Jake serves as a full-time AmeriCorps member with the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program at the Durham Literacy Center (DLC). Each semester, this program provides classes in English to over 200 adult students, including immigrants, visiting scholars, and refugees.
Inspired by his experiences at the DLC, Jake has written a poem that explores the transformative process of learning a new language.
Serving with the AVID program of Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools has been a very unique and interesting experience thus far. From what I have discussed with other LiteracyCorps members about the various programs that we serve in, mine is pretty different in the challenges and rewards that it offers. Instead of spending a significant amount of my time in one office with learners coming to me for help, I go to them in their various classrooms across the school district. A typical service day consists of me bouncing from class to class and school to school with the goal of assisting as many AVID teachers as I can in an efficient manner.
These nomadic and ever-changing service days have many interesting benefits, but also some drawbacks of course. As someone who has never been much for offices and routine, this atypical service environment suits me well. I am a fan of how much this keeps me on my toes. One hour I could be working with a large group of rambunctious 6th graders that are still trying to learn the AVID tutorial process, the next I could be in a high school trying to coax a teenager into not being too cool to present what they have been working on to their group, and everything in between. It truly is fascinating getting to serve with such a wide spectrum of ages and getting to see a large portion of the k-12 public school system from the inside.
This exploration of the inner-workings of the public school system is really what drew me to this position in the first place. As someone with aspirations to become an educator one day, this service year offered a great opportunity to get into the classroom and really see what it takes to enter what is in my opinion one of the most demanding careers out there. I have developed an immense amount of respect for what these teachers do day in and day out. Even in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, which ranks number one in many metrics in the state and the region and is comparatively well funded as far as public education goes, these teachers go through so much to make sure that their students are set up for success in their future. After viewing all of this so far in my service year, I truly have seen how much need there is from all of us to advocate for the great institution that public education is.
Jean-Patrick Grillet is the NCLC member in the Duke Program in Education. He is tasked with helping coordinate the Partners for Success service learning program, wherein over 150 Duke Undergraduates tutor in one of fifteen partner sites for two hours each week. Throughout the semester Jean-Patrick assesses reflections written by the students and leads seminars on becoming better tutors.
Serving as the AmeriCorps member at the Duke Program in Education has afforded me unique access to several of the institution’s departments and initiatives, especially as they relate to service learning. From my first day at Duke, we have tried to think critically and intentionally about the work we are asking our undergraduates to do. In fact, I was surprised at how critical my colleagues were of their own program, but I soon realized that tough criticism is necessary for meaningful improvement. Is tutoring for two hours a week over the course of a semester actually doing the community any good? Are we modeling the “First, do no harm” adage to our learners (as adapted from the Hippocratic Oath and commonly spoken around the Program in Education office)?
On the surface, service learning looks like a charitable situation in which all parties win. Duke students enter a school or community center, share their wealth of skills and knowledge with an apparently struggling young student, and then that student does better in school. The Duke students might learn a bit more about Durham and its people, but the important thing here is that they took time out of their busy schedules to help a student who would otherwise fall behind, and they feel really good about it. Right?
Not quite. Civic engagement (service learning typically falls under this umbrella) programs have become a popular attraction in American universities, usually taking the form of exotic 2-8 week trips to remote parts of the world. Students build houses, wells, and trails or teach English and basic computer skills to locals who we assume had less access and mobility before the arrival of the university program. No doubt, millions of people around the world could benefit from the significant capital and human resources at Duke’s disposition, but what is the long term goal here? If Duke brings students to Ghana, and in one summer can build enough houses for a whole community, build a well and supply enough technology to jump start a local economy, then they would not really have to go back the following year. Or, fewer students would need to go since so many of the root issues had actually been addressed.
In the Program in Education, we do not send our students to other countries to tutor children. Instead, we send them into one of our local partner sites, ranging from elementary schools to GED preparation programs. This started when the education faculty here at Duke realized an unsettling truth: this elite university stood in the middle of a city with declining high school graduation rates, and did little to nothing to help improve the academic achievement of Durham children. Obviously, there was a need for extra support, so we started sending Duke Undergraduates as tutors. Smart kids take care of struggling ones. Eventually graduation rates would go up and there would be less of a need for our tutors. The goal should be to close the loop, if we really want Durham graduation rates to reach 100%.
