The title of this post is premature, but I’ll leave it as that anyway. Monday was my first time as a volunteer teacher of English at the International Institute so I can’t tell you much about the life of a volunteer. The last time I volunteered for something similar was teaching up north in a Nigerian secondary school a lifetime ago. But that was different not only because it was mandatory but because the subject of that experience were young children who already have some exposure to the English language but only needed to improve on it. This time, I’m dealing with those who had never had any exposure to speaking, reading or writing English but are willing to put themselves through the stress of acquiring it, even at advanced age.

The International Institute in St. Louis is set up to cater for refugees, immigrants and new comers into the United States who do not yet have sufficient knowledge of the English language. Some of them were hearing English being spoken for the first time, many of them never opened a book, and most of them were holding a pencil, and learning to write for the very first time. Volunteers come from different parts of the country and  I had heard last week that the Institute would be closing down its adult literacy program as well as the citizenship classes for lack of funding from the government. Yesterday it was confirmed that Institute has just received new funding to continue the programmes, particularly adult literacy one, and so it would continue though the citizenship classes may not.

The classes have a very elementary syllabus, as would be expected of a class with such level of student proficiency. The students range in age from thirty to sixty-five and they come from different parts of the world. Our job was to help them read and gain sufficient literacy needed to survive in such a country as this. The books had stories that were easy to read and understand. They also came with pictures, as they should be, and each reading experience was one-on-one, with the students reading along and trying to link text with pictures and ideas. It brought smiles to my face to see grown people show that much enthusiasm to reading. We also did some word scrambling and a few phonic exercises.

What delighted me most is the enthusiasm and confidence of the students at learning. Many of them had been displaced by hard circumstances in their country of birth and had now come to acquire new means of communication in order to survive in a place away from home. They come with their own survival instincts and a rich reservoir of life experiences, but they can’t express them to us because we don’t speak Swahili, Dzongkha/Bhutanese, Spanish, French, Ewe, Gen, Kabiye or any of the languages they speak where they come from. Nor do we want to. It promises to be a rich teaching/learning experience.

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