Privilege Blog

Volunteering To Teach, Or, Saturday Morning at 10:51am

I went back to school on Wednesday.

Not as student, but volunteering again as I did last year. The teacher was finally ready to open her class to helpers.

This is first grade, in a well-to-do suburb on the San Francisco Bay Area Peninsula. Kids from the east side of town comprise most of its pupils. And on this particular east side, almost all the families have come from Latin America. Some just last week.

Parents speak Spanish. Children speak Spanish too, but only the most recently arrived speak no English. Kids learn very quickly.

I work with them on reading, in groups of four. There are 24 kids in the class. Glad it’s not 40. “Reading” varies as much as the children’s skill levels, of course. Some learn the names of the letters in English, others write a three-sentence short story.

A few anecdotes.

I like to give the kids felt pens and paper and have them draw something they care about. Then I write down a few easy related words they can copy onto their drawings. One little boy told me, with a sideways look and an ephemeral smile, “I am going to draw a shooting house.” “OK,” I said. One-on-one attention is its own gift. He drew a house with what looked like a beam of light shining out a window. “Is the shooting in the house or outside,” I asked? “In the house,” he said. He kept drawing. I talked to one of the other children for a couple of minutes. “Oh,” the drawing boy said, “They are shooting bananas.” Then he drew a stream of bananas in the beam of light. I showed him how to write Shooting House Bananas.

A little girl spoke in a very, very low voice. Luckily she was right next to me so I could hear her.

Another little girl didn’t know what to draw. She couldn’t say what she cared about. “How about your family?” I said. She looked at me. Big eyes, spiky eyelashes. “Your mother, your father…” she interrupted, “I don’t have a father.” I continued, “Your grandmother?” She said, “My father left my mother.” “That happens,” I said, “It’s hard when that happens.  “I have two grandmas,” she said, and drew a picture of one of them, in a red dress. “Red is my grandma’s favorite color,” she said, just as her time at my little table finished.

Another little boy looked at me when I spoke, seeming not to comprehend, moving his mouth with my words. “He doesn’t speak English,” the little boy next to him said. “OK,” I said, “Tell him if he doesn’t understand, you will explain in Spanish.” I told the first little boy to draw a picture of something he cared about. His friend started to translate, but my non-English speaker waved him off with evident charisma. “He says he understands,” said his friend. We all laughed.

All these anecdotes are as true as I can make them. I am doing almost nothing. I do not think highly of myself for this, although I’m glad I managed to keep my promise. But the kids, and their teacher, are amazing. She’s from Mexico, came here at 20, has been teaching in the public schools ever since.

I am happy to live in California. I hope you love your home state too. Have a great weekend.

43 Responses

  1. But it is a wonderful thing you’re doing! The gift of time and one-on-one attention is so important, especially for non-English speaking children.

    I, too, am very happy to live in California. I like us.

  2. You may think that what you are doing is “almost nothing.” But to that teacher what you are doing is everything!

    Despite all of the funding for technology and fancy curriculums, what we really need for students is more time with people who care about their learning.

    Teaching is a relationship-based occupation and your presence in that classroom is just adding one more layer to those important relationships.

    You are appreciated!

  3. Exactly as Leslie K said…from someone who grew up an immigrant kid on the East Coast. I wish my family had been in Cali. Your time is appreciated.

  4. This is probably the most useful thing you could do. Your time and attention is way more important than just flinging money at the situation. Brava.

  5. This is so great. I like how you start with the students’ pictures – start with what’s important to them, or what they’re thinking about. Then show them the words.

    Can’t say I’m thrilled with my current state, Ohio. In fact I’m deeply disappointed with many of my neighbors. I am grateful for my friends and many community groups who do great work here. I do plan to get more involved locally – just need to focus on what really matters and what I can offer.

    1. @Danielle, Oh thanks! I learned it from my kids’ very progressive private school. With 17 kids in a first grade class. Seems like the best way to share privilege that I have available to me. And I’m sorry about Ohio. The thing to remember is, you live in a state where everything, everything political counts at the national level. Even who you elect for town council. So in a weird way you are lucky.

    2. I grew up in Ohio; my ancestors were among the original settlers there; I don’t live there anymore and I still have concern for how it fares, but I am grateful to live elsewhere. Isn’t that sad?

      I live in Minnesota now, and years ago when the influx of Southeast Asians arrived in Minnesota, I volunteered as a ESL tutor (the name for that has changed now), and I thoroughly enjoyed it, so i always new that when I retired, I would do it again. Now I spend two afternoons a week as a literacy volunteer working primarily with Somal immigrants, teaching English and Math, and sometimes social studies (this program runs as a drop in program, so we take the students as they come, working with them one on one))

      I was a social worker for nearly three decades, but this is the most rewarding thing I have ever done. It challenges my brain to find ways to make sense out of English grammar, and to find a way to esplain long division to someone who has always done math with their fingers. Many of our learners had no previous opportunity for education, many, especially women, have never had any instruction in mathematics, some have university degrees, and are eager to become re-credentialedin their new country, as soon as their English is up to the test.

      Most of us only have the opportunity to make change one small step at a time, but everyone’s efforts can have a huge impact. For anyone wishing to make a difference in their community, these opportunities abound almost everywhere

    3. @Ellen, I remember your having said you did this tutoring, and meant to do more of it. I have wished occasionally that I could teach the parents as well – it can be hard on a family when the child adapts and integrates into the new country and language, and the parents do not. I can imagine the children of the women you tutor benefit enormously too.

  6. Wonderful stories, Lisa. I’m sure you feel honoured that he children open up to you…as I’m sure they feel honoured that you are spending one-on-one time with them. And the teacher is probably so darned grateful to have someone like you volunteering in her classroom. Win, win, win.