This is problematic because our solutions are very short term. Our students will form a relationship with their learners over the course of a semester, then will likely never see that student again—they will likely never see that student graduate high school or go to college. So how do we know the job is done? This is where we start to run into some inconsistencies. Is it more important for our Duke students to learn, or for them to serve? In other words, should we stick to this short term model and ensure that we have plenty of tutoring for our Duke students every semester, or should we put our students to work on more long term solutions that might cause the service learning program to self-destruct in the most positive way possible? In tackling these questions, we are starting to think of new service learning programs that would help students address bigger, broader issues in the field of education.
One solution is establishing a relationship with the local school board, so that students could work as interns or be an official advocate for one of our partner sites at school board meetings. Another would be to work with charters or Durham Public Schools to develop service learning curricula for local students themselves, thereby establishing a system to combat other harmful systems. Right now, we have a task force of undergraduates working to develop a food waste-focused service learning curriculum at a local charter school. They hope to reduce waste and increase food literacy through the creation of a composting program and community garden.
It has been easy to identify the “service” component of these programs, but our undergraduates are supposed to be learning too—and more than just about the fact that there are children in need. Similar to our AmeriCorps program, we know that our service learning programs will not immediately fix society’s gravest ills. However, we can use the short-term tendency of our system to spread knowledge and awareness so that our students choose to pursue more ethical professions. As we recruit and manage volunteers for tutoring and other service opportunities, we can simultaneously develop long term strategies and tactics for a more sustained, systemic impact. We can expose our students, volunteers and learners to the underlying forces causing those problems, so that they might make a career out of fixing them. It is up to us as programmers and facilitators to create opportunities that will change the way our students see the world, rather than just allowing them to observe it passively from a secure, comfortable position.
In an effort to help our students think more intentionally about their service, we require four written reflections per semester as well as two group reflections. We use these spaces to bring up the uncomfortable questions students might have about their service. And unlike in a quick summer trip, we are in constant contact with our partner sites to make sure that we meet their needs in the same areas over the course of several years. We also maintain a database of past tutors to invite them back in following semesters. At the Program in Education we are seeking to create new, innovative service learning programs to address the city’s most pressing education issues. In the meantime, we will be making sure that our students are aware of the problems in service learning, so that they can be more conscious tutors and more engaged citizens.
Sean is a full-time AmeriCorps member with the Adult Literacy program at the Durham Literacy Center. The Adult Literacy program is the oldest program at the Durham Literacy Center. The program works 1 on 1 with adults who are 18 years or older who want to improve their ability to read and understand English texts. Additionally, there are some students in the program who are pursuing their GED.
I have worked with children in the past, so I have the advantage of having some experience as an instructor. However, working with adults is different. When I was first getting to know the students in the adult literacy program, many of them shared their stories of what brought them there. It’s enough to break your heart, but knowing that they had the resolve and the motivation to earn their GED despite so many challenges is inspiring. I never realized until this service year how big of a problem adult illiteracy is in North Carolina. I learned that it is not uncommon for many adults to be embarrassed about their illiteracy, so they find ways to hide the fact that they have trouble reading as they navigate through life. For someone to come to terms with that problem and feel comfortable enough to be in a vulnerable position in order to seek help shows a great deal of courage. Everyone here has been a source of inspiration to me.
The children I used to work with cannot draw from many life experiences, but I can. I can use these life experiences to make my lessons more relatable and relevant to our adult learners; I feel that really “clicks” with them.
I have enjoyed my service here. The staff members, volunteers and fellow AmeriCorps members at DLC are like a family that I spend about 40 hours a week with. Everyone here is united in a common goal to improve the adult literacy rate in the Research Triangle area.
Duane serves as a full-time AmeriCorps member with Literacy Connections of Wayne County. Literacy Connections of Wayne County serves adults by offering adult basic education and English as a second language. They offer one-on-one tutoring and classes to accommodate to their student base.
Serving at Literacy Connections of Wayne County (LCWC), means that I serve adults with literacy challenges. Each client that walks through the doors of LCWC presents different challenges, yet different hopes and aspirations. The majority of my day is spent identifying and organizing materials that I will use with either a student one-on-one or in a class setting. For example, I lead the Life Skills class, which is the main class that I lead twice a week. The Life Skills class is designed for intellectual and developmentally disabled adults. I enjoy working with the learners in the Life Skills class because they represent unique literacy challenges. It can be a challenge at first to build a relationship with the learners and earn their trust. However, the reward of connecting with a learner is beyond description. Through connecting with the learners in the Life Skills class, I have seen amazing changes in personality as well as social interactions that were uncommon previously.
