Literacy in Action Through Gamification

November 27, 2017

Della Owens serves full-time at the Durham Literacy Center as part of the Adult Literacy team. For her part, she tutors a basic literacy student one-on-one, provides literacy education support, and manages student and tutor data. The Adult Literacy Program is designed to empower adults through a student-centered approach to learning. The mission of the Durham Literacy Center is to empower those who want to improve their lives and the lives of their families by improving their literacy skills.

To give a brief definition of gamification when used within an educational context, it means to add gameplay elements to a task with the intention of motivating students to learn in a fun and engaging way. Some examples of gamification include the “Duolingo” app that awards “lingots” to players that complete their foreign language lessons, or the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) website that tracks word goals and awards badges for completing them.

Regarding literacy, the game Scrabble gamifies spelling by giving each letter a point value and gives the players the goal of getting the most points to beat their opponent. We can see literacy in action through gamification at the Durham Literacy Center’s annual “Game Night” for Adult Literacy tutors and students. The event is designed as a friendly, if a little competitive, opportunity to have fun learning in a different way.

This year, we had fourteen attendees with twelve people playing. The players were divided between two large Scrabble boards with each board having three teams of two, making sure to have students paired with a tutor.

One student who came with his tutor had not played Scrabble before, but his tutor had played Scrabble often as a child. They worked together, just as all the other pairs worked together, to use the letter titles they had to make words on the Scrabble board.


The tutor guided her student towards coming up with solutions on his own, offering suggestions when needed. Sher would ask her student questions, such as what common blend do you see, what digraph could we use here, or what is another word we could use. Just like the other players, he would use a dictionary to verify he spelled a word correctly. She helped him learn the rules of the game and in the end, they were having a lot of fun working together to try and beat the other teams.

On the other side of the table with the other group of players, one student and tutor pair decided to pair up with other players. The student paired up with a tutor that wasn’t his and the tutor paired up with a tutor whose student hadn’t been able to attend.

As the game progressed, the student and his temporary tutor worked together to find words that would work on the board. The atmosphere was jovial with an edge of competitiveness. The student and his original tutor, who was “the enemy,” poked fun at each other as they each tried to win.

Making words with tiles is something that students work on in their regular lessons, but by adding a scoring system, by gamifying their learning, it made making words have a purpose other than just practicing. A player could make a word that gave them six points, but by thinking of other words they could make with their tiles, there would be a potential of creating a word with a higher point score. It made the student strategize, to think about what words to use, and to have fun while doing it. It involved being creative and problem-solving. If a word you thought of conflicts with another

word on the board, what other word could you use? Is there another place on the board it could go?

In the end, Game Night was a success. The students and tutors were able to utilize the skills they had learned in their lessons to play against others and had fun doing it. There was even talk of practicing so that they could win next year, which hopefully means that the students received a little extra motivation that they can take with them into their studies.

Volunteer Spotlight: Rendon Foy

November 3, 2017

Stephanie Metzen serves at the Durham Literacy Center as a member of the ESOL Program. As part of her service, she teaches an English class, helps with data input, and manages volunteers. With a background in refugee/asylum studies, this year is an amazing opportunity to work intimately with the population she has spent the last several years researching. It is a privilege to see firsthand the hard work and dedication of the students as well as of the generous volunteers who donate time, excitement, and their love of the English language. 

One of the practices that has definitely evolved over time has been to encourage students to work in pairs in activities and to help each other overcome any gaps in understanding. Pairing students, especially those who do not share another language, helps utilize the class’s potentially frustrating variety of skills and levels in a productive way. Moreover, it aids in prudently destabilizing the teacher as ‘The Source of Knowledge’ and the supposed perfection of native speakers, as well. Though this is an approach I will continue to explore and improve, the environment it can generate is the most adequate manifestation of the U.S. as a melting pot that I have personally seen. As I hope I managed to express at other moments, the DLC’s project is not just a unilateral integration into English-speaking society, though that is a vital objective, but beyond that it offers a space for people to work together from our diverse backgrounds to achieve that objective.” –Rendon Foy


Rendon Foy has served as an invaluable asset to the Durham Literacy Center throughout her time as an ESOL instructor. A graduate student in the Romance Studies Department at Duke, Rendon teaches one of the most challenging ESOL levels: beginning literacy. At this level of instruction, some students do not know a word of English, subsequently making seemingly simple tasks like giving instructions to students that much more challenging. Nevertheless, Rendon always approaches the classroom with a quiet eagerness and optimistic attitude that makes her one of our strongest instructors. Her own experiences with learning a foreign language have served her well and it is apparent that she possesses not only a substantial amount of patience, but an understanding of the unique stumbling blocks associated with language acquisition.

