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AMERICORPS Reflections

Reflections on a Year of National Service

~January 2011~

Editor's Note: This is the third year that an AmeriCorps or VISTA member from the Federal Way AmeriCorps and VISTA Team has written a reflections column for Volunteer. Meet Ellie Klein the latest person to take time to share observations about working with volunteers and her experience kids. These columns are a reflections of the impact that volunteering has on someone's life. Enjoy.

Federal Way AmeriCorps and VISTA Team. Established in 1995, the Federal Way AmeriCorps program works to strengthen the Federal Way community through academic tutoring and modeling an ethic of service.

AmeriCorps members in Federal Way serve full time in the Federal Way Public Schools. In addition to tutoring students and developing before and after school programs, members manage two community tutoring programs, implement civic engagement community projects and serve in area service projects. AmeriCorps members also recruit and train community volunteers. For more information on their programs http://www.fwps.org/dept/volunteer/acfw.html


Ben looks down at his paper with a smile, back up to me with a grin, back to his paper and suddenly his brow furrows, he looks back up at me “What I gonna write?”. Ben and I play this game almost everyday during the reflective writing portion of his ELL (English Langue Learners) Civics class.
Ben is from a small island in Micronesia and speaks minimal English. He has gotten better since I first met him in September and surely come leaps and bounds since he moved to America last January, yet still he struggles with where to begin. Only about 1,000 people speak Ben’s language and from what I can gather none of those 1,000 live in the state of Washington. Unlike the Spanish-speaking students in the ELL class, Ben cannot turn to a peer to get the basic concept of the lesson in his language. Instead Ben must concentrate, talk with me, talk to his best friend, talk to the teacher, and search in the book for something, anything, that rings a bell. Writing about the inner workings of the government is hard enough, but when you don’t know 50% of the vocabulary words you are reading it’s much harder. It’s not just the big words like “discrimination” and “authoritarianism” that Ben doesn’t know, but rather the majority of the connecting words that he does not understand. Ben did not know the word “follow” for the first three months that I was working with him. I would often say “A constitutional government follows the rules of their constitution’ or “The people must follow their leader” while trying to explain various concepts in the class.
It took me until November to learn that in order to teach Ben the concepts, I had to start by teaching him the vocabulary. I started making vocab lists for Ben based on words he didn’t know. He would write these words down for me, point them out to me, or just look at me completely befuddled when his teacher would use phrases like “top notch”. “Psst” Ben would say subtly motioning me over. “Top notch? Top notch? What it means?” I would try to explain in  hushed whisper as the class continued on while ensuring him that I would provide a better definition the next day. I now bring in a vocabulary list with word matches and fill-in-the-blanks for the entire class everyday. Most students raise their eyebrows at me as they make their worksheets into paper airplanes, stuff them into their books never to be seen again, or simply copy answers from their peers. A few are apt enough to do them in minutes and others seem to actually be concentrating on the new vocabulary. Although Ben initially requested these vocabulary lists I rarely see him doing them on his own and he never brings completed worksheets back to me. Yet, two weeks ago we were going over yet another concept after Ben asked me “What I gonna write?” and I responded with “What do you think you should write?” Ben paused, looked down at his paper and back at me, “I write….in the Magna Carta the King follows rules?” “Yes Ben! Perfect!” He again furrowed his brow, this time confused as to why Ms.Klein was so pleased by such a simple response and then began to write. He may not get it perfect and he may have learned “follow” from someone other than me and he may forget the word next week, but for now I’m going to believe that I taught him “follow” and soon enough he’s not going to have to ask me “What I gonna write?”.

Ellie Klein graduated from Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA in May of 2010 with a degree in Media Studies. She is currently serving with the Federal Way Public Schools AmeriCorps team as a tutor at Decatur High School and volunteer at the Westway After School Program where she tries to engage students in learning through personal reflections and cross-content understandings.


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