrating conversation—not the first of its kind she’d had—she felt bad enough for the caller that she went looking in the phone book for a way to help. She found the LVA, took the training courses, and has never turned back.

Gibson has been tutoring the women in a Muslim Afghan family for seven months and a Buddhist Vietnamese women for a year and a half. “My bookshelves have totally changed,” she says. “I have books on Judaism, Buddhism, I just got a copy of the Quran. I want to get all the different calendars.”

She didn’t entirely know what she was getting into at first. “It’s not what I expected at all,” she says of her Afghan students. “When you step into their home, you are in Kabul.” By working with that family, Gibson has learned to negotiate a social structure that is utterly different from the one she is used to. The women of the family need permission from their husbands for many things, for example, and the domestic world and the work world of the men is kept strikingly separate—enough so that that one woman wasn’t sure what kind of store her husband had opened recently.

Aware that their tutors will face such cultural gaps, the Rensselaer County LVA office gives every tutor a two-sheet “culture gram” when they are matched with a student. The sheets describe the history, food and, most importantly, the taboos of the students’ country so the tutors don’t “put their foot in it right away,” says Fagans. “Many things that Americans do that are just fine [here] are insulting in another culture—patting a child on the head can be insulting.” But, she says, as trust grows, part of a tutor’s job is to introduce the differences “because other people will do these things, and [the student] needs to know they are not being done as an insult.”

Gibson recounts attending the first birthday party for one of the children in the Afghan family. When they arrived, she recalls, “The husband grabbed my boyfriend and said ‘No, no you go to the men’s side.’” And she had to bite her tongue when her boyfriend didn’t notice you weren’t supposed to use your left hand when eating.

She also got to observe the making and destroying of a mandala for Chinese New Year with her Vietnamese student, and learned about the shrines that were set up for the holiday in the home. When she first saw one, she says, her first thought was “Uh oh, I have to be careful now,” to avoid treating it with disrespect.

Stories like these would seem almost voyeuristic if they didn’t come in the context of an ongoing relationship. But Gibson, and most other tutors, quickly move beyond one-hour-per-week grammar-and-vocabulary sessions with their students. Gibson goes to the Afghan family’s home every week and spends two and a half hours at a time with them. It’s longer than is usually recommended, but she says it works better this way because they are so busy with children and other responsibilities the rest of the week that homework just doesn’t fly. She also has given them her work, home and cell-phone numbers. “I said call me anytime,” she says. “You’re not imposing. If there’s something you need me to help with, I’ll help you understand it.”

Although they are encouraged to meet with their students in a neutral, public place for their weekly tutoring sessions, most tutors nonetheless get quickly caught up in their students’ lives. After all, the desire to learn English is rarely an abstract one. “It’s typically more specific than wanting help with their English,” says Bob Stevens, executive director of Mohawk/Hudson LVA. Wanting to get a driver’s license, pass the citizenship test, or be able to communicate with children’s teachers are some of the most popular reasons, and the LVA offices emphasize a flexible, student-centered approach that can accommodate these things. “That’s what makes our program successful,” says Stevens. “There are classroom-based programs for people learning English, but they’re not going to get this one-on-one attention.”

Gibson’s Afghan students are working on their driver’s licenses, so that they can take the children somewhere in case of emergency while their husbands are at work. They are also studying for the citizenship test.

Civics lesson: Mary Ann Valenti and Cigdam Cam review for Cam’s citizenship test during their weekly meeting. Photo: John Whipple

With Gibson’s Vietnamese student, Anh, there’s no sitting down with the books at all. “When we started out, we would go to the library and work with words on paper,” says Gibson. But after about three months, it became clear that this wasn’t really what Anh needed. She knew quite a bit of English, but wasn’t used to using it. So these days, Gibson and Anh plan a full six-to-eight-hour day trip, sometimes with Anh’s children, somewhere out and about in the world. They go to places like the planetarium, Ten Broeck mansion and Crossgates, and events like the breast- cancer walkathon. The goal: to get Anh using her English, and help her feel more a part of the American culture.

Gibson and Anh’s first trip together was to see My Big Fat Greek Wedding at Crossgates, a movie that Gibson says “transcends culture.” It was Anh’s first movie, and she kept grabbing Gibson’s sweater and saying excitedly, “I understand it. I know why that’s funny!”

“It’s important just for her to ask directions, simple questions, [answer] the waiter asking us what we want,” or ask how the hand warmers at the kiosk in the mall work, explains Gibson. “At first she would panic, she would stare at me,” but her confidence has grown, she says.

Mary Ann Valenti, a Cohoes tutor, and her student, Cigdam (“Chee-dem”) Cam, from Turkey, have a more traditional weekly tutoring session at the library. But the student’s life is still the central focus. Cam has been living in the United States for four and a half years. She came here to provide better educational opportunities for her 11-year-old son.

Valenti has coached her through preparing to meet with his teachers and also preparing to ask for raises and additional responsibility at her job. “She has helped me many times, solved my problems,” says Cam, shyly. There is an obvious bond of affection there: Valenti takes Cam’s hand when she is struggling to form her thoughts, and she gently chides her—“You’re leaving me out here on my own, dear”—when Cam tries to get Valenti to speak for her.

Like many immigrants, Cam was a professional in her home country—a news photographer—but here, for now, she is limited by her English to a job at McDonald’s. Changes in job fortunes like this are among the most common things tutors say pull at their heartstrings.

Gibson draws the line at doing things for her students that they can do for themselves. “I want to talk for her, but I know I can’t do that,” she says. When Anh was in a car accident recently, Gibson commiserated with her, told stories of her own car accident, took her calls at all hours, and went over forms with her. But she insisted that Anh do the official work herself. “I want her to ask the questions, and call the [insurance] companies. I want her to know why we had to go to the police, and how the system works.”