Beyond leading the Life Skills class, another of my favorite ways to serve at LCWC is through offsite one-on-one service. I enjoy meeting with learners that for whatever reason cannot make it to the center. Thus, I take the tutoring to the learner at various sites in Wayne County. Wayne County has a reduced public transportation when compared to Wake or Durham Counties. For some learners, being able to get to the center is in itself a huge challenge. Distance and lack of transportation can be a barrier for some learners. Therefore, I believe that if a learner is not able to come to the literacy center, then we should take the center to the learner.
I feel that one of the greatest examples of personal rewards and a reminder of why I joined NCLC and AmeriCorps is when I get to work with learners that other agencies say are outside their service scope. The community college will refer a learner to LCWC when the learner does not respond to the learning modality of the community college environment. It is very rewarding when I see that very same learner respond positively to the learning process at LCWC, while working together one-on-one. It is extremely gratifying when I witness the increase in confidence in a learner as the learner internalizes the learning process and takes ownership of their education. I love to see learners that the local community college could not serve, prosper and grow from Literacy Connections tutelage.
In reflection, my service year up to this point has had both challenges and rewards. One of the best rewards is that look on an adult learner’s face when the learning process “clicks”. I love seeing a learner’s desire to read more and more complex materials. On the other hand, perhaps the largest challenge for me serving at LCWC so far would be the assortment of challenges that Wayne County faced after Hurricane Matthew. For example, after the hurricane the center was without power for several days and I was unable to leave my house for nearly a week due impassable flood waters. Many of our learners were flooded out of their houses and some lost possessions. Serving in AmeriCorps has its rewards and challenges; and my time serving at Literacy Connections has had plenty of both. There have been rough patches such as the flooding from Hurricane Matthew, but in total, the good days are great and the eagerness of learners has surpassed every challenge.
Madison is a program coordinator for Read to LEAD at NC State’s Women’s Center. Read to LEAD is a mentoring program that uses literacy as a tool to teach children about social justice and diversity.
Every week, my team works to create lessons that I believe will be too difficult for the kids to understand because social justice is complex; yet every week I am beyond impressed with how much the children seem to learn and already know. The activities for National Literacy Action Week (NLAW) were no different. Our team focused on activism this past week, which is a big word for anyone to understand. I again worried that the kids would struggle, but the real difference with these lessons was that it was a challenge for me to lead them.
For the first day of NLAW, I created a lesson about stereotypes for the children to get a grasp on their identity and the injustices of the world. I wanted them to get an understanding of why people might be activists and how it affected them. During the lesson, the children filled out a worksheet that asked them questions about their race, age, and gender. They had to think about how people viewed the groups that they belonged to and how they viewed these groups themselves. Later, they took pictures, holding a board showing their opinions of themselves and posing how they felt the world saw them. I was extremely nervous to give this lesson. I did not want to be the one to break the bad news to the kids that people had negative images of them. My worries were pointless, though, because the kids already knew about the stereotypes surrounding their lives. They knew how people viewed Hispanic/Latinx people and what they thought about girls. They were so aware. I hate that the kids have been exposed to this so early in life, but I now know that I can work to encourage the children to view themselves positively.
The next lesson we did was about different activist groups. I was even more nervous for this lesson because I knew it would be difficult to explain to the kids how unjust the world was to certain groups of people. I did not know how to explain Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March without making them feel like they were unsafe or that they mattered less than others. The children were incredible, though. To my surprise, many of them already knew about these issues and these groups. Instead of being brought down by these issues, the kids were empowered by the activist groups. One child told me, “Guess what I just learned! My life matters because I’m Black!” This is what I heard throughout the lesson. Just when I think I know what to expect, the kids completely surprise me. They inspire me to look on the bright side of things and to believe in myself as an activist and role model.
Bria Yates is a minimum-time AmeriCorps member serving with AmericaReads at NCCU’s campus.
For NCCU’s NLAW event, we came up with the idea of taking black card stock and cutting it into silhouettes of former presidents and historical figures. With this idea, students were to follow this prompt “If I were the leader of the free world, the first issue I would address would be _______because…”. On February 1, 2017 NCCU America Reads visited Ms. Holloway’s 4th grade class at CC Spaulding Elementary School. During our visit, we discussed with the students the idea of them holding office as president of the United States and challenged them to think of something that they would change or a law that they would implement.