An example of putting theory into practice, Rendon is able to take what she has learned about pedagogy at Duke and implement it in the English classroom. However, no amount of study can prepare teachers for the reality of instructing an ESOL class. One thing that Rendon has learned is that it is important to find the humor in the course. Inherent in an ESOL class is an internal sense of infantilization, specifically when you are working with adults. Instead of denying its existence, Rendon embraces it. There is an innate hierarchy within the classroom, one in which the instructor is at the top, but by finding the comedy in the classroom, a teacher is able to subvert-at least in part-the pre-existing power dynamic. This humor is also a source of humility for Rendon as she incorporates her body as a tool of communication and theater as a source of inspiration. What you cannot express in words, you may be able to express in action. In her own words, “I like making a fool of myself, but with a purpose.”

Students and instructors alike must be willing to be silly, open, and vulnerable. We expect as much out of our students as we expect out of our teachers. We want to construct a caring and empowering environment for our learners. They are after all, the biggest stakeholders in their own education. The DLC and its teachers, such as Rendon, are the crucial tools through which we are able to serve this migrant population. For many of our students, English is not their second language. It may actually be their third, fourth, or fifth language, a fact which can be extremely humbling. The students bring a myriad of experiences, perspectives, and skills to the table. The flip side to this is, of course, that Rendon has to adapt to a classroom in which students are at various levels of English knowledge. Some students speak well, but cannot read or write. Some students cannot speak at all, but know the alphabet. This context requires Rendon to be flexible, both adept at responding to the unique needs of the students as well as thinking on her feet. It helps to recognize that, as Rendon said, students are all knowledgeable, just in different ways. By recognizing the value of each individual student, Rendon not only allows students to feel safe making mistakes and admired as they progress, she represents the best aspects of the American promise.

The ‘American Dream’ is built upon communication within society and in order to function within our local community-to prosper-it is often necessary to be able to speak some degree of English. A lived reality for our students, Rendon affords them the opportunity to better engage with their neighbors as well as society-at-large. We cannot adequately put into words the difference Rendon makes to our program, but without a doubt, I have tried. She is strong, committed, talented, and kind. We could not ask for more from a volunteer. We are grateful. We are humbled. We are fortunate.

Make A Difference Day

October 30, 2017

Emily Mercado is a full time member serving for Communities in Schools of Durham at Eno Valley Elementary School. Communities in Schools (CIS) aims to reduce high school drop out rates by targeting students with attendance, behavior, or academic struggles and use mentoring and one-on-one relationships between students.

For Make a Difference Day, I decided to do a teacher appreciation activity with the 2nd grade after school students at Eno Valley Elementary School. I decided that I wanted to complete an interactive activity with a group of students and I wanted to receive their input, thoughts, ideas and opinions as well. I wanted them to collaborate with me and other students. I enjoyed hearing their feedback regarding on how to improve the lives of others and giving back to their teachers. We worked on their writing skills as well when we completed the two handouts that I created. The activities were completed on October 26, 2017 and I was able to distribute two handouts that I created. The first handout was titled, “Make a Difference Day” and I wanted each student to write down their name as well as grade. I included the purpose of “Make a Difference Day” which is “to improve the lives of others.” I had the students write down their ideas on how to improve the lives of others and I was hearing ideas from the importance of not littering, helping others who are sick, and to not bully. I made the students list down their ideas and thoughts. I assisted them with their writing and spelling on the first handout. The second handout was a card that was for their teachers and I wanted them to write thank you letters to their teachers. It gave the students a chance to give back to their teachers and hopefully brighten their day. The students were able to focus on how we can help other individuals and the importance of helping others. It was great to hear their ideas and thoughts about their teachers. I want the students I work with to have a voice and I want them to expand their mind to different topics. It is important for me to discuss with them various topics regarding community and service to other individuals. I was impressed with their willingness to contribute their ideas and collaborate with other students at such a young age. They seemed to be eager to voice their opinions and finish the activity.