Depending on the circumstances, however, and the students’ level of English, some tutors have taken the role of full-fledged advocates, intervening directly with teachers or testifying in court on their students’ behalf.

And the social relationships can also go beyond English-learning activities. “I would say they turn out to be very good friends,” says Linda Chaffee, a longtime volunteer tutor who earlier this year traveled to Turkey for a month to visit the family of one of her students. “You try to keep the boundaries at first, [but] the boundaries go by the wayside.”

Chaffee often goes to concerts with Gusarova, whom she met through another volunteer role of hers: driving people who don’t have cars to things like medical appointments. “If I don’t have Linda, I would be sitting at home without car,” says Gusarova. “Without language, without car, and I am not young, what would I do?” But she rushes to point out that she, too, considers Chaffee not just a volunteer, but a friend.

With the treatment of immigrants within our borders a subject of frequent debate these days, many Americans seem to be either peppering their speech with phrases like “those people” or walking on eggshells around issues of ethnic difference. But among ESOL volunteer tutors and their students, the tone is different—generally open-minded, somewhat artificially apolitical, and refreshingly absent of political correctness.

Among the free material available to tutors from the Rensselaer LVA office is People magazine, and Gibson often brings it with her to her Afghan students’ lessons. “They don’t know who Jennifer Aniston is,” she says, obviously meaning to point out extreme cultural isolation, “but they pay attention to what she’s wearing.”

At the conversation group, Changbei Lu has brought candy that resembles small cylinders of fruit rollup. “What am I eating?” asks Sager, one of the coordinators. “Cranberry,” says Lu. “Oh that’s good,” says Sager, “It could’ve been anything . . . sea urchin or sea cucumber, or whatever that soup was that you made us. That was an acquired taste. . . . Or maybe you have to be born with it.” Lu grins, and chatter about the soup ensues.

That comfort level exists among the students themselves too. Later, Gusarova is describing a Russian deli that has just opened on North Lake Street in Albany. One of the volunteers has asked what she might find there. Cheese, cake, and salt herring top the list. (“I like in America all food except cake . . . too sweet for me,” explains Gusarova.)

Someone asks how the herring is eaten. “With vodka,” teases Jindra Kovacova, the Czech woman. “Before—vodka, with—vodka, after—vodka.” Kovacova is usually fairly quiet, but she gets some of the biggest laughs of the day.

No one seems troubled. Gusarova puts her arm around Kovacova’s shoulder and grins. “Is close tradition we have,” she says. Later, when Hyun-Soo Kim seems a little nervous to read her essay, one of the coordinators asks her if she’d like a drink of vodka.

For the purpose of learning conversational English, nothing beats banter like this. But despite the usual avoidance of controversial subjects in tutoring relationships, some of the more politically loaded struggles of immigrants invariably come to the surface.

Gibson has been looking ahead to when her Afghan students actually get behind the wheel of a car. “There’s a whole chapter in the manual on road rage,” she says, noting that her students wear the Muslim head covering, the hajib, whenever they go out. “People notice things like that,” she says darkly, and therefore she’s teaching her students to always lock the car doors once they’re inside.

Gibson also recounts a story she heard at a family gathering about an Afghan man who wanted to open an Afghan restaurant in the area, but the owner of the building backed off the sale once he learned what sort of food would be served there. “What I see on TV is only part of the story,” she says.

At the conversation group, the mood turns serious when Victoria Wu asks for advice on a situation a friend of hers is facing. The friend, also a Chinese immigrant, has two children, both of whom have been targeted for special education by their public-school teacher. The mother, and Wu, believe that all that’s going on is language delay and maybe some shyness around authority figures, but not any actual learning problem. Wu even got a psychologist friend to test the younger one in Chinese, and the results were fine. The older child is already in a special-education classroom, and Wu says she’s afraid he’s falling behind and will have a hard time catching up with his peers. The parents have been asked to sign a release moving the younger child as well, and they are resisting.

Recommendations come in from all sides. “Does your friend rent the house or buy the house?” asks Lu. When told she rents, she says simply, “Move.” That suggestion is echoed from others, along with recommendations to have the children tested independently, attend a Chinese Bible study group where the children can learn English from other Chinese children, and get a tutor for the mother herself.

Less a matter of out-and-out bias and more one of perspective is the citizenship test. Helping their students study for it is often an eye-opener for tutors, both in terms of things they take for granted that their students may not know (our national anthem is the “Star-Spangled Banner”), but also for the things that are required that most natural-born Americans never know. Valenti spends the early part of her lesson with Cam drilling her for the test. Though she’s nervous, Cam knows her Congressional District and the name of her mayor.

It’s easy to be bowled over by the level of gratitude that the students have, and their amazement at getting free help, but Stevens explains that many countries lack the United States’ strong tradition of volunteerism. Gusarova echoes many other students when she gushes about her tutor, Connie Doran, who is around 80 years old and has driven out to her home to tutor Gusarova and her husband Alex every week in “every weather.” “She is amazing woman,” she says. “This woman is gold, gold.”

Gusarova’s written piece for the conversation group is also an effusive tribute to the literacy volunteers. “Americans are amazing people with a great soul,” she wrote. “They are generous and open. They help immigrants to feel comfortable and self-confident here.” When she finishes reading the essay out loud for the second time, she blows a kiss to Mary Lou Magil, the coordinator sitting nearest to her, and then instructs firmly, “You write that down. Write that I give her kiss.”

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