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Why I became an Alta volunteer

Thursday, November 27, 2014

This week, David Shim writes about how he became an Alta volunteer less than three months ago, and the steps it took to serve as a reading guide. David currently volunteers at the Alta Reading Circle at St Anthony’s College. Here is his story:

I can’t put volunteering down to some higher calling or special qualities. A friend, who was an Alta tutor, had once talked about how rewarding her experience was but no light bulb went off then. My introduction to Alta happened pretty much by chance: a short film dealing with literacy at the T&T Film Festival in September, a conversation with Paula Lucie-Smith afterwards, and a one-day training session for Reading Circle guides a week later. It was as simple a decision as “can’t hurt to see what it’s about,” and then “well why not give it a shot.”

The one-day training had felt short—to get a grasp of everything one should know. Then there was a feeling of trepidation when I showed up at the Reading Circle venue expected to be immediately able to put it all into practice. Nothing can prepare you for the self doubt that steps in. I began to ask myself: Can I do this? Do I have the people skills? Will people be bored or turned off? 

The first few Reading Circle sessions left many unanswered questions. Not finishing the lesson plan, not understanding the rationale of some of the exercises and not seeing students get words even after seeing it a few times. So naturally my first response was concern, sometimes panic. Am I failing? What was I doing wrong? Thankfully the open lines of communication with Alta’s trainers: a quick email and discussions with Paula and with another experienced volunteer/guide did assuage some of my fears. 

Reading, which most of us take for granted, “ent” easy and can be slow, moreso with English having so many rules and exceptions to the pronunciation rules. It can be hard for the learner. In these few months I have already learnt a few things myself like: don’t sweat the big words, don’t be concerned that they get every word in a text and just expose them to as many words as possible.

As a guide, I began to look at the lesson plan differently: I try to get in the exercises but I no longer get into a panic. I let the students influence the pace. The lesson plans are just a guide so I find myself being flexible enough to adjust to my sense of the students and avoid at all costs the “I am the teacher and you the student” attitude. Finally it’s about the words but maybe even more—a meaning from the words that makes someone want to read more. 

So it’s been just over a month—just the baptism really—way too early to determine if there is progress. But there are glimmerings. Some pretty amazing things have already happened that I have seen myself. For example, some time ago we read a story about how early experiences shaped one of our local writers to which a student expressed, “That was a powerful story”. Another time we were reading about Brian Lara and when the lesson time was over there was interest in reading on some more; and finishing the story in the coming week. Their appreciation and interest continues to grow week by week.

One has to recognise the effort these individuals are making to devote two evenings a week to attending a literacy class, and an added evening to Reading Circle. I think they could be doing stuff with their families and friends, recreating or who knows? Instead they make the time to be at Alta. 

If you have the time to make their efforts worthwhile, is it not your responsibility to “put ah han?” 

•Alta needs volunteers to teach at classes across Trinidad for academic year Sept 2015-June 2016. Call 624-ALTA (2582)/ 653-4656/ 664-2582 to schedule an interview and begin the process of becoming an Alta tutor. 


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