If you wander through one of our local libraries, at some point you may encounter two adults sitting together at a discreet spot, some shared reading material between them, chatting amiably, laughing mirthfully, leaning close, intimately engaged with each other. Chances are that’s a literacy tutoring session.
Sarah Hoeffel has been a librarian since 2003 and has worked as a teen librarian at the Mission branch of one of the 27 San Francisco Public Libraries. Last August she came to Monterey County Free Libraries where she is the literacy and volunteer services manager, and as such runs the system’s adult literacy program.
When she gets enough recruits into the program, she begins with orientation. That’s where she talks to aspiring tutors about the people they will be paired with and their motivations for trying to improve their English.
“Some people are working on citizenship,” Hoeffel says. “A lot of people want to speak better to support their kids in school. They can help their kids with homework, be present in teacher conference meetings, sometimes they want to [better] understand letters from school. [They want to] communicate with employers and text [better] in English. Sometimes it’s just a personal goal.”
Some learners, she says, are native English speakers who have slipped through the cracks of the educational system. The Foundation for Monterey County Free Libraries reports that half of them are wanting to perform better at their jobs or get better jobs.
Each tutor gets paired with one learner whose schedules are compatible. But Hoeffel tries to find other common bonds.
“There is a pair that loves dogs and I thought they would be a good match,” she says. “Some tutors like pairing with a learner who has a child, they like that focus.”
The tutors and learners meet about once a week, for up to four hours. The tutoring, which happens at different MCFL branches (there are 17), is supplemented with informal conversation gatherings.
Hoeffel provides tutors with prescribed grammar books to teach, but much of the learning happens in spontaneous conversations, in simply getting to know each other.
The learners are mostly Latino, mostly women, most with kids. Because the tutors aren’t required to speak Spanish, the learners must be able to converse enough in English to make the tutoring appointments. If they can’t, Hoeffel, who speaks Spanish, will recommend adult school first.
Immigration status doesn’t matter; they don’t want to discourage anyone from improving their lives.
There are about 100 tutor-learner pairs currently going. There is a backlog of more than 50 people waiting to learn. The libraries need tutors, especially in South Monterey County.
The sessions are open-ended and there is no graduation, but Hoeffel asks that tutors commit to the once-a-week schedule for at least six months.
“One lovely side effect is people get to know each other and many pairs are reluctant to stop meeting. It may turn into coffee once a month or something else. We have people who have been meeting four or five years.”
Mary Noke has been an adult literacy program tutor since 2012. Before that she taught English classes at a refugee resettlement program in San Jose, but she likes the one-on-one interaction of tutoring. She’s learned about her pupils’ lives, their families, their neighborhoods.
“I’m often taken by surprise at a learner’s perspective on some of the information we share,” she writes by email. “Particularly regarding American history and geography.”
One learner wanted to read Hidden Figures, which prompted Noke to delve into reading about the Civil War, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement and the space race.
David Dawson moved here about six years ago and went to his local library every Saturday, where he would see notices about the adult literacy program. One day he decided he wanted to help others, and it clicked. He became a tutor.
“From the start, there was very little discomfort between the [learner] and myself,” he writes by email. “We were able to learn about each other by way of sharing stories. During these times, we would also work on our grammar together.”
The only difficulty was the language barrier – Korean was her native language – but he says he’s gotten much out of the program too, including increased confidence and better communication skills.
“Thus far it has been a unique experience that I am proud of,” he says.
That is something to be proud of, especially in this time of xenophobia, immigrant bashing and scapegoating. This special tutor-learner relationship is an affirmation of people’s yearning to strive, to rise and to achieve.
That sounds like the definition of the American Dream.