Story and Photos by Jenny Tolep

“Oh”s and “ah”s echo across the classroom.

The sounds come from a diverse group of adults learning to pronounce words in  English. In Harrisonburg, Va., Skyline Literacy provides adult learning programs to improve English-speaking skills. Many of the students are immigrants who came to the U.S. knowing little or no English. Skyline Literacy is a nonprofit community-based organization that offers personalized services to fit each student’s needs. Some want to get a job, others want to pass the U.S. citizenship test and many just want to communicate with their peers.

“It’s all really about empowering people, helping people be independent, helping people meet personal goals,” says Elizabeth Girvan, executive director. “[It’s] all really tied to improving their lives.” The administration at Skyline Literacy works with each individual to set up a learning schedule that best fits his or her learning needs.  Students can sign up for one-on-one tutor sessions, computer-based learning or a class. The registration fee for services is $25, but Skyline Literacy will not turn away those who cannot afford it. According to Girvan, roughly 65 to 70 percent of the adult learners at Skyline Literacy are parents, which can make scheduling more challenging. “We have a lot of flexibility as far as really customizing services to help folks just access what they need,” Girvan says.

Ray Horst smiles at his student, who is participating during a class exercise.

Skyline Literacy currently has about 70 volunteers, ranging from college students to professionals to retired adults. The non-profit asks college volunteers to make a semester-long commitment and all other volunteers to make a year-long commitment, although many volunteers stay involved for much longer. Skip Klaburner has been tutoring adult learners for six years.  He has worked one-on-one with a total of five adults. “Almost each lesson has taught me something,” Klaburner says. “I’ve learned more from my students than I’ve taught them.”

Most of all, he has learned to be patient. Communicating with an individual who doesn’t speak English takes time. Speaking slowly and using hand motions is helpful during interactions. For Klaburner, the best part of tutoring immigrants is when he sees his students start to understand and progress in their learning. “There’s this light that turns on in their minds, and as you’re teaching you can see it in their eyes — they are picking it up,”  Klaburner says. Currently, Klaburner is working with a married couple from Iraq. He has been teaching them for about three years, and the trio has developed a strong friendship. “After a while you become part of their family … their life,”  Klaburner says.

Klaburner’s lessons focus on “survival language” to learn how to do basic tasks in the U.S. He tutors for one to two hours a week at the couple’s house and has helped with basic things such as shopping at the store, going to the doctor and handling a driving ticket in court. “They really need to know enough English to get by and then build on that survival language to get more proficient,” Klaburner says.

The Skyline Literacy building is located on South High St. in Harrisonburg, Va. It provides classrooms, offices, workstations, supplies and a computer lab.

With this in mind, Klaburner adapts his English lessons to fit what is going on in the couple’s lives. When the Iraqi wife needed to get her driver’s license, Klaburner focused his English lessons on the driving manual, as well as helping her to operate the car. Recently, the Iraqi husband passed the U.S. citizenship test. He took his wife, Klaburner and Klaburner’s wife out for Lebanese food. Recently, the wife also passed her citizenship test. She will be taking their “Oath of Allegiance” to citizenship status in May. “I plan on discontinuing my lessons with them, but after three or four years I can’t discontinue my friendship with them,” Klaburner says.

Klaburner believes he has given his students the tools to learn and progress in America while keeping their Iraqi roots. “I’m here to teach a second language, not replace a first language,” Klaburner says. Harrisonburg’s appreciation for diversity makes it easy to embrace new cultures and languages. Volunteer Coordinator Barbie Spitz’s interest in Latino culture brought her to Skyline. After Spitz traveled across South America for several months, she wanted to continue to practice her Spanish-speaking skills. She joined Skyline Literacy because it was an opportunity for her to continue learning Spanish while helping others in her community. Spitz started off as a volunteer tutor in 2008 and eventually moved to a staff position. “I wanted to spend time and get to know people who are a different race, different socioeconomic background than me,” Spitz says.

Spitz has improved her teaching skills and has developed methods that work well with adult learners at Skyline. “You need to teach by demonstrating,” she says. According to Spitz, formal English rules and exceptions should not be the focus. It is more important to learn through repetition, muscle memory, speech and listening techniques. Spitz incorporates activities into her lessons to reinforce what students have learned. She encourages a teaching method called “total physical response.” This method pairs a lesson with a physical activity. It often resonates with learners and helps them to remember the lessons. Teachers at Skyline also use workbooks, but Spitz says it is more important to focus on speaking and listening when first learning a language. After getting used to the language, reading and writing become the next step to mastery.

Skyline’s mission is to help adults attain success. Many immigrants who come to the U.S. have goals and aspirations they want to see through to fruition. Adult learner Catalina Castro is currently enrolled in the citizenship course after living in the U.S. for 11 years. Castro is from Mexico City and left her extended family in order to move to America. She hopes to get her GED, attend a university and eventually open her own Mexican restaurant. Skyline Literacy has been a successful tool to help her reach those goals. “I feel respect and love,” says Castro, of her experience. Skyline Literacy has been in business since 1987, and everyone involved looks forward to a successful future.

Students enjoy their beginner English lesson. They appeared comfortable in the laid back setting, often joking and laughing with fellow classmates and the teacher.

“The most important thing for Skyline is to continue to focus on providing a customized program for adult learners in this community, helping them overcome obstacles,” says Girvan.