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Academic Innovation Partners with Washtenaw Literacy for ESL Tutoring

Hannah Brauer, Communications Writing Fellow Alum

Deirdre Lee, Communications Writing Fellow

While the Office of Academic Innovation’s work usually focuses on the use of technology to expand access to education, one group of volunteers take a weekly break from their screens to support face-to-face education in the local community.

Open book. Washtenaw Literacy. Opens Worlds. Staff volunteers from Academic Innovation make a weekly commitment to support local education by serving as English as a Second Language (ESL) tutors with Washtenaw Literacy, a non-profit organization providing free literacy instruction to adults throughout Washtenaw County. Washtenaw Literacy began in 1971 under the belief that “literacy is the foundation for a sustainable community” and has reached more than 20,000 learners through the work of more than 10,000 volunteer tutors.

Kati Bauer, Budget and Financial Lead for Academic Innovation, first learned about Washtenaw Literacy through her work with the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor. She coordinated the partnership with Academic Innovation and provided an opportunity for ten volunteers to complete training for ESL Open Tutoring in late 2018.

The office now sends three to four volunteers to work with learners each week at the Ann Arbor District Library. Bauer noted these learners range from parents of University of Michigan students to visiting professors looking to improve their English communication skills. 

“[It’s] a really well-educated group that we get,” Bauer said. “They want to make their skills even better and they want to improve themselves, and I’m all for that.”

Learners can personalize the tutoring sessions to fit their needs, which can range from basic skill-building to academic tutoring to completing job applications. Bauer said many of her learners just want to practice speaking English.

“Most of them are really literate as far as reading and writing goes, it’s the idioms in everyday language that we use that they don’t understand, or the speed with which we talk,” Bauer said.

While about half of the volunteers had teaching backgrounds, including Bauer, others had minimal experience. Trevor Parnell, Events and Marketing Specialist at Academic Innovation, said he felt nervous about tutoring because he had never been an instructor before. 

Parnell said the Washtenaw Literacy training sessions helped him feel prepared to be a tutor.

“[Washtenaw Literacy] provided us with information and resources to put together lesson plans,” Parnell said.

Parnell decided to help coordinate the tutoring group after David Christensen, Program Coordinator at Washtenaw Literacy, spoke to the staff about the opportunity. Christensen supported the partnership upon recognizing shared values between the organizations.

“The connection that enabled our partnership with Academic Innovation is the shared dedication to public service and the empowerment for individuals,” Christensen said. “[This comes] through increased speaking and listening knowledge and confidence, as well as cultural competency.”

Though the partnership between Washtenaw Literacy and Academic Innovation is new, both organizations intend to work together as they grow into the future.

Christensen said he hopes Washtenaw Literacy will expand into other parts of the community and, as more Academic Innovation staff members join the volunteer group, they will tutor on multiple days. 

“I see [Academic Innovation] volunteers helping to facilitate this future through their efforts in tutoring as well as with their extensive professional expertise,” Christensen said.

Bauer and Parnell both said they find the experience to be rewarding, which keeps them volunteering. They said tutoring gave them a new outlook on literacy and the importance of communication.

“We take communication for granted…something as simple to us as just speaking,” Parnell said. “I didn’t think I had a ton to offer [the learners], and now that I’ve done it a few times, I realized that I actually do.”

Bauer said she volunteers not only for the enjoyment, but also as a learning experience.

“I always think teaching is the best way to learn something,” she said.


Visit the Washtenaw Literacy website to volunteer as a tutor or mentor.

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