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Adults Need Tutors, Too!

During National Mentoring Month, we are hosting guest posts about mentoring. The following is from Literacy Volunteers of Charlottesville/Albemarle.


Meet LVCA Tutor Cynthia Harrison and Rana, her ESL Student

Current Literacy Volunteers tutor Cynthia Harrison considered being a tutor for quite some time before making the leap. Like many of our tutors, she wasn’t sure she could make the time commitment along with working a full-time job. Prior to her retirement, Cynthia worked with the mental health agency Region 10 for thirty years as a therapist, administrator, and also a teacher, spending the last part of her career providing instruction on human services at Piedmont Virginia Community College.

“I had thought about tutoring…years and years ago, and I went to an orientation and at the time the training was very daunting, so I said no back then,” Cynthia explains. However, after she retired she was responsible for caring for her dying mother and the idea of tutoring literacy became a way to celebrate her mother’s love of reading.

“[My mother] was someone who read all the time. So one of my duties with her was to get her books….She couldn’t imagine how people could live if they couldn’t read. To honor her memory, I got back in touch with LVCA,” Cynthia explains.

RanaCynthiaLVCAShortly after completing the training in the summer of 2012, Cynthia was matched with Rana, a woman who relocated here from Iraq. Rana moved to the United States with her husband and son a little over a year ago. They settled in Charlottesville as both she and her husband have extended family here.

Cynthia and Rana connected quickly through Cynthia’s curiosity about Rana’s home culture. “I had her teach me some Arabic and she was astounded that I wanted to learn and that I knew something about Ramadan and Eid. She couldn’t believe it,” Cynthia says, adding that talking about culture—be it through Rana sharing stories about her family and friends back in Iraq or Cynthia helping Rana navigate the world of coupons—quickly became a cornerstone of their time together.

At first, Cynthia struggled a bit with managing her time preparing for each session. She worked hard on formulating elaborate lesson plans every week, but didn’t feel like they were working as well as she hoped. Finally, she went to Program Director Deanne Foerster out of frustration. Deanne helped Cynthia see there was no need to reinvent the wheel and that following the book wasn’t “slacking.” From then on, Cynthia let their text, English No Problem: Literacy, serve as foundation from which she and Rana could depart as needed.

One of Rana’s primary goals was to be able to communicate effectively with health care workers, so she and Cynthia used the Oxford Picture Dictionary to review medical terms. “My whole approach was practical,” Cynthia says. She learned quickly how to balance lessons from their text with Rana’s interests and concerns. As Rana’s skills developed, helping her open up about her life and concerns became the focus of their meetings. In preparation, Rana writes in a journal throughout the week. At their meetings, Cynthia and Rana talk about her sentences, or select a text from the LVCA library to discuss.

“I know English, but I don’t speak with [many] people,” Rana says. “[Cynthia’s] helped me with writing, reading, and talking. I want help with talking and she talks with me about my last week, what has happened. She’s very good.”

In addition to taking a genuine interest in a student’s culture and background, Cynthia advises new tutors that teaching adults—especially ESL students—is very different from working with children. “It’s important for a tutor to recognize, to value the fact, that the people who come here were competent adults in their own culture…and they’re incredibly brave to come here in the first place and what an incredible challenge they’re taking on,” Cynthia says. “I have nothing but admiration.”

Posted By: Literacy Volunteers of Charlottesville/Albemarle

You can learn more about Literacy Volunteers and meet with more than a dozen other local organizations that are looking for volunteers to become mentors and tutors at the United Way Volunteer Center's Mentor and Tutor Fair on Monday, January 27. We will be at the Omni Hotel on the Downtown Mall from 11 - 2. Parking is free at the Omni for fair attendees.

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