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Mary Lewis


Bridging the Divide: Tutoring an Adult Learner

By: Mary Lewis

When I signed up to be a tutor with the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy in Philadelphia I was worried about whether I would really be able to make a difference. Would the culture gap between myself and my learner be too great? Would we be able to relate to each other? I was venturing out of my comfort zone and hoped the learner would be accepting of me—I wasn’t sure what kind of challenges I might face. I knew I wanted to be ‘a part of the solution’ and help someone achieve a better quality of life, but I wasn’t confident I had the tools to be effective.

As a testing specialist for IBM’s Smarter Workforce where I work, I learned about the opportunity to volunteer through the IBM On Demand Community initiative that provides IBM employees and retirees with ready access to specific community service opportunities and supportive resources. Via On Demand Community, I was able to easily connect with the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy through their partnership with our company. The Commission provided me with substantial literacy volunteer training that also emphasized how learning could be relevant and meaningful for all of us, regardless of our social or economic background. I had preconceived notions about the training—that it would be just a bunch of handouts, but I was really impressed with the way the [Commission] staff had taken the time to make it really interactive, with group discussion as well as online pieces. It was very state-of-the-art technology.

Through The Commission’s myPLACE℠ program I was connected to Denise Brunker, the myPLACE℠ Learning Coach and Assessment Coordinator at Congreso de Latinos Unidos. myPLACE℠, which stands for Philadelphia Learning and Adult Career Education, is The Commission’s technology-based citywide adult education system that makes learning accessible to every adult in Philadelphia. Congreso is one of three myPLACE℠ campuses in Philadelphia that assesses, refers, and supports adult learners. Managing the myPLACE℠ program at Congreso is just one of Denise’s many responsibilities. Congreso has an impressive computer lab for online learning, along with a very supportive technical staff. They utilize an IBM Reading Companion software grant that enables students to practice their reading skills independently while IBM voice recognition software ‘listens’ and collects statistics that help tailor the learner’s literacy instruction. After completing The Commission’s tutor training and seeing the array of resources at Congreso, I felt equipped to get started with my first assignment.

Last March, I had my first session with my learner, Donald*. We met at Congreso, in their bright, new lab full of desktops, printers, a white board, and lots of other resources. Donald is a quiet, older man, and more of a listener than a talker. We began by getting to know each other, sharing information about our livelihoods, works, hobbies, and family. I learned that he worked many years in food services in schools. He said the students were challenging to work with on a daily basis, but he had gotten very good at it. His hobbies included boxing, and he was interested in learning about rehabbing homes as a sideline. His goal was to improve his reading—he knew that was the key to new opportunities– as well as preparing for the GED®. I saw that we wouldn’t have any problems—the students who come through myPLACE℠ are highly motivated and we had total respect for each other from the beginning.

We worked together to set goals for the first sessions, and focused on subject matter that was meaningful to him. We wrote a pizza sauce recipe that he often made for work, and worked through reading articles on the boxer Sugar Ray Leonard. We also selected articles from the Habitat for Humanity website as practice reading materials. These first projects helped make reading enjoyable and relatable to him, and set a foundation for learning.

Since March, Donald has made steady and consistent progress. When he completes a worksheet, or uses email, or navigates a website easily his confidence in his reading and ability to learn really builds. He recognizes the value of the myPLACE℠ program and commits much of his personal time to literacy. He is extremely dedicated—he always completes his homework assignments and is not embarrassed to ask questions when he needs help. He has also become an expert at using IBM’s Reading Companion, even helping other adult learners get started with the tool.

What I have really learned over the past year, from Donald, my training, and my experiences, is that literacy does not end with reading. That’s just the beginning. For everyone, there is someone out there who is more literate than us in one thing or another. I’ve learned a lot from the fact that these adult learners have identified they’ve come across some roadblock that they can’t surpass, and they’ve asked for help. Literacy is really about being able to successfully navigate through life’s challenges.

* Name has been changed for privacy protection

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