We asked around the room and each student shared their ideas for change. We noticed a trend of helping the homeless and cleaning up trash. A lot of these kids have seen homeless people around their neighborhoods and have even prepared home cooked meals with their parents and brought them to the local shelter to help feed the homeless. They also spoke about making home bills more affordable because they constantly hear their parents complaining about how all of their paycheck goes towards paying the bills. It was heartwarming to see this caring and thoughtful group of 4th graders all come up with unique ideas to help those in need.
Not once did anyone state that they wanted the banks to just give them money to make themselves trillionaires, but instead they were more thoughtful and concerned about helping those who really needed assistance. They expressed that they wanted to build mansions for the homeless, make Medicaid and health insurance free for all, and free college tuition, so that everyone could get a higher education degree.
One boy even said that he would fix the private school system. He felt it to be unfair that parents were paying high private school tuition fees, to enroll their child in these schools and then must pay an additional cost, for required uniforms, before their child could attend these schools. According to him, kids should just go to school to learn and freely express themselves in the clothing styles they enjoy the most.
Next, we posed this question to the students: Why are leadership skills important? In their words, it is because you can get the community to do what you want. We agreed with them and told them, yes, good leaders are able to inspire and direct a person or group of people to accomplish certain tasks to reach specific goals. We explained how a good leader can push a team to achieve things they didn’t know were possible. Being a good motivator can encourage participants to think outside of the box and come up with creative ideas. The next topic that we discussed was how the ability to give clear and accurate instructions is important to being a great leader. In order to lead, you must be able to communicate exactly what and how a task needs to be performed. Just telling someone to perform a task may not be very helpful, especially if the task is complex and you cannot accurately explain exactly how the task should be handled.
At the end of the event, we made sure to explain how reading is fundamental in today’s society. We strongly articulated that if they could not read, they wouldn’t be able to fill out an application or read warning signs while driving. It was expressed that simple things they do such as their morning journals, reading to younger siblings, and reading their daily schedule would become frustrating if they didn’t know how to read. We also talked to them about their future goals such as college and career plans. Then Jessica and I shared that we were both in college. Jessica told the group about how she already has her degree in education and taught 2nd and 3rd grade. She also explained that she has since returned to school and is now pursuing a teaching degree in the arts, because that is where her strongest interests lie. I told the students how I was pursuing a degree in neurobiology and am an aspiring neurosurgeon with plans to go to medical school at Emory University. We then explained that if we could not read, we would not be able to aspire to great careers or accomplish or goals.
For me, this experience really opened my eyes to how much children, even at very young ages, are aware and can articulate their thoughts. We often assume that because they are so young, they are not paying attention and are unaware of what’s going on in the real world. However, the truth is, if we just listen to them, they’ll surprise us with their own perspective and ideas for change.
Nicola serves as a full-time AmeriCorps member at Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate (BRMA), a mentorship program affiliated with Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. BRMA focuses on building supportive relationships between adults and students. By offering mentorship, tutoring, after-school programs, and service-learning opportunities, BRMA helps students reach their fullest potential in all areas of their lives.
Taking Stock of New Year’s Resolutions
The cold, overcast days of January often roll in with a surge of renewed interest in self-improvement and personal growth. Though both are important aspects of living a holistic, fulfilled life, we often become engrossed with material improvements such as getting in shape or saving money. In the past, these too would have been the focal points of my New Year’s Resolutions. However, my time serving for AmeriCorps has refocused my goals and priorities, urging me to seek a peaceful, meaningful life of service to others. This has allowed me to take stock of my day-to-day actions, and reflect on what I can do to maintain peace and find meaning in my life.
At the beginning of each service day, I spend time creating a “To Do” list. My list helps me stay focused on what needs to get done, and it always feels good to cross tasks off as I go. However, I frequently notice that the urgent tasks get crossed off at a much faster rate than the important tasks. The same important tasks get re-written on my list each day, and I have become increasingly bothered by my tendency to neglect what is important. This January in particular has offered the opportunity for immense introspection, and has more than ever encouraged me to put the important over the urgent.
