Now that the semester has come to a close, I figure it would be appropriate to share some general overall thoughts about my time at Champaign Central in the ESL tutoring classroom this semester. Although I’ve faced some challenges or situations many times, each day has had a different dynamic from the last. So then, what have I loved? What has been especially challenging? Especially rewarding?
I’ll start with the tough stuff. Volunteering has been, for the most part, a fun and rewarding experience, but that doesn’t mean that there haven’t been bumps in the road. Tutoring can be challenging enough with students for whom English is their native language; needless to say, doing so with students who have limited English skills or for me to explain things in my second language can be tricky. I’ve mentioned the students from the Congo before—they usually come down for help with U.S. history, which generally means copying definitions out of the textbook. They don’t understand much of what they’re writing, yet they always work the hardest of any students coming in, and I can tell that their English is improving rapidly. It can be frustrating because neither the assignments they do nor the nature of the school’s ESL program seem to be set up to help them in the best way possible; total English emersion doesn’t appear to be that effective when there is such a little base of English understanding to begin with. I can only imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes, but I really admire all of their hard work and determination.
This past Monday was probably the day, though, that has been most challenging to date. I sat down with one of the Spanish-speaking students who is in the tutoring classroom relatively often (although sometimes it seems like he just comes in so that he doesn’t have to be in class). He was working on a multiple-choice exam for World History, so I figured that it would just be a matter of translating a few words here and there. Not quite. First question: I let him read it and gave him a while to think. “Que piensas?” What do you think? I asked him. “No sé,” came his response. Was it the words or the concepts that were tripping him up? Both, he told me. So I set out by asking him to tell me how he understood the question and options, and I tried to fill in where there were gaps. Even once he knew what all of the words and sentences meant, though, he still seemed to have no idea what the correct response should be. They are allowed to use their textbooks on the exam, so we went looking in the chapter to try to find helpful information—again, though, running into problems with comprehension, making it go sort of slow. Slowness isn’t a bad thing, but the next question went the same way. As did the next. It quickly became apparent that he hadn’t really been learning anything in class—he doesn’t understand English nearly as well as I thought he did, meaning that he rarely understands the main concepts as the teacher lectures either. I don’t know what his grades are like in the class, but I can see how, given the nature of all that I have seen of this program, how it would be relatively easy to slide through, fooling teachers all over into thinking that he understands more than he actually does. I didn’t want to straight up tell him any answers (as I’ve seen happen sometimes), and so getting through each question was very slow. By the time class ended we hadn’t even gotten half-way through the exam (he would have another day to work on it), and while he thanked me on his way out, I couldn’t help but feel like I really hadn’t been that much of a help at all. I left that day determined to figure come up with strategies to better navigate that type of scenario—which will inevitably appear again—so as to help the student understand as much of both the English and the subject matter as possible, and help them get to the answers all on their own, all within a more reasonable time frame.
Despite challenges like these (or maybe even because of them) I have loved my time at Champaign Central. Through this experience and some others, I’ve found that I really like to work with youth, and would like to work in such a setting in whatever I end up doing one day. Additionally, I like going there because that school reminds me a lot of my own high school—the mix of students, the way they act…there’s just something about it. To me, that’s really refreshing. I love being a student at this University, but it’s easy to forget that there is a world beyond campus, filled with so much more diversity in people and life experiences. Going there helps to keep me grounded in that reality, and I plan to continue working there next semester. It has been a very pleasant and rewarding experience—giving me the opportunity to continue to grow, learn more about myself, practice Spanish, and to gain real-world experience too. Hopefully the students feel just as positively, and feel like I have helped them or given them something as well, just as much as they have to me.