Written by Ryan Charles Parker  //  Photo: Isabel Bolhuis

Things were different back then. It seems odd to use the phrase “back then” when it has only been a matter of months since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, but it feels like forever. As we all know, the virus has brought on significant changes to our lives. And volunteering is no different. Many causes have had to put their work on hold, and this made it difficult to volunteer. Some programs, however, have been able to adapt and have carried on through these troubled times. The Adult Literacy Program, run by the Red Deer Public Library, is one such case.

The Adult Literacy Program is a service that utilizes volunteer tutors to help English as a Second Language and Adult Basic Literary learners to learn or improve their English. Students can learn writing, reading, pronunciation and conversation. Isabel Bolhuis volunteers for the Adult Literacy Program. She described to me what it was like to volunteer as a tutor before the crisis hit:

“I met my learner once a week at the Dawe (Library branch). We would always start with a conversation; at the level of my student…I used a notebook to write what we were talking about as well as to write any words my learner was struggling to understand so that she would have a visual.”

Isabel also used other techniques such as using flashcards with one side a word and the other a picture, and word strips to read and match. 

 “I especially like to use activities that provide a lot of visual cues,” Isabel explained. 

But then the pandemic hit, and this work with visuals became difficult. When you are cooped-up in your home and unable to meet with your student face to face, especially when so many of your techniques require you to be in person, it is difficult to tutor. 

But Isabel took it in stride. She exchanged emails with her student after receiving an email from the Adult Literacy Program that both notified her that face-to-face learning was to be put on hold, and encouraged the volunteers to continue tutoring online. 

New methods of teaching were used as Isabel had to tutor online. She began using internet programs to continue her volunteer work. She began communicating with her students by email. She used Google Docs, a collaborative word processing program that allows more than one person to write and edit. And she did her best to replace real face-to-face interaction by using Google Duo, a video chat program. 

Isabel continues to look for new ways to enhance her ability to teach from home:

“I have attended a couple of webinars offered through the Adult Literacy program, which offered more ideas for teaching online. As a result, I have also used or offered to my learners: Typing Club, Quizliets, TED talks, Audible, Learning English with CBC, and West Coast Reader. There are several other websites I haven't used yet but might try at some point.”

Although she has done the best job she can in continuing with her volunteer work, Isabel acknowledges that it is not the same as meeting in person, where she can use hand gestures and other cues to help her student:

“It is not always easy to read facial cues online, and it is much harder to pick up on body language since you don't see the whole person.”

In spite of these difficulties, technology offers a way forward for Isabel in her tutoring, and she is doing a great job in utilizing computers to keep her students learning. Her hard work and commitment to learning new strategies makes sure her pupils continue to learn while they can’t be together. 

It is a great tale of making the most of a bad situation. 

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