Countries, Culture and a Passion for Teaching English!

Note: This interview was conducted on May 31, 2019. Sadly, John passed away Thursday, June 20. This post is dedicated to his memory.

Learn how to speak English or improve your English language proficiency skills at the Pima County Public Library!

Trained volunteers from Literacy Connects, facilitate English language conversation classes (for all levels) at several library locations. Powerspeak and Pronunciator are online language-learning tools that provide another option when it is not possible to participate in the in-person classes.

Harriet and John Cole are Literacy Connects volunteer instructors for the Advanced English Conversation Class at the Oro Valley Library. They do an amazing job in creating a supportive and helpful environment for learners. We asked Harriet and John a few questions so that our patrons could get to know them a bit better.

What would you like to share about yourself, your life and experiences?

Harriet - We spent a lot of time out of the country. We met in Mexico City and lived there for 7 years (5 years after we were married). We lived in Peru for 10 years and lived in Venezuela for 4 years. Throughout our marriage of 58 years, we have done a lot of traveling. We do enjoy meeting and getting to know people from all countries and all cultures.

John - I was involved in business overseas. Then, we came back. She had not been able to do anything other than volunteer, when we were overseas. Then, she finished her degree in Language and teaching. When we got back to the States, she began teaching. I took over an export division of a company and traveled to other places I had not traveled before. Which is what we like to do. Go places.

Who has most influenced you to become an educator, and how did they influence you?

Harriet - I guess it came naturally. My grandmother was a teacher back in the early 1900s, way up in northern California. A person with some education could take a state test and get a teaching license because it was so remote up there. You could not demand a degreed person. My mother became a teacher and I have a sister who was a teacher. I guess I did not have to look very far for influence.

Why did you want to become a Literacy Connects volunteer?

John - I thought that we needed to have an outreach program other than volunteering in the area where we live. It does not stretch you very much. We like languages. She speaks Spanish, French, and English. I speak Spanish and English. I fuss with languages and words, wherever I go. Language and sounds is interesting to me. Always has been. I was at the YMCA to fix my computer. There is a computer class that happens at the YMCA once a month. I met a woman across the way, who was on her computer. She was talking about this and we talked about travel. She mentioned Literacy Connects, where you sit down and talk to people who do not speak English well and you improve their ability to communicate. I said that I have been communicating in foreign languages for my entire business career. I said that sounds like kind of a fun thing to look into and so, we did.

Harriet - We are very new at this. One thing about Literacy Connects, I think, which impressed us, is it is very professional, very thorough. We first got an orientation about the entire institution about what they do. They do not just do English conversation classes but they have many things and of course literacy is a part of it and so we were very impressed with that, the training and so on. That was also, what encouraged us to sign up. They seemed to be and are a thoroughly professional well run organization.

John - And they are well funded. That is the most important thing because you can have all the wishes you want and if you do not have funding, you just run out of energy.

How do you teach effectively to English language learners at different learning levels?

John - That is somewhat difficult if you have someone who is just trying to do the ABCs and then somebody who actually speaks with an accent in your language. To make a bridge like that is very time-consuming. I think actually it spreads the teacher out so broadly, to play all the keys on the piano at the same time. That the music is not very good.

Harriet - We have the advanced class, so all of our students are able to speak to some degree.  However, not at the extreme levels, I would say. Some are more fluent than others are. It works. We have had some who come and go, who feel that they do not fit in. But there are other classes, so we encourage them. What usually happens is John will sit down with that person, to help them through whatever exercise we are doing. That is how we take care of it in the classroom. If they are there and they want to participate, then we try to help. We accommodate them. We do a lot of pair work. We become the pair for that person.

What is the key to success when communicating with the students?

Harriet - I think it is to make the classroom comfortable first of all. Make it a welcoming place. They become open and comfortable.

John - If you do not have that, what you have got is competing needs. And reticence to put themselves forward and make mistakes. The idea basically is, this is a place to make mistakes.

Harriet - They seem to be comfortable. We have a lot of laughs over some of the things. 

John - I make jokes.

Describe a typical lesson plan for the class.

Harriet - First of all, we welcome them. We introduce ourselves and make sure they introduce themselves to each other. Something I have introduced, which has been a lot of fun. Tell the class about an English experience you have had. We encourage them to say when they have used the language successfully. Or maybe, they had a little hiccup. We try to bring culture. If there is a holiday, which there often is coming up during the week, we talk about how that is celebrated in the U.S. I like to bring our own personal, how we did it in our family and then likewise that leads to other things. You probably have similar events in your family, and so on, and we can go there. We like to do vocabulary and sometimes it is a theme. Going to the grocery store, going to home depot. Sometimes, it will be maybe a little game. We have that wonderful newspaper that you collect for us every week. We read from that and then have a discussion on that. That would be a typical lesson plan. John loves to teach pronunciation and he is an artist. He does not draw anatomically correct. He has his own little side diagram, which he makes into a box and tries to make it simple. He loves to do pronunciation, so we always incorporate some pronunciation exercise in the lesson and he always teaches it.

John - It is kind of fun. We have people that the W is not a W. It is a double V. So, it’s a ven we go to vork. Another thing she does is go through the alphabet. We go to a store and we want to buy apples. Then, you buy something that begins with a B. Then, C, D, E, and go around and around.

Harriet - That is the vocabulary sort of game.

John - But you have to remember the word. It has to come from them.

Harriet - We always, of course, emphasized in their instruction at Literacy Connects. It is always have the students speak more than you do, if possible. The emphasis is on the students and get them to speak.  

John - We have clipboards and questions. They are supposed to get up and talk to everybody. They can ask about all the questions that are on the clipboard. They go talk about this and about that. Then, they come up and say what they learned. Then, there are people talking and it becomes a bubble up conversation. It is kind of zany and fun to stand up and walk around.

Please share a class activity that you are exceptionally proud of. What made it exceptional?

Harriet - We have already told you our secrets. I would go back to the activity he mentioned.
We will probably do this at least once a session where we give them a clipboard with lines and it is team building. They have to find someone who drives a Honda or likes to swim or has a dog. The line is for them to have that person sign right there. Well, when this activity is going on. The chatter. It is just so much fun to watch. They will say “Do you have a dog? Yes, oh good, sign here”. I would say it gets them up, gets them moving.

John - We just watch. They are doing all the work. They talk to each other and they get to know each other that way, more closely.

What has been your great success in working with the students?

Harriet - We have not been doing it that long. I do not know how we would measure success. When we ask for the English experience, one student raised her hand and she said “Oh, I had a great experience this week with my dentist because I spoke and I asked all the questions. Is this covered with the insurance?” Now whether that was due to us, I don’t know. 

John - Hearing their success stories is a success. Asking them on a weekly basis “What did you do last week?”

Harriet - A student had gone to a computer and found a complete description of a particular holiday, which she shared with us. She read and read and read. It got a bit long and complicated but she wanted to share it. We try to pull out some of the things, make it a topic conversