It can be quite a challenge to arrive at a new school, in a new country, with little knowledge of the local language. But for about 30 children who came to the United States without their parents, and some without English, a group of high school students stepped in to help them.
Boston COVID Tutoring was started in the early weeks of the pandemic by a small group of high school students who wanted to provide virtual tutoring to students who otherwise couldn’t afford it. Beginning at Buckingham Browne and Nichols School (BB&N) in Cambridge, the student-run organization has grown significantly over the past two years to now serve more than 300 primary, middle and high school students in New -England, but chiefly in Massachusetts.
But some of those tutored students faced a tougher challenge than struggles in algebra or chemistry.
Ismail Assafi, a junior from Milton Academy, began working with an 18-year-old girl from Honduras in November. She arrived in the United States with almost no knowledge of English — “It was mostly ‘hello’ and ‘hello,’” Assafi said.
Starting with the basics – teaching her peer to talk about herself, where she was from, what she loved to do – Assafi now has the pair talking in a mixed conversation of English and Spanish.
It was November 2020 when the leaders of Boston COVID Tutoring, all made up of high school students, offered their services to the International Institute of New England (IINE), which worked with children from elementary school through high school who entered American schools after arriving in the United States without their parents. The organization agreed to work with high school students and referred 30 young Spanish speakers who needed help with English.
Graham Bateman, a BB&N junior, now leads Boston COVID Tutoring’s division working specifically with Spanish-speaking children at IINE. Most come from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and go from elementary school to high school. They also vary widely in their English skills.
“We’ve had people who can communicate in English and people who don’t know English,” Bateman said.
When Assafi was first approached this fall by a peer who knew BB&N students, he didn’t think much before agreeing to tutor a teenager who only knew Spanish in English. Originally from Morocco, Assafi was already fluent in Spanish and had enrolled in the equivalent of an AP-level course.
“My goal is to become a teacher,” he said. “I haven’t really thought about it. I just said yes.
When Assafi met the student soon after, he found that most of their initial conversations would be in Spanish. As he tried to integrate more English into their conversations, Assafi was forced to explain concepts that may seem simple to a fluent speaker but can be confusing to a new learner – how to conjugate the verb “to be” , for example.
After buying an English textbook to guide lessons, Assafi found that it was generating periodic impromptu lessons in areas he didn’t expect his student to need help with.
During a tutoring session several weeks ago, the couple were learning new geography terms and Assafi wanted to teach them how to say “Germany” and “France” in English. But beyond having heard the word “Germany” a few times before, she didn’t know what the country was or where to find it. Some of the animals in the English textbook used by Assafi cannot be found in Honduras. Before he could translate the word “fox” from Spanish to English, he first had to teach his tutor about the red-tailed variety found throughout the northern hemisphere, which never strays not in South America.
But three months of classes after they first met, the couple now speak an equal mix of English and Spanish. As long as she wants to continue working on her English, Assafi said he would teach her.
“You feel like you helped someone and you really feel like you helped change a life,” he said.
David Min, a BB&N senior who founded the organization, said the idea of starting a tutoring service came from his own experience as the son of South Korean immigrants.
“Most of the reasons they came were so their children could have an education. For me, education was something that gave me hope and confidence in my future,” Min said. Seeing the sorry state of the world around him in April 2020, he wanted to make sure other children got the quality of education he could get.
After spreading first by word of mouth and then growing rapidly to help 300 students in the region, the organization needs to pay close attention to the quality of service it provides, said Christian Bateman , junior BB&N and member of the group management.
“We don’t just pick a random high school kid and throw them in with their tutorial,” he said. “We are trying to see, are the tutors effective? Are they competent in their subject? We ask them about the skills they feel comfortable teaching. Not only do I feel like we are a widely available service, but I feel like our quality is very good.
But the goal was not just to teach English, math or science. It was also about providing a supportive link to other children during remote learning at the start of the pandemic and the continued isolation that followed even as students returned to the classroom.
“We try to really emphasize the emotional side of tutoring, the relationship side,” Min said. “It’s not just about a tutor and a tutee. He is also a mentor and a mentee. Our mission was twofold: to provide both academic support and emotional support. »
Running a nonprofit while dealing with the normal hardships of high school has taken a toll on Graham Bateman, but he believes the hard work has paid off.
“At the end of the day, if I have to stay up a little later to impact the community and do what I love, I think it’s definitely worth it,” he said.