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    Kristy Nielsen

    A great teacher learns from their students. This month’s Literacy Leader, Kristy Nielsen, says she values her students because she is able to learn from them as much as they learn from her. Kristy is an ESL tutor at the Open Door Learning Center in Northeast Minneapolis. She’s been there for over a year and a half. On a typical day, she goes to her class right after work, with a prepared lesson plan, and doesn’t get home until after 9 p.m. She chose to teach beginning level ESL because she loves the liveliness of the large class size. At first, she was nervous about the work load because she already has a full plate with her full-time job, but she’s found that spending time with her students actually relieves stress. She spends break time sitting and talking with her students, answering questions and making sure that they understand the material. She clearly has a close and meaningful relationship with her students, who appreciate her very much.

    Kristy says she will continue to volunteer because she loves spending time with the students and meeting new people, especially people from different communities, countries and cultures. Kristy also loves bringing fun to the classroom, including fostering friendly competition among students. “We play the flyswatter game in class, where I write a bunch of words on the white board, relating to a topic students are learning about, and divide the class into two teams. One person from each team comes up at a time and when I say a word, the first person to swat the word on the board with their flyswatter earns a point for their team. Students get excited about this activity, and sometimes competitive, trying their best to be the first to swat the correct word as their teammates cheer them on (and try to help them out), and it always ends up being hilarious!”

    In her down time, Kristy likes to unwind by watching Netflix and cooking. She is also a singer and a nature-lover.

    She says she loves her work environment at the Open Door Learning Center, and especially appreciates her program coordinator. “I want to mention that my Program Coordinator, Ilse Griffin, is so friendly, genuine, and helpful, and is another reason teaching at Open Door Learning Center Northeast is so great.”

    We are so grateful to Kristy for dedicating her Monday evenings (and more, as any good teacher does) to literacy! Congratulations, Kristy!

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    “I enjoy life.” That’s the philosophy of this month’s Literacy Leader, Grant Stabenow.


    Grant has been a literacy volunteer for 15 years, spending much of that time between Lao Family Community of Minnesota and Hmong American Partnership (HAP). Currently, Grant teaches beginning and advanced courses every Monday and Thursday at HAP. When we asked HAP’s Adult Basic Education Coordinator, Andrea Gerhart, to choose a stellar volunteer, she immediately thought of Grant, sharing, “he gives so much of his time, energy and resources. He really goes out of his way to serve our students well in so many different capacities!”


    Cultivating a classroom atmosphere that’s engaging and inclusive is important to Grant, and it shows in his teaching style. To prepare for lessons, Grant gets additional support and guidance from his wife, who is also a volunteer and teacher. They discuss lesson plans and exchange ideas before and after every volunteer session. Every class period, he comes in early to provide time for open conversation with students, and to consult with teachers. Developing a curriculum that’s engaging for students is important to educators, as well. Grant shares his secret to achieving this, “I try to incorporate activities that get students moving and involved in learning.”


    There isn’t much that can keep Grant from his volunteer work. Even when he was in the hospital for surgery a few years ago, Grant could not wait to get back into the classroom. “My best volunteer moment was when I was hospitalized several years ago and I received a sheaf of get-well cards and drawings from my students.” Those well-wishes were just what Grant needed to make a remarkably speedy recovery. “I bounded out of the hospital and three days after surgery was back to teaching.”


    The greatest teachers never stop learning, and this attitude comes naturally to Grant. “I keep coming back because these guys are eager to learn, fun to work with, and they teach me as much as I teach them.” The dedication that Grant brings to his volunteer work is a value to his program, students and community. We can see why he enjoys life so much.


    Thank you, Grant, for dedicating 15 years to volunteering with literacy!

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    Kris Trelles has been volunteering at Centro Guadalupano in Minneapolis since she retired from her job teaching ESL in Minneapolis Public Schools. She started at Centro four years ago to fulfill the requirements of an Adult Basic Education teaching licensure program and has been volunteering there ever since. She decided to continue volunteering at Centro, rather than to take a paid position in a larger classroom, she says, because she likes the smaller classes and the informal and friendly structure.

    Kris teaches Wednesday mornings in the high intermediate level classes. Class starts at 9:30 am, but she always arrives earlier to work one-to-one help with a student in reading. During class, students sit in a circle together to facilitate discussion. Her classes are two hours long, and focus on reading, writing, listening and speaking. Many students stay after class to work on specific tasks and to talk with Kris about their lives.

    When we asked Kris what kept her coming back, she said “the students. I feel strongly about the positive contributions that immigrants have made to our country (my father and father-in-law were both immigrants), and I want to do my part to help them be successful in the United States”. Kris’ passion for learning and teaching has helped her students keep coming back as well. Her favorite thing about class is fostering a community across languages in her classroom. She loves learning about her students’ families, languages, and cultures. She said, “right now the students in my class are from four different continents and speak four different languages — Spanish, Somali, French and Vietnamese. We have all been surprised to discover that there are many similarities in language structure between Spanish and Somali!” She loves seeing her students succeed and have fun all at once.

