Erik serves as a full-time LiteracyCorps member at Reading Connections in Greensboro, NC. His responsibilities include ESOL and ABE volunteer tutor support, ESOL and ABE student instruction, new student intake, program development support, and instruction for the agency’s new IEL/CE grant-funded initiative to provide literacy instruction and job skills training for refugees and immigrants. Reading Connections is one of the largest adult literacy agencies in NC, and the outcomes far exceed federal benchmarks. R.C. provides programs for some of Guilford County’s neediest adults, e.g., the unemployed, disabled, ex-offenders reentering society, refugees and immigrants.
My service year has been a tremendously rewarding experience. I was offered a considerable amount of discretion when it came to choosing my responsibilities at Reading Connections, and I had a hard time saying “no” to much of anything. The most exciting endeavor has been the IEL/CE initiative to provide refugees and immigrants literacy instruction contextualized to the sewing industry. The program was developed in close coordination with industry leaders to ensure that instruction is aligned with–and contextualized to–the language, literacy, and workplace skills necessary for students to be desirable job candidates in a unique workplace.
I am one of two principal instructors, and after two initial instructional cycles (three and six weeks, respectively) several students, including a number of Congolese, Sudanese and Syrian refugees, found gainful employment as Industrial Sewers for various local employers after graduating from the program. As I am very often the first contact for many of our newly-resettled and –immigrated students, I take great pride in making them feel welcome and warmly-received. In this way, I am often a de facto brand ambassador for the agency, and I’d like to think that I am—at the same time—a de jure ambassador for our country and our shared values as a proud member of AmeriCorps.
Mia is a full time AmeriCorps member serving Helps Education Fund (HEF). Mia’s position is the Metropolitan Organization of Volunteers Empowering Students (MOVES) Coordinator. It is Helps Education Fund’s mission to connect research with practice and engages teachers, parents, and volunteers to improve student learning.
My time with Helps Education Fund (HEF) started in my Junior Year at NCSU. At first I was a volunteer implementing a literacy program. I kept volunteering until I graduated, and in that time I built strong bond with the children I was reading with as well as the executive director of HEF. When I applied to become the MOVES Coordinator, I wondered how that would impact my time spent with the kids I had been reading with, since I would be managing the volunteers now instead of being one myself.
I quickly came to realize that with more responsibility came even more opportunities to explore my strengths and weaknesses! For example, I’ve exceled in working with children, whereas I needed more training on how to best manage volunteers! I found myself expecting more out of volunteers than what should actually be expected. On the professional side of non-profits, I was welcomed into HEF’s board meetings and spent many work sessions seeing Elizabeth – the executive director- manage a non-profit. Not only was I able to still spend a great amount of my day with my kids and volunteers, but I also experienced all of the truly hard work and long hours it takes to run a non-profit. Throughout this process, I have gained an appreciation for non-profits and volunteers! Time is invaluable and it has been my pleasure to watch both my volunteers and students grow with the help of the HELPS program.
Because of my many years serving Helps Education Fund, it has now become my mission in life to make a difference in groups of children who need those extra resources and attention. And now I have and know of many caring people who can help me reach this dream.
John Wolf serves as a part-time AmeriCorps member at Eno Valley Elementary for Communities in Schools of Durham’s (CIS) 21st Century after-school program. It is the mission of CIS to curb the school dropout rate by surrounding students of all ages with a community of support, and thus empower them to stay in school and achieve in life.
I honestly had no idea what to expect when I first joined AmeriCorps. All I knew going in was that my days of wallowing in post-college unemployment were over. I was finally doing something productive again, and at the time that’s all that mattered. But now, with the year almost over, I can say that my time with AmeriCorps has been empowering and educational so far.
In the CIS after-school program, I am responsible for teaching and managing a class of 5th graders by helping them with their homework and guiding them through enrichment activities. Now as a disclaimer, I will mention that my background is in marketing and business administration, not in education. In fact, I had no experience managing children of any sort, much less in a classroom setting, before I started this program. Therefore, my first couple of days were rather rough. However, thanks in no small part to the support of the folks at CIS and my fellow AmeriCorps members, I have overcome many initial challenges.
This is part of what has made my time with AmeriCorps being such an empowering experience. Most of my fellow AmeriCorps members can agree that mastering something new is a very rewarding experience. We see it when we work with our various learners every day. However, sometimes I think we can take it for granted when we master our own skills along side them, and how good that feels. I certainly can look back and see how much I have grown from my experiences here, and seeing this makes me excited about the what the future will bring.
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.