My AmeriCorps service term has wound up very differently than I had expected. I began excited to dedicate so much time to an organization with which I had been volunteering, and as I grew into the position and its duties I developed a tremendous affection for the work, the students, my colleagues and other volunteers. I learned how to create a lesson plan and teach a class, how to reach and support students, how to conduct intake interviews, and administer tests and process files in the Sound Learning system. My service also provided an opportunity to improve my Spanish in a setting where it would be both useful and reinforced.
But as we entered the second half of my term the Coronavirus pandemic hit the US and my lack of fluency (my Spanish skills being roughly equivalent to the English of my lower-level students) and limited access to the Spanish speaking instructors at Sound Learning added to the difficulties of adopting a distance learning model. With the onset of the Covid pandemic every aspect of my routine and our methods for teaching were upended, leaving us without a clear path forward or any obvious program for continuing English lessons.
One fortuitous action I had undertaken in the months preceding Covid was acquainting my students with desktop computers and introducing them to Duolingo. As they become more familiar with using the website in class, I encouraged the students to use the app when they had time to practice outside of class. In the months immediately following the stay-at-home orders we experimented with a combination of smartphone apps, phone or video calls and paper worksheet packets. Very few of our students own or have much experience with computers, meaning we had to rely primarily on lessons that can be shared through a smartphone, which most students possess. The use of Duolingo helped to ease the transitional period, and certain students adapted rather well to our distance learning programs, though many struggled with the sudden substitution of electronic telecommunications for in-person classes, and finding a uniform solution suited to all of the students did not emerge.
In June Sound Learning reopened its doors for limited in-person classes. Though it was a difficult decision, I chose to focus on projects I could safely engage in from home. This included adapting worksheets to a format suitable for sending to students’ phones, creating powerpoint presentations and filming videos to post to Youtube, researching and developing resources, and one-on-one video tutoring sessions with students.
I end my service with a complex array of feelings owing to the sad upheaval this pandemic has unleashed. Rising to the sudden unexpected challenges has proven no simple task in this line of service, though the positive developments we have managed to make are extremely rewarding and give hope for further adoption of distance teaching methods. The two halves of my service term stand in stark contrast and comparing them is unavoidable. The work I had done in the first half and what I had planned to accomplish in the second half of my term was upset by a catastrophe beyond anyone’s expectations, turning the second half of the term into a prolonged series of adaptations to a dynamically unpredictable set of circumstances. The challenges of adapting an organization to times of crisis will be among the most valuable experiences of my AmeriCorps service.