In August of 2020, I moved to New Orleans and began my VISTA position as the ESL Programs Volunteer Coordinator with Catholic Charities Immigration and Refugee Services. The changes of the past year have dramatically altered the way we work and relate to others. My experience and perspectives as a VISTA have been determined by these changes. For many, working remotely was untrodden territory; for many, perhaps especially for those in the social and community-centered fields, it has been seriously difficult.
During the six months prior to my start, my coworkers swiftly transformed our classes to an online format and I began with the team in an entirely remote capacity. Our ESL (English as a Second Language) programs encapsulate three areas: English classes, citizenship classes, and Family Literacy tutoring. Even as the pandemic raged into 2021, our online classes have run four days a week in the mornings, afternoons, and evenings across these three programs.
Except for our two staff citizenship instructors, all the teachers and tutors for our classes are volunteers. We have around 75 active volunteers and serve over 1000 students each year. I work closely with Family Literacy volunteers, and I help orient all new volunteers and welcome them into our programs. There are some common struggles to teaching remotely, including engaging students in the material through a screen and the infamous technology glitches (we all know the panic when the Wi-Fi drops during class).
Then there are the intangible difficulties that could not be addressed solely through greater access to resources. The sweet community of learners that forms when a group of people meets every week to share common goals and exchange knowledge is hard to replicate. We have found, though, that replication of the “old normal” should not be our goal.
Although there are inevitable sacrifices with remote learning, there are also gains. We have expanded our reach and accessibility in ways that weren’t possible before. We can now accommodate a number of students and volunteers from outside New Orleans. Some of our students join class from work or when they are at home with their children. The necessity of remote learning has given us the opportunity to utilize an online curriculum, build resource guides for our clients and volunteers, and uncover a wealth of online material that enriches our classes.
It has also prompted us to reevaluate community and our preconceived ideas of how it is built. The nature of our online community is different from that of an in-person community, yet we have still cultivated an environment of collective learning and sharing. In Family Literacy, classes have become a space not only for education, but also where students and volunteers socialize, sharing their lives and homes with each other. Alongside watching our students grow in confidence and skill with using English, we have held a talent show, at-home show and tell, and celebrated birthdays and holidays.
We now host Professional Development trainings for volunteers monthly, whereas we conducted them quarterly in previous years. Often, upwards of 25-30 volunteers attend these trainings. During a recent Professional Development, one of our instructors told me, “I really have to commend all the people in your organization, because this is the best run volunteer group that I’ve ever worked on. It’s a joy, it really is.”
As the country moves toward increased vaccinations and the possibility of opening safely, the ESL team is excited about the potential to resume in-person classes later this year. A part of me is yearning to ditch Zoom for the rest of my life, but as a team, we hesitate to leave behind what we have learned this year. We are talking about adopting a hybrid model for classes- some in-person, some online- to continue to accommodate as many people and styles of learning as possible. Instead of going back to the normal of 2019, perhaps we can look forward to another new, post-pandemic normal in the coming years.