My love affair with the English language goes back to childhood, from reading Enid Blyton’s books on boarding school life in Malory Towers, to the heartwarming tales of Anne of Green Gables and David Copperfield. Though (actually, perhaps because) I grew up in Mumbai, India, English is my first language. Always a voracious reader, I studied English literature and then became a journalist. So it makes perfect sense that teaching English as a second language (ESL) was the first path I pursued when looking for volunteer opportunities in the Bay Area.1

I tutor two six-year-old boys who study in Mountain View through an organization called Reading Partners. Reading Partners is a non-profit dedicated to empowering students through literacy. The program recruits and trains community volunteers to provide one-on-one tutoring for elementary and middle school students who read below grade level.

On my first day, I was introduced to a first grader, Romel. Romel is a Mexican boy who lives with a large family together in one house; he ran out of fingers counting his cousins and siblings. Shy by disposition, Romel didn’t seem to be paying much attention during our read-aloud session. I was reading from a book he had picked, Loosing a Tooth (a story about a family of critters wherein the baby is about to loose a tooth). As soon as I was done reading, however, Romel was full of observations: “The critter is eating a hamburger. I love hamburgers!” and “I get a dollar from the tooth fairy, too, which I spend on Cheerios.” He also posed an unexpected question, “How many teeth does a critter have?”

My biggest challenge has been to keep the kids interested. The class teachers prefer that we hold the sessions when the rest of the class is having either art class or PE, so they don’t miss any actual studying. But the flip side is that we tutors have to drag the children out of the two classes they enjoy the most! They don’t want to sit in a room and practice reading when their friends are out playing or having fun with colors.

This issue was intensified with my other student, William. William is extremely bright and creative but also extremely restless. So, I teach new words by using Play-Doh or asking him to draw on the white boards. Reading Partners has a take-home reading plan through which each child can take a book home to build his own library. When the child turns in a book report, s/he gets a star. After five stars, they are given a gift that they can choose from a box of goodies. Suffice to say, we don’t get any work done on the day they get to choose a gift!

Recently, the elementary school invited a few local authors to speak before the students. Each child had to work on a book—write it, do the illustrations, bind it, and then read it aloud in front of the class and the authors. William did an elaborate book on the solar system, complete with beautiful illustrations. He thoroughly enjoyed presenting it, and it was a proud moment for me to watch him.

At the other end of the teaching spectrum is the senior center where I also hold an ESL class. I have a class of about ten women at Mid Peninsula Housing, most of whom are of Russian descent. Though these women have all been in the United States for the better part of a decade, their language skills are such that one gets the impression that they’ve only just immigrated. The purpose of the class is to equip the women with basic skills that enable them to negotiate visits to banks, doctors, and grocery stores.

From the outset, I wanted to make the adult class as interactive as possible. I introduced activities like book reports and situational skits, which I assumed would be taken to with enthusiasm. Much to the contrary. What I discovered is that the women are content watching television and reading novels in their native tongues. What was even more challenging was the fact that they continued to talk to each other in Russian during our class. I soon realized that a greater effort beyond imparting grammar skills would be required. I tried asking them to write something each day about what their day had been like, but they refused. “Each day is that same,” they said, “so what do we write about?”

I was going to have to get creative to get them hooked. What did these women love to do? A little investigation revealed what should have been obvious to begin with: cooking and gardening. I decided to shake things up by holding a class in their common garden. Each of the women has a little plot there, and I asked them tell me (in English only) what they grew and how they went about it. It was a most enjoyable class in which I saw the students animated and making an effort for the first time. I was even presented with a head of lettuce from one of their plots. I don’t know if it was the fresh air and sunshine, or that I tried to get a glimpse into their world, but things changed after that. Not only did they start writing daily diaries, but their entries often spoke of recipes and varied gardening experiences.

Of course, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Being an ESL tutor has been difficult at times. Getting back to the basics of and building blocks of a language, and conveying them effectively and creatively, is a constant learning process. During the last Reading Partners class before summer break, each student presented their tutor with a thank you card, with a picture of the tutor and the student on the front. William and Romel presented their cards to me with an endearing combination of shyness and pride.

I don’t know if the children share my sentiments, but I can’t wait for school to start again!

Binal Ghelani is a journalist and ESL tutor in Sunnyvale, Calif.

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