English one-on-one is about a lot more than grammar
and friends: (l-r) Linda Chaffee, Tatiana and Alex
Gusarova, Connie Doran. Photo: John Whipple
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,
“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!”
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
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
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
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.
lesson: Mary Ann Valenti and Cigdam Cam review for
Cams citizenship test during their weekly meeting.
Photo: John Whipple
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!”
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
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.”