Nashville Adult Literacy Council volunteer opens doors for students
Nashville Adult Literacy Council volunteer tutor Sheila Jacobs.

Take Her Word for It

Nashville adult literacy tutor creates a global village, one eager student at a time

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.

Sheila Jacobs helping a student with homework in the Nashville Adult Literacy Council office.
When Sheila Jacobs and her student Sandra meet up every week, they dive right into everything from reading fundamentals to world history.

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.

Map of the world with stickers marking where Nashville Adult Ltiteracy Council students are from.

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.”

the cohn school

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.”

Dictionaries and workbooks in several different languages on a bookshelf.

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.”

Sheila Jacobs, Kim Karesh and student Sandra

The Nashville Adult Literacy Council

When it began in 1982, the Nashville Adult Literacy Council had fewer than 20 students and around a dozen tutors.

By 2016, it has grown to 600 tutors and more than 1,700 students. Along the way, it also expanded its mission from a remedial, adult-education focus to one that also included non-English speaking students learning the language from the ground up.

Nashville Adult Literacy Council Executive Director Kim Karesh
Nashville Adult Literacy Council Executive Director Kim Karesh

“The early focus was on illiteracy, but from the viewpoint of someone who wanted to improve their skills to succeed in work, or to perhaps take their high school diploma equivalency test, we needed more services,” says Kim Karesh, executive director.

“We partnered with many organizations from the earliest days, including everyone from the state board of probation and parole to groups who work with immigrants. We help a lot of people achieve a goal, whether it is passing the US citizenship test or writing a love letter to a spouse.”

The council trains two types of volunteers, through two different programs:

  1. Start Now, which pairs a volunteer with a reader who’s waiting for a permanent tutor; and
  2. One-on-One, which partners a volunteer with a student for long-term study. One-on-One volunteers agree to work with a student for at least six months, and the two are matched up by the council’s literacy and English language learning specialists based on assessments. Those two specialists also create a learning plan, and are always available for consultation and assistance.

Volunteers are asked to provide tutoring at least two to three hours a week, and can work in the council’s Sylvan Park or Antioch locations or in any public venue (home sessions are not allowed).

The council provides all work materials, but often students with specific goals will turn up with their own curriculum.

“We had a gentleman who was a mechanic, and he wanted to improve his reading level but also focus on his line of work,” Karesh says. “He brought in trade publications, and we used those to personalize his reading program. We have learned to be flexible over the years.”

For more information, visit, email, or call (615) 298-8060.


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