    Kris is energized by teaching. In her down time, she likes to knit hats and mittens for the children of her students. She describes herself as resourceful, kind and inquisitive, qualities that clearly contribute to her success as a teacher and lifelong learner. Thank you, Kris, for your dedication to literacy and education, and for being a Literacy Leader!


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    Dr. William Snyder is an English professor at Concordia College who has contributed his teaching skills and expertise to adult literacy students by volunteering in the Moorhead Adult Basic Education program for the past 10 years. He volunteers Thursday mornings in an ESL classroom, where he and his students sit around a conference table and discuss a pre-selected news article. William does this so his students are more comfortable with colloquial and newer vocabulary, and so they are up–to-date on current events. He says, “I enjoy very much being in the presence of people who are from other cultures and countries. I enjoy teaching them slang, the various definitions and usages of individual words, and information that may help them with their continued development as New Americans.” Conversations often stray from the main topic, but are always rich and fun, says William. “I don’t really have a single best moment. I always enjoy the mutual appreciation we have between us—volunteer and students, when I leave each week”.

    Tammy Schatz, Snyder's site coordinator, said this about William: "Although he is a humble man, Dr. Snyder has an undeniable passion for humanity. He empowers and engages the Moorhead Adult Basic Education English Language Learners while connecting them to the greater community.  One of my favorite examples of this was when he hosted a number of ABE students, staff, and his college students to present about the refugee experience at a Concordia College Symposium. It has been a pleasure to partner with such a multi-talented individual over the past decade.  He has shared his gifts of music, read-aloud his own poetry, guided students in writing their own poetry, played guitar and sung, and led conversations around current events.  We are grateful for this once in a lifetime volunteer!"

    William’s volunteer work goes beyond what he is able to do himself. In many of his college courses, he actually requires his students to volunteer in an adult literacy program 90 minutes a week for the entire semester. He stresses the importance of diversity in his college classroom, and often gives presentations to introduce his students to new cultures and ideas. He has led Study Abroad programs to Malta, Tanzania, and India, among others. Except for 2012, he has led Rwanda: Service in the Heart of Africa—a program he developed—since 2009.

    Professor Snyder has published poems, short fiction, and essays in over two hundred literary journals and magazines, nationally and internationally, including Atlanta Review, Poet Lore, Folio, Cottonwood, and Southern Humanities Review.

    William’s passion for learning takes many shapes in his life, but his commitment to volunteering with adult literacy learners is what makes him a Literacy Leader. From everyone at the Minnesota Literacy Council, thank you, William!


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    My name is Kehinde Winful, and I am a Community Outreach Intern with the Minnesota Literacy Council this summer.

    Last week I went to an outreach event at a local elementary school to share information about free classes for adults. After the event I began thinking of ways in which we can better reach and share information about classes with adults who do not speak English. This blog is a reflection of that thought process. It ends by sharing how volunteers can help us reach prospective, non-English speaking students.

    A little girl comes up to the Minnesota Literacy Council booth and starts asking questions, while her mother stands behind her quietly. The little girl asks who we are and we answer. She relays the information back to her mother in Spanish. Suddenly I am aware that the little girl's mother doesn’t speak English. At the event, I am confronted with the harsh realities that children, as young as eight years old, are sometimes the only modes of communication and understanding between the parent and the larger English-speaking community.

    How then, do we best reach prospective students if we do not speak their language?

    The use of bilingual speakers

    From previous experience working with adults learning English, I have heard and seen that adults often feel frustrated, as well as other emotions, with their inability to communicate with others. Having a bilingual speaker at outreach events would help prospective, non-English speaking students feel more comfortable and open to the process of getting information about ABE classes.

    Are you bilingual and interested in finding out how you can help or get involved?

    The Minnesota Literacy Council is looking for bilingual outreach team volunteers to serve as advocates for literacy and literacy-related volunteerism.

    As an outreach team volunteer, you’d attend outreach events, speak with prospective students and volunteers, track inquiries throughout each shift, and communicate any follow-up to staff members.

    We’re looking for volunteers who…

    • Can speak Spanish, Somali, or Karen.
    • Have excellent interpersonal skills, and an interest in working directly with people.
    • Are dependable and able to attend volunteer shifts on time.
    • Appreciate diversity in its many forms, including “below the surface” cultural differences such as communication styles, body language and others.
    • Have an awareness of the systemic structures of power and privilege in the United States.
    • Are current or former volunteers at Adult Basic Education or other literacy programs (preferred, but not required).

    Time Commitment: Flexible, depending on availability, with an average of 3-8 hours per month. Many outreach activities take place on evenings and weekends.

    Location: Multiple locations at community events and festivals across the Twin Cities. 

    Volunteers must be 18 years old. Training is provided.

