In my assignment at the Delaware County Literacy Council, I teach English to English Language Learners, and I also assist learners who are already more proficient in English and who are in pursuit of a GED. Our learners are all adults, most facing significant economic challenges, and their ultimate educational goals are really a stretch for them. We have a dropout rate much higher than we would like. The prevailing opinion in our culture is that dropping out of anything is simply failure resulting from not trying. That has not been my experience of the individuals I have worked with. Although I have been quite frustrated by this at times, I have come to realize that success can come in many forms, not just the ultimate goal, or even the goals I think important.
Several years ago, I was tutoring an English language learner one-on-one, and he was having a great deal of difficulty understanding spoken English and making himself understood. I was also somewhat frustrated by my inability to help him along, so I resolved to make my tutoring more concrete and real-world. A perfect opportunity came our way one day when he related to me that he had not been able to make himself understood in ordering coffee at a Dunkin’ Donuts store. The nuances of answering questions from the server about with or without sugar and cream, cream “on the side,” or extra sugar were simply too much for him. More importantly, from the way he described his experience that morning, I had the impression that the servers at the shop that morning had been somewhat derisive because of his difficulty.
So, he and I reviewed and practiced how to order what he wanted, and what possible directions the dialog could take, and back we went to the same Dunkin’ Donuts store.
We went in together, but my learner stood in line first, and ordered coffee for both of us, the way we wanted it. He took extra sugar while I took none. This time, there was no problem, or condescension, from the servers. I doubt that my friend’s pronunciation was any better than previously, but the servers maybe tried a little harder to understand him. They now knew, and my friend knew, that he had an American friend who would stand up for him. I realize now that we were both successful that day.