Latinx Heritage Month

October 20, 2017

Carmen Palacios-Aguirre is a minimum time member and Olivia Sandin is a part time members serving at the Read to L.E.A.D program . This program uses literacy, a social justice, and mentorship to improve youth and their college mentors’ cultural competency and sense of self.

For the month of October, we decided to do lessons to celebrate Latinx Heritage Month with our mentors and mentees. We serve a large Latinx population, and wanted our mentees to understand that their cultural identity was something to be proud of and value. We chose to call this month “Latinx” Heritage Month because it encompasses more of the population we’re trying to reach. Often times the word “Hispanic” brings the Spanish colonization into view, which many Latinx populations are wary of. Interacting with the kids and offering them different views from what they’re used to is eye-opening. We started this month by bringing awareness to Puerto Rico and having our students brainstorm action plans to help the island.  We wanted our community to understand that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, and that the country needs help.  We also wanted our mentees to understand the link between poverty and natural disasters, and that people living on poverty are affected more by hurricanes.  We were very impressed by the action plans our mentees came up with, and how passionate they were about helping.

The next week, we put Christopher Columbus “on trial” with our mentees, and challenged them to view the “founding” of America from two different perspectives—the Taino people and Columbus’s men, and then decided if we really should celebrate Columbus Day.  After reading about some of the terrible things Christopher Columbus did, the children decided we should not celebrate Columbus.  Our mentors agreed—and believed we should celebrate the Taino people instead.  It’s important that our children get to see history from a different point of view than they’re used to.  We wanted them to understand the roots of the people in the Caribbean, as they had just learned about Puerto Rico the week before.

We also did a lesson in which the children read biographies about famous Latinx people. The younger kids made a “trading card” that highlighted the important roles of Latnix people in the larger world, and the older kids made a “Snapchat story” highlighting the role of the person they chose.  The idea was that in addition to highlighting the important roles of Lantix people individually and as a community, the children would see the diversity within the community by trading cards with others and “viewing” their friends story.  Latinx people are singers, writers, politicians, Supreme Court justices, athletes, and actors, and they come from more countries that just Mexico.


Finally, we did a lesson that highlighted different Latinx holidays. We got to explore holidays from around Central and South America, including Dia de los Muertos, Dia de los Niños, Cinco de Mayo, Semana Santa, Navidad,  Día de los Reyes. For the younger kids, we focused on holidays that weren’t very religious based, but we did engage the older kids with those holidays. We understood that we are not there to preach, but to inform and understand. Mentioning these Holidays are important because both the mentees and the mentors can see where traditions come from and how religion is a very big thing in many Latinx populations.

This month was definitely rewarding for us.  Not only did we change a lot of our children’s and mentor’s perspectives about history, we also made them aware of the current need for aid in Puerto Rico.  Our Latinx mentees are very excited when we highlight their community, and how enthusiasm arises for the lessons that celebrate their holidays and people that look them.  Our Latinx kindergarteners were especially excited, because these lessons first made them aware of their own cultural identity.  Even better, they painted their culture in a positive light, and helped them develop a positive cultural identity.




Diaper Awareness Week

October 19, 2017

Bria Yates is a minimum time member serving with the America Reads program. The America Reads program offers tutoring for grades K-2 in 6 of the Durham Public Schools. 

The National Diaper Bank Network (NDBN) was founded in 2011 to raise awareness that throughout the United States, families have difficulty keeping their infants and toddlers clean, healthy, and dry because they cannot afford a most basic necessity…a diaper. NDBN raises awareness about diaper need and the remarkable work that community-based diaper banks are doing to help by collecting donated diapers, purchasing diapers with donations and ensuring families and babies get the diapers they need.

Unless you are a person who wears or routinely changes a diaper, diapers would be the furthest thing from your mind. However, for infants, toddlers, and those suffering from medical conditions diapers are a necessity in everyday life. Diapers can be expensive—as much as $100 for a month’s supply. Most people are unaware that diapers cannot be bought with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, aka “food stamps”) or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). For some people, their resources are already stretched thin with food, housing and utilities. Not having enough money can limit a parent’s ability to work as many daycare facilities require a week supply of diapers for them to attend.