    Contact Wendy for more details:

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    Jane Dorn is an English as a Second Language classroom volunteer in Saint Michael. She’s been volunteering for nearly six years and has worked in beginning through advanced levels. She loves seeing her students’ passion for learning, and, as a retired special education teacher, she loves that she is still able to affect so many lives through teaching. “While I was still working, I read for years about the need for volunteers in the Buffalo Hanover Montrose Community Education Bulletins. Once I retired it seemed like such a good fit for me to volunteer for ABE (Adult Basic Education) programming”. The Buffalo Hanover Montrose ABE program has excellent English and GED classes, and learners come from all over the area to participate in classes and learn from volunteers.

    Jane tutors on Monday mornings, walking through the classroom as learners work and helping those that are struggling. She often leads smaller groups in learning activities, and sometimes serves as a substitute teacher. Volunteering in an ESL classroom has helped Jane appreciate where her learners come from and how valuable education is to them.

    Jane says, “Our adult learners are very motivated to improve their English, and that is not an easy task! They really want to be in class and it’s not always easy for them to attend. All of the students are hard workers.”

    The lead teacher in Jane’s classroom, Pam Dane, says, “[Jane] brings in supplies that will add to the lessons to help the students understand and grasp the language better.  She breaks down concepts so that each student understands. She is very student-focused and is a delight to have in class. The students all love her.”

    Recalling a favorite memory from the classroom, Jane said, “On Pam’s birthday one year, I loved listening to each student singing ‘Happy Birthday’ in his or her native language. It represented how much we all have in common and how we love others, regardless of where we come from or what language we speak”. Jane adds that it’s “great fun to see [students’] skills improve, and see the pride they feel. I have heard some remarkable life stories. Most of these wonderful people have had difficult life experiences and I consider them my very special friends.”

    Outside of class, Jane enjoys spending time with friends and family. She loves to travel, especially to Hawaii, and also enjoys time reading and doing home improvement projects.

    Thank you Jane, for your lifelong dedication to learning, and for being a true Literacy Leader!

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    By Kehinde Winful, Community Outreach Intern

    “The best social service program in the world is a job,” a packed room of about fifty people, including myself, echoed back to President and CEO, Louis J. King II, of Summit Academy OIC in Minneapolis.

    As a nonprofit organization Summit Academy empowers poor Twin Cities residents to become self-reliant and employed members of their community.[1] Summit Academy offers both GED classes and career training in the healthcare and construction fields. They not only help students get their GED but, in either a 20 or 30 week training program, help prepare them for all aspects of the career life including: career services, money management, and emotional competency.

    Upon walking the halls of the school with LaKisha Jones, Summit Academy's Program Coordinator, I saw empowerment personified. The walls, classroom doors, faculty doors, and lockers were covered with affirmations including: “you are kind” and “your enthusiasm is appreciated.” Two of my personal favorites.

    As I walked through the halls I saw what resilience looks like at every stage of life. From seeing students in the classrooms, students of past and present pictured on the walls, and pamphlets of success stories, I thought about the importance of second chances, and thirds, and fourths. To me, the power of organizations like Summit Academy is that they keep hope alive.

    Before the informational session started, a video of all the skills taught at Summit Academy (which is very impressive) played in the background. When one student in the video spoke about carpentering, I heard a middle-aged woman say to her friend, “Look, I can learn to be a carpenter. I can build my own house. After that, all I need is some land.” Her friend smiled back, “Yes, all you’ll need is some land.” That was my first glimpse of what a program like Summit Academy OIC can do for people. It empowers people to see what they can do for themselves.

    At my Alma Mater, the motto was, “Preparing people to lead extraordinary lives.” In hearing President Louis J. King II speak I saw that motto exemplified. Mr. King spoke about what it takes to get started and to make the changes one needs to make to get their GED or career training to better themselves. He spoke about how often times we must leave places and people who make us comfortable in pursuit of our better selves. He however, made the distinction between “better selves” and being “good people” saying, “you are not bad people, but somewhere along the way you were lied too, someone told you that you didn’t need to finish school-- but no matter where you come from you have me now.”

    To me, an extraordinary life is one where hope is always on the horizon. While my journey is different than the prospective students of Summit Academy, as an observer in that informational session, I had a feeling that I am sure many prospective students have had: I could do anything. I am reminded of one of the other quotes I saw around the school building, “I can and I will.”

    In that room there was a sense of hope that transcended race, age, and gender. I feel that at Summit Academy there is a place for every kind of person. This is especially true because they are always looking for volunteers, and they have a variety of volunteer opportunities available including but not limited to: instructional tutoring (in language arts, reading comprehension, math, writing and GED test-prep), test proctoring, administrative/reception help, and guest speaking.

    As I reflect on the informational session I think about one of the parts that impacted me the most, Mr. King said, “Show up every day, if you can’t walk--fly.”


    Interested in learning how to get involved with Summit Academy OIC? Contact LaKisha Jones:

    [1] Summit Academy OIC: Training for life ,

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