Therefore, in this hectic, crazy, and seemingly doomed world, putting the important over the urgent seems like a crucial recipe for maintaining peace and meaning in life. If we let the frenzy of life overwhelm us and detract from what fulfills us most, we will never truly live our best lives. We must remember and acknowledge what is most important in our lives, and actively seek out ways to cross those priorities off of our “To Do” lists.
Brittney Arrington serves as a part-time AmeriCorps member at E.K. Powe Elementary School for the Communities In Schools of Durham (CIS) program. CIS works to reduce high school dropout rates by identifying at-risk students across all school levels and providing mentorship and tutoring support in order to ensure those students have the resources they need to reach graduation successfully.
For several years I had heard of AmeriCorps and knew of a few people who had served, but I wasn’t sure what type of work it involved. WhileI was doing some intense job searching, I came across open positions with AmeriCorps–I applied and here I am! I can say that this may be one of the best decisions I have made for myself.
In the past, I have volunteered with different organizations but I can admit it has been awhile. For the MLK Day of Service, I participated with other AmeriCorps Members as a volunteer for the Dream Big book drive. This was one of the biggest community events I have attended and being a part of it was an amazing experience. I interacted with so many individuals and families who donated books for this drive.
Literacy is one of those skills that is often taken for granted. However, this event allowed people in the community to give to those who need books and contribute to their academic growth and development through reading. There were even people who walked by that were unaware of the event and its purpose. Some left to get books and came back while others requested information for future donation locations. Seeing the constantly growing mountain of books that we received gave me such a warm feeling. I am proud to have had the privilege to participate and be a part of such a great organization.
My AmeriCorps and MLK service day experience has been exciting. I look forward to what the future holds at future service events.
“Tyler is serving as a full-time AmeriCorps member for Orange Literacy in Carrboro. Orange Literacy offers educational services for adults ranging from beginning literacy instruction and GED prep to English for Speakers of Other Languages and preparation for the naturalization test for US citizenship.”
I came to AmeriCorps at a point of transition in my life. I did not have even a general sense of what my proverbial five-year plan might look like, but I hoped that over the course of the year I would get a little bit closer to finding out. I suspect that I shared this uncertainty and this anticipation with many of my fellow service members.
I remember at the beginning of the service year writing a letter to myself urging attentiveness and humility. Focus on the community. Listen to others. This is a strange first step towards self-definition, and it was a difficult thing to write about in good faith even privately. It is harder still to write about it publicly. As it would turn out, the sort of quiet contemplation this implies was never going to be an option. I did not come here to observe; I came here to work. Whatever insight I received for myself would have to be incidental.
My primary duties have been to recruit volunteers and support our Adult Basic Education (ABE) program. A contentious political season has stirred the spirit of volunteerism here in Carrboro, and my inbox has become a conveyor belt for anxiety and activism. When I am not meeting and training new volunteers, I am teaching my very own writing class, guiding a session or two a week at our GED study hall for UNC Facilities employees, spending a night each week at the men’s and women’s shelters of Chapel Hill, and occasionally supporting the Computer Lab at Orange Correctional Center in Hillsborough. I also still tutor the student with whom I began my time at Orange Literacy, as a volunteer myself, nearly two years ago.
My secondary duties have been extensive and diverse. In addition to SCALE requirements, I have tested students for all of our programs, provided support to our English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and Citizenship programs including occasionally substituting for tutors, and performed myriad administrative tasks such as setting the monthly staff and room schedule. This latter category was an unexpected expansion of my duties following the departure of our longtime Program Director in October. I also helped put together our annual Winter Celebration event showing appreciation for students and volunteers, joined Tiffany of Literacy Connections of Wayne County in Red Cross relief efforts following Hurricane Matthew, and have manned information booths at service fairs and community events.
Each day brings a new surprise, a new challenge, a new personality or two. I have often felt like an unprepared charlatan rushing from one performance to the next. I came here, after all, looking for answers myself. I am hardly a model citizen, and I am certainly not a teacher. Nevertheless, I have found all of this work deeply rewarding in the ways I anticipated and in ways I would never have imagined.
Last night, I tested a prospective student who is preparing for the GED. “Thank you,” she said as she left, “for all that you do.” I smiled and thanked her in return for seeking us out before tying up the loose ends of the day. It was about 7:30, and I was hoping to leave the office by 8:00. It is only today, as I finally take some time to consider the past few months, that I remember what I set out to do back in August: listen, and be humbled.