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Diary of a Volunteer at the Aguilar Adult Learning Center

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A guest post by Leslie Gilstrap.

Some people are surprised to learn that adults don't know how to read. "How can this be?", they ask. How is it possible that someone can hold down a job or take care of a family if he or she doesn't know how to read? How does he travel on subways and buses, shop for groceries or visit a doctor's office without knowing what all of the signs, advertisements and paper forms mean?

I am a one-on-one tutor at the Aguilar Adult Learning Center where I spend 40-minute sessions with the same students each week. My students' ages, abilities and backgrounds vary greatly and but they are each extremely motivated to learn. In the morning, these students work with their teacher and other students for 2 hours. I see them in the afternoon, when they schedule time with me, to work specifically on reading that interests them and at the level they need.

Tommy is a middle-aged man who grew up in a rural part of the country, dropped out of school at a young age and began hustling the streets. He didn't see the point of staying in school, he told me, when he could make money. Eventually, many years and several cities later, his hustle got him into trouble. Today, he is mandatorily living at a facility for drug rehabilitation, with a community of people struggling to get along and remain drug-free. He tells me that his time at school is his best part of the week! Over time it has become clear that Tommy is indeed a good reader, but he sometimes lacks the self-confidence that he can succeed at reading.

Alphabet du temps de l'Abbé Suger, tiré du cabinet de M. Debret, Digital ID 105912, New York Public LibraryWhen he and I first met, he made a point of showing me that he didn't know the phonetic sounds of letters. He wanted me to know that we were starting at the beginning. We first created an alphabet book with cut out pictures representing the sounds of each letter. Soon it became clear that he was able to read whole words. We would work on different worksheets together, starting with 3-letter words, rhyming words, and words with blended sounds.

The Adult Learning Center at the Aguilar Library has wonderful beginner reading materials that are geared to adults. We have read biographies of famous people, short stories on proper health care, and non-fiction books on the manufacture of ice cream and the production of ketchup. Most recently, we read a novel written on a 2nd grade level about a husband and wife who are having marital problems. Tommy proudly told me that this was the first chapter book he had ever read!

Miriam is a young woman who has been studying at Aguilar for a few years. She has a learning difficulty that probably never got diagnosed when she was a child in school. She has trouble with longer words, mixes up b's and d's, and sometimes guesses at the word before giving herself time to decipher it. Though she doesn't say this, I believe that she is intimidated by long words, so we work on breaking down the word into 3-letter sections, which are easier for her to read. It is important for any student to have success with deciphering a word, so I try not to tell help her too much. Miriam became friends with another classmate, and told her she needed to meet her tutor. So now the three of us work together and the ladies take turns reading a chapter book and we discuss comprehension elements of the story. Sometimes we will do worksheet packets and writing exercises to help solidify reading concepts.

Andrew is a middle age man who comes to tutoring directly after his physical therapy sessions. He is paralyzed from a gun-shot wound that happened when he was 19. He too has a learning disability and tries to read too fast and not carefully enough, sometimes guessing at the word. We laugh often as I tell him he is an impatient man and needs to slow down. Indeed, he is very motivated to improve his reading abilities, and he never leaves Aguilar without checking out another book to take home and practice on his own. He tells me that he has discovered the joy of reading and learning about famous people and historic events.

My students take great pleasure in their reading and I am happy to help them build confidence in their abilities!

Leslie Gilstrap has been at the Aguilar Adult Learning Center since January 2013.


Winter registration for all students interested in Reading and Writing classes in Upper Manhattan will take place at the Harlem Library on Wednesday, January 15 at 1 p.m. and again at 6 p.m. The program information will be explained and each student will be invited to make an appointment for an interview and testing following the presentation.

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Literacy builds confidence, self-esteem, and hope

Dear Leslie, Thank you for sharing your experiences in helping adults at the Aguilar Adult Learning Center. I've seen the amazing work that happens there everyday. I'm glad that you've joined the team! For those of us who are already readers it's hard to imagine how an adult can survive without the learned skill of literacy. Literacy must be passed down, it must be taught, and it's best learned when we're young. It's also a very complicated process that can be stifled by neurological complications that hinder language processing. But with the help of skilled professionals and caring volunteers like you, older learners can improve and enjoy the independence and pleasure that literacy provides. I've seen the impact with Tommy, Miriam, and Andrew at a recent learning celebration. You must be very proud of your work together. The New York Public Library is currently expanding its focus on teaching and learning, for children and adults. We're adding classes, expanding collections, teaching people how to use technology, and offering programming that sparks imagination and the desire to learn more. I'm proud to be a part of this growth and to work with caring professionals and volunteers like you. Ken English Associate Director for Adult Learning Centers - NYPL

Thank you!

Leslie, Thank you for your patience and dedication to New Yorkers who are learning to read. You enjoyment in volunteering is evident and we are very grateful for your help!

Kudos to Leslie

I would imagine that it would take a strong will or desire as an adult to source assistance with getting help with literacy. It also helps further when the teachers and/or volunteers are understanding and love what they do to make that process for the adult learner easier. Keep up the good work Leslie!!

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