Thursday, April 2, 2009



My story with Gui began in January of this year, about 3 months ago. I came across this ESL / immigrant services organization over the winter, loved their set up, and signed myself up as a volunteer to teach-assist ESL / TESOL classes. When there weren't any spots for me at the times I was available, I was asked if I would like to tutor a unique case, rare enough apparently that there weren't yet classes targeted at his level. This was Gui, an illiterate student from Central America whose English language levels were too low for any of the beginner classes. Although there was a literacy class offered, it was usually geared toward students who already had at least an intermediate speaking level. And because he spoke hardly any English, my Spanish would come in handy to tutor him.

Gui presented a challenge from the start. For all the sorrowful circumstances of Central America in the 1980s (I'm not sure how old he really is), he never had any formal education. He speaks a rural dialect of Spanish so informal that many other native speakers, let alone I, can't understand him. On top of that, he is shy, and self-conscious at the times that his lack of education stands out by say, not knowing how to spell words in his own language. He did have a couple things going for him, his desire to learn not the least of them. He was already familiar with some of the alphabet, and some of the sounds associated with the letters in Spanish, which allowed me to skip ahead only a little bit.

The truth is, his issues make up only half the challenge, and it has been a learning experience just as much for me as for him. I had virtually no teaching experience starting out, and just a glimmering concept of the needs of an illiterate student. Consistently being prepared for each lesson, rather than and winging it on a loose framework of methods so that lessons would devolve into translate-and-memorize sessions, is something that I am learning to appreciate as I get better at it. I began with only lofty ideas of what it means to be a teacher, and only recently have I realized that effective teaching defies many democratic predispositions. Fortunately, the knowledge and educational gap between Gui and me is so wide, and his commitment to learning is high enough that I don’t believe that he had lost any esteem for me as a teacher by the time I did come to this understanding.

As you can imagine, I watch for evidence of progress through a hazy shield through which I cannot distinguish what is only momentarily understood and what has been ingrained, what is deduction and what is simple repetition. My inexperience, or lack of knowing exactly how to measure this progress while teaching at the same time, only makes the vigilance hazier. So today when, Gui, of his own accord, read a caption from a magazine cutout and pronounced the word “dare” correctly, perfectly, long “a”, silent “e” and all, rather than “da-ray,” as I would expect him to, I jumped happily on the inside. Two weeks after suffering through a 2 hour session on the long “a” sound which at the time seemed hardly productive, this pronunciation today showed something definitely stuck. Yes, any other time, he might have gotten it wrong, but it was in his brain somewhere, and I know he didn’t get it from anywhere else but one place.