Luckily for these people, the National Diaper Bank Network understands that not everyone has funds to afford diapers. That’s why Diaper Need Awareness Week was established 5 years ago. Since its start, this initiative has gain support from more than 211 diaper banks in 44 states and the District of Columbia.. Diaper Need Awareness Week is an initiative of the National Diaper Bank Network (NDBN) created to mobilize efforts to help make a difference in the lives of the nearly 5.2 million babies in the U.S. aged three or younger who live in poor or low-income families. Diaper Needs Awareness Week is celebrated through September 25-October 1. 

Today, the National Diaper Bank Network serves more than 1.2 million children and their families. Collectively, we work with more than 22,000 local agencies.

In conjunction with our Make a Difference Day project; NCCU America Reads program has joined forces with Science African American Majors Evolving (SAAME) by hosting a diaper wrapping drive on campus.  SAAME is an all-female STEM major organization that promotes equality among minority, women, and their male counterparts. The drive will be held on October 23, 2017 at 7:00 pm in Chidley Classroom. This event is open to the public. We are collecting Diapers, Wipes, and Feminine products (open items are accepted).  

Do You Understand Where I’m Coming From?

October 2, 2017

Robert Manzo serves as a full time member for the youth GED program at the Durham Literacy Center. The program prepares young people ages 16 – 24 to take the GED test and earn their diploma, so that they’re prepared to go onto college or a better career/job.


Do You Understand Where I’m Coming From?


When you think about where people come from, there are a few questions you ask. Where did they grow up? What kind of family do they have? What’s their native culture like? These are the kinds of questions you would naturally ask someone you’re meeting for the first time. And they’re the questions that students, tutors, and I ask one another at the Durham Literacy Center, in the youth GED prep program, where people from all different places, families, and cultural backgrounds come together for a common reason: to educate.

Students here are educating themselves, helped by an incomparable group of volunteer tutors who, in turn, get to learn about a unique group of ambitious young people, their origins and aspirations, where they’re from and where they’re headed, the not-so-distant destinations of colleges, new workplaces, and richer (in mind, not money—but maybe that too) personal lives. Besides the academics, learning also happens when individuals talk or share adjacent space. In the GED prep program, called the Youth Education Program (YEP) in our official books, this other type of learning happens all the time, and it’s no less exciting or ultimately useful than relative clauses, second-degree polynomials, or representative democracy, to name just a few subjects students learn in the official GED curriculum.

Just as students in YEP have many different reasons for being here, so each one has unique life goals. They’re good to talk about because goals help students keep perspective. One student wants to be a nurse and dedicates herself to study amid the many family obligations and faraway appointments she has. Another young woman is passionate about history, set on finding out details of her family’s ancestry and telling the stories of people barely mentioned, if at all, in school history books. A young man from northwestern Africa wishes to attend a competitive university famed for its science programs, to become an expert in his field. An entrepreneurial student plans to be owner and instructor of a martial arts academy. The GED is a stepping stone on the way to other things.

YEP is positive not only because its academic curriculum prepares young people to earn their high school equivalency diploma. It is positive because the people involved in it, the students and tutors, see their mental map of the world expand over time to include new territories never considered before. There are places and situations from which people come that aren’t—and can’t—be deciphered based on what is outwardly visible, on an accent, a hairstyle, a shape or color.

Why AmeriCorps?

September 12, 2017

Amber Beal serves at the Literacy Council of Buncombe County as the Recruitment and Awareness Coordinator, maintaining lasting relationships between volunteers and the organization and community.



As soon as you tell someone that you’re a member of AmeriCorps, the immediate response is “What is AmeriCorps?” The answer to that question is that we are a National Service Organization which engages Americans of all ages to actively contribute to their community. But digging a little deeper comes the next question, “Why do you serve?” or “Why AmeriCorps?” These questions are easier and yet harder to answer.

AmeriCorps members all have the desire to impact lives, places and experiences with others in the community in which they serve. Members are in all 50 states, in different programs that support areas of education, disaster relief, environmental stewardship, hunger, poverty and more.

