Pleasanton Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - June 20, 2014

Helping others better understand English

Pleasanton Reads Project volunteers describe working on adult literacy effort

by Margaret Pereira

They volunteer to give back to the community, but what they don't expect to gain from the experience are the friendships with the students they tutor through the Pleasanton Reads Project.

"The students inspire me so," said Judy Thompson, a Pleasanton Reads Project volunteer since 2010. "In some cases, they've left everything familiar behind. They look to me not just for help with language skills, but for insights into life's challenges."

Thompson shared her views during an interview at the recent annual brunch honoring Pleasanton Library's volunteers.

The library administers volunteer programs such as PAWS to Read (a weekly evening gathering of elementary school children who read aloud to dogs), Friends of the Library Book Sales (a group responsible for fundraising) and Bookleggers (classroom visitors who present and recommend books to students), plus those who work behind the scenes, such as volunteers who clean and shelve picture books.

Pleasanton Reads Project started as an adult literacy program 15 years ago and has since morphed to a "gateway to English learning," said program director, librarian Penny Johnson.

The transformation parallels the increased demand for English as a second language (ESL) instruction as more immigrants relocate to Pleasanton, as well as the reduced number of adult ESL classes due to government budget cuts.

The library's literacy program offers three levels of tutoring: one-to-one, small group and conversation classes. There are seven conversation classes held each week, including three Spanish-English groups. The classes are drop-in, and typically range from eight to 30 adults.

Currently, Pleasanton Reads Project has 89 volunteers teaching 112 adult language learners, but there are some 116 adults waiting to be matched to prospective volunteers.

Before taking on an assignment, tutors receive three hours of training. Throughout the year, shorter sessions for ongoing training are also available, along with hundreds of ESL workbooks and related resources and a roundtable forum for sharing curriculum ideas.

There is no one-size-fits-all tutor profile.

One of the program's newest volunteers, Ron Wacek, said he's naturally introverted, so he initially felt nervous about teaching. As a result, Johnson encouraged him to observe a weekly class plus a one-to-one tutor session, and Wacek now tutors two small groups weekly: a group of two Chinese-speaking students and a group of two Farsi-speaking students.

Wacek said his students tell him regularly how much they appreciate his time and attention.

To be eligible to participate in the Pleasanton Reads Project, prospective students must have rudimentary English skills. Many earned college degrees before moving to the United States. Several tutors reflected this trend by saying that while they teach students idioms and grammar, they also describe how to navigate unfamiliar American systems.

Mick Jones, a tutor since 2009, has taken his students to the grocery store, invited them to his home to celebrate Thanksgiving, and helped plan a Hawaiian vacation.

Over the years, Jones has taught as many as six students, one-to-one, per week. He said what has touched him most was receiving a "beautiful, hand-written note" from the child of one of his students, thanking him for teaching English to her mother.

A retired teacher, Melinda Leary appears to have the ideal background to teach ESL students, yet she was quick to point out that teaching experience is not a prerequisite for success. According to Leary, she's not preparing her students to earn a college degree in English, but how to function in Pleasanton.

Leary said she is also learning more about the greater Bay Area from a current student who takes family field trips every weekend.

"She and her family are really taking advantage of all the things the Bay Area has to offer," Leary added. "I look forward to hearing about her weekend trips every time we meet."

The next training for new tutors is scheduled for July 19. To learn more about the Pleasanton Reads Project, visit the city of Pleasanton's website or contact Johnson at 931-3405 or PennyJohnson@cityofpleasantonca.gov.

Editor's note: Margaret Pereira is a 25-year Pleasanton resident and former journalist who has been a volunteer tutor for Pleasanton Reads Project since 2012.

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