Each semester, AmeriCorps’ Project MARS collects ‘Great Stories’ from each of our members—entries where they reflect on their experiences mentoring in the classroom and the progress that they see students making. This month’s story comes from Erin Dooley.
One of my favorite moments of my service year was volunteering at Dana Elementary. At Dana, I had the opportunity to work with ESL learners from kindergarten to 5th grade. I worked with these students in mixed classrooms practicing reading, writing, and proper pronunciation. My usual service site was at a middle and high school and it was initially exciting to me to have the opportunity to serve younger learners. The added challenge of communicating with and teaching students whose first language was not English was something that at first was a little intimidating but turned out to be an exciting new experience.
The students I served mostly belonged to families that live in the surrounding Hendersonville community. It is a relatively rural area, surrounded by farms and apple orchards. On my 35 minute drive in from Asheville, I would mentally prepare myself: trying to recall all the strategies I learned in my Teach English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) course. Of course, you can never be fully prepared when working with kids— but I did my best. Though Dana was not my official service site, it immediately felt like home: I loved being greeted by the warm faces at the front office and I was always exited to get to wear my volunteers badge.
After my very first visit, students began to recognize me in the hallway— I was throughly surprised by this! I was only there once a week for around 5 weeks and I did not anticipate I would form any meaningful relationship with students. I expected to help out, read with a couple of eager ESL students, and log my hours. Instead, I found that— just as I had at Franklin—I made friends.
I worked with kids from all over the world and even if we did not speak the same language, they understood that I wanted to support them and help them do their very best. One of my favorite times during my days at Dana was during the bi-literacy class. This was a time of day when students from various grade levels, English speakers and ESL students, would all come together. They would work with the Spanish teacher, the ESL teacher, and Rosetta Stone. I loved watching this language exchange. I loved watching students who struggled with reading in English, excel and help their peers in Spanish. I loved getting to see everyone’s individual strengths and seeing the students help one another. This was also a great time of day because this was when I got to work the most closely with students.
Usually I would work with the students who had a tendency to distract others or to get off task. At first, they were reluctant to have my help because they knew it meant that they would have to actually get focused. However, by the following week, students were fighting to have a chance to read to me! (I was deeply flattered.)
My time at Dana was brief but it showed me how encouraging it can be to watch the steady progress of a student learning to communicate with you for the first time. I have always loved to study language because like other subjects it opens doors and opportunities. With language though I see its practical use so much more immediately. It is difficult because so much goes into language, from the pronunciation, the grammar, the practice, the writing, the reading—and even just getting down the basics of the culture you are immersing yourself in. As an adult who has had the opportunity to live abroad, I know that this is no simple task. It is exhausting to walk through the world wondering if anyone can understand you or feeling scared to speak and make a mistake. Watching my students learn English inspired me because they did not seem scared, they seemed excited to share and speak even if they were wrong from time to time. They tried because they had to…everyday. Maybe because they felt comforted by an environment like Dana, or because of the supportive teachers they got to work with everyday, or maybe it was their peers who shared in their struggle to learn a new language. Whatever it was, these students taught me to be brave and showed me a new and exciting path.