You can call us idealists and in many ways we are. We are the ones serving our country domestically in the best ways we know how.  We are the high school graduates, college graduates, millennials and those who want to be a part of a network of good. We don’t receive an abundance of recognition but we make lasting networking relationships and friends during our service.

We aren’t always tasked with the easy, the clean or the mundane task. We complete service projects from a wide array of needs by our site supervisors and program directors.  But at the end of the day our camaraderie, fulfillment and overarching goals keep us grounded in our work so that we can grow professionally and personally.

Not everyone is able to serve their country in the traditional sense. That’s why AmeriCorps plays a vital role in revitalizing America. So the next time you encounter an AmeriCorps member or team, please, stop and talk to them about the work they are doing and how you can spread the word or become involved.

Just like the AmeriCorps pledge says: “I am an AmeriCorps member and I will get things done!”

Cue Graduation…

July 27, 2017
Nicola is an AmeriCorps member serving with Blue Ribbon Mentor Advocate. Blue Ribbon Mentor Advocate is the flagship mentoring program of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. Our program relies on the relationship between mentor-advocates and students as the foundation for providing a variety of individualized students. BRMA students benefit from mentoring, advocacy, tutoring, enrichment opportunities, leadership development, and college scholarships. Mentor-advocates help determine a student’s strengths and interests, and the program provides support that will help develop those to their full potential.

North Carolina LiteracyCorps assembled a cohort of tenacious, resilient individuals whose determination to expand literacy initiatives throughout North Carolina led to an inexhaustible amount of success during the 2016-2017 service year. This success was not only highlighted but celebrated during the members’ graduation on July 15th.


Though the day was filled with family, friends, and cake, it was fueled by an underlying sense of accomplishment from members who have navigated a year filled with triumph and turbulence. As further illuminated in stirring speeches given by NCLC class presidents, the challenges members faced this year were daunting in their magnitude, but trivial next to the personal and professional victories of each individual. Driven by a spirit to serve and sustained by the growth of those they led, our members achieved a great deal of success this year.

I cannot be more grateful for the opportunities NCLC has afforded me, not only to grow professionally but personally as well. I will leave my year of service with clarity in my professional pursuits, and enrobed in a sense of peace.

Cue ‘Graduation’ by Vitamin C.

Dedicated to My NCLC Cohort:

July 17, 2017

For my final blog

Entry, I thought I would do

Something different.


No poetry fox,

But a budding haikuist,

Here’s my gift to you.


NCLC and

NCCC and SCALE are  

Acronyms we like.


Living Allowance,

Not salary or stipend.

Education ‘ward.


Webinars for days.

So much to learn from leaders

Quarterly trainings.


Committed to youth,

Teaching and learning from them,

Lit’racy matters.


Invested in lit,

We are breaking barriers

We’re AmeriCorps.

-Allie Brown

Thursday, June 8th, 2017: Graduation day.

June 9, 2017

Aya is a full-time AmeriCorps member serving with Communities in Schools of Durham at Eno Valley Elementary. Communities in Schools (CIS) aims to reduce high school drop out rates by targeting students with attendance, behavior, or academic struggles and use mentoring and one-on-one relationships between students and CIS staff to support students in getting back on the track to success.

Aya Zouhri


As I watch my students who I’ve only known for a year but love as if its been much longer, I can’t help but feel a sense of both pride and anticipation for them. I am proud of the young ladies and gentlemen these 5th graders have become. While we’ve certainly experienced our share of difficulties and struggles this year, I have also witnessed moments of incredible character, growth, and perseverance that I know will serve these students well not only in middle school, but for the rest of their lives.

These children live in a world vastly different from the one I experienced as an elementary school student. They carry within them a sense of boldness and strength I think is necessary for challenging the status quo. These kids are leaving a place of safety and security, many of them attending Eno Valley since pre-school and kindergarten. They will enter new doors in the fall, with new teachers, new classmates, and will be molding themselves into new, better, stronger, bolder versions of their elementary school selves. They will take with them the spirit of compassion, of excitement, and of love, and use those to reach heights they didn’t even know existed. Just as I have watched these children master material, improve dramatically in behavior, and find value in service, I know they will make the best of what is in store for them.


CIS Students Receiving their Awards                              CIS Staff at Eno Valley