The Cohn School is eerily quiet during the summer months, a near-silence that extends to the offices of the Nashville Adult Literacy Council on its third floor. There could be a brass band playing in the hall for all Sheila Jacobs and her student Sandra care, however.
These two women from different countries are huddled together over a story about Anne Frank, a girl from yet another country who died more than 70 years ago. They connect over her story, smashing language barriers while also finding common ground.
As a council volunteer, Jacobs tutors Sandra and four other adults as they navigate the often-Byzantine back channels of the English language.
In some cases, it’s a ground-up effort that includes English as a second language (ESL) components, and in others it’s more about learning tips and tricks to understand idioms and slang. For all her students, their time with Sheila is key to assimilating successfully into both American and Southern culture, and everyone involved relishes the time together.
Learning from each other
“Sandra has such great goals,” enthuses Jacobs about her student. “She’s been in Nashville nearly two decades with her children born here. In her small community Spanish is mostly spoken and she does speak Spanish at home. She was encouraged by her children to come to NALC and her employer is very supportive allowing her to come to class weekly on Tuesday at noon. She has made significant progress and is now in a class studying for the high school equivalency test, and wants to go on to community college and become a translator. She’s a star.”
1 in 8 adults in Nashville struggles with basic prose literacy skills. In 2016 Nashville’s population was 684,410, so that’s more than 85,000 people.
Her praise is effusive for all her students, who hail from Vietnam, South Korea, Iran and Haiti.
She’s also quick to talk up the literacy council itself, which was founded more than 30 years ago to address basic literacy needs in the Nashville area, and has now expanded to teach basic English language skills as well as reading.
Jacobs retired from Vanderbilt in 2010 where she served as a major gifts fundraiser. She has worked in nonprofit fundraising and marketing for most of her career. She was drawn to Nashville to be closer to her son and daughter in law. She has a daughter in San Francisco.
Going all in on adult literacy
As soon as she walked in the council’s doors three years ago for training, Jacobs was hooked. She trained for the council’s two programs (see below) so she could work with students immediately instead of waiting for a student to be matched with her.
“I wanted that feedback right away; I wanted to get busy,” she recalls. “The council’s staff is very deliberate about matching students to tutors, and they won’t do it until they think they have the right pair. I had to wait three months, even though there was a waiting list of students.
“Now I have five, which is challenging, but I just love it.
“I love being able to help someone do something that will allow them to achieve more in their life. It’s an absolute high.”
When Jacobs works with her students, she avails herself of the council’s onsite library of books and tutorial material, much of which was donated by the Nashville public library system.
Some of the learning materials are for remedial readers whose first language is English, but a growing number of what’s on hand is for ESL students. Jacobs uses anything and everything she can find in the council’s library and then adds her own curriculum on top.
“There are so many approaches and courses,” Jacobs says. “All tutors get advised by the staff on how we should progress, and all the students are tested to make sure their comprehension is solid before we move to another level. We also read very important things, such as American history, so that it’s not a curriculum that teaches reading with no context.”
She points out Sandra’s progression through a series of books about American history, including lessons on the US constitution and the founding fathers, all the way up through the current series on other historical figures such as Anne Frank.
To supplement that lesson, Jacobs suggested a film on Netflix, which Sandra watched with her teenage children.
“It’s not a matter of reading and testing to see if they can get the right answer,” Jacobs says. “I approach every lesson in a way that lets us talk about what the words mean.”
“They should understand a word’s different origins, and what it means now, so they can get a good comprehension of what it’s all about. Then we move onto the next one, and the next one. Reading is different in every culture, so I learn about their cultures and what might be offensive or difficult so that we can be successful together.”
Jacobs’ students respond well to her efforts. They seldom if ever miss a lesson, and they are well aware that she is not compensated for teaching them.
“It’s not just a job for me,” Jacobs says.
“Sandra’s daughter, who was born and raised here, wrote a letter to President Obama and got a personal response. Sandra couldn’t wait to bring that in to show me.”
“My young lady from Iran, who is brilliant and has a masters’ degree in engineering, has just graduated from our program and will study for another advanced degree at Vanderbilt. I had to relearn a lot about Fannie Mae and all that so I could answer all her questions around home buying. I stay away from politics, but they do have questions that I try to answer by printing things about how our system works.
“We get amazing support from the council staff, but these students come at us with all sorts of requests. It’s a wonderful challenge.”