    1. @Sue Burpee, Wins all around. And the kids do like having a chance to draw, and to talk while they learn. I feel as though I’m given such an indelible gift.

  7. Lisa, this is such a wonderful thing you’re doing. It may not seem like much to you, now, but in the long run I have to believe it will make a big difference to these kids. Thank you for “being the change.”

  8. I would love to be a fly on the wall as those children arrived home to share what happened today…Why, Miss Liza came and we drew and she liked my drawing best…Who is Miss Lisa?…She’s a nice lady who laughs a lot and understands…
    Children are the absolute best…accepting, honest and fun…They are glad you understand…KUTGW…

    1. @Deede, They are the best – so open. And yes, they call me Miss Lisa:). Always cracks me up, I have just been Lisa to children always, but I go with the system.

  9. When I was in my senior year at USC, I volunteered to tutor math at a local middle school. It was one on one tutoring and I worked with a hispanic boy who was in the 4th grade. As the holidays approached, I asked him what he wanted for Christmas, and after he thought a minute, he said “socks”. I asked him about any toys, sports equipment, etc. and he said, nope, I want socks. I didn’t come from a well off family; I had a scholarship, a loan, lived at home and worked two jobs to be able to attend USC, but I realized how fortunate I was. It’s been 35 years and I’ve never forgotten that boy, but your post took me back to that asphalt playground without a single tree, sitting at an old picnic table with him, doing math for an hour a week for a semester. Now I volunteer at a science museum doing hands on tinkering projects with kids and it’s the absolute highlight of my week. They are amazing.

    1. @MarlaD, “Socks.”

      “that asphalt playground without a single tree, sitting at an old picnic table with him, doing math for an hour a week for a semester.”


  10. I think that you’re doing a wonderful thing.
    Sitting there, talking to the children,listen their stories,helping them with their english- really great! They actually don’t have many real,english speaking people, around them,I suppose,so you are opening a door for a lot of things for them
    One just have to start
    Don’t let anyone to belittle your efforts-step by step, it will grow

    1. @dottoressa, Thank you. And I should have been clear, nobody belittles my actions, I just want to try and do this without thanks or a sense of accomplishment per se, to do it for the kids and not myself. Not fully possible, but that’s my intent. xoxox.

  11. This is wonderful! I think it is these small efforts that have the biggest footprints in the long run. Or perhaps I just chose to believe that. The children will remember that you were kind.

  12. I find children often do not get enough individualized adult attention. Life is, sadly, very fast paced. Your time with these children makes a big difference. They will remember you forever. I sense your high level of satisfaction and enjoyment working with these children. It is a win-win situation.

    1. @Susan, True for all mankind, people are in individualized attention debt, it seems. I absolutely get as much or more than I give. Thank you.

  13. “If all the seas were one sea, what a great sea that would be.” Your caring is all that matters. If everyone took the time to do what you do, what a great world that would be.

  14. I was the “Room Granny” when my granddaughter was in kindergarten. I went in every Thursday to help with art class. All of the kids called me Janie’s Granny or just Granny (and they still do).I got, and gave,lots of hugs! I have had a purple streak in my hair for 12 years. My hair was a circle topic conversation one day. The kids wanted to know why I had purple in my hair. I said because I like it. They said OK and moved on. It was a great time.

  15. Replying to my own reply:
    These are actual questions I have been asked. Just as with my own children, I am sometimes caught off guard and unprepared:

    My daughter got her first period today, and I need to know how to tell her what American girls are told so she does not feel ashamed that her friends have been told better.

    After a brief introduction to percentages: this is my income.” My rent is 37% of my income, am I paying too much”. Yes, she was. She took our worksheet to the office and her rent was changed. Then she did the same for all of her friends in the building, and got theirs changed too. (and where did the extra 5% go? I do not know)

    My favorite: “black, black. All the time I see you you wearing black. You are not an old woman, why you wear black? If you wear hijab like this (I had just complimented her absolutely beautiful silk scarf), you would look more beautiful; your husband would be more happy. ” I turned down her offer to buy me a scarf, but I have tried to up my game a bit on Tuesday and Thursday.

    1. @Ellen, Thank you so so much for sharing. All the human world is best known either in the highest level questions – what is Good? – and the most specific – why you wear black?

      Thank you.

  16. Having spent most of my career in the school system I know what a huge difference volunteers make in the classroom…you are giving these children a great gift… and supporting young minds and the helping the teacher is a win win.
    I hope that you are enjoying it too!

  17. So important Lisa! I am an Australian high school teacher and many of my students come from very, very difficult parts of the world. These kids need as much love and support as we can all give them. Kindness knows no language or cultural boundaries. You are giving to their now selves, their future selves, your whole community and beyond. I am humbled and incredibly privileged, like you are, to be allowed into their lives.

    1. @Sherrie Smith, “giving to their now selves, their future selves, your whole community and beyond.” It is, yes, a privilege to be allowed to share their experience. Kids are so open.

  18. Oh i loved reading this!

    My only child is about to start school next year and i’m looking forward to volunteering at her school.

    Your post and some of the stories in the comments have piqued my interest in finding some other places to volunteer my time to. I’m passionate about books and reading and i find children, or rather their individual world views, so fascinating. The things they say!

    At my daughter’s kindergarten they “make books”. The children draw the pictures and tell their teacher what’s happening and they write verbatim underneath. Boy are some of them hilarious!

    1. @Jessica, Making books, exactly! And you will probably adore volunteering in a different school system, or at your local library – it will also give you perspective on your own child’s experience. Good for you. I started work part time again when my second was 1.5 years old, so there was never a space when I had any extra time to do this kind of thing. So happy to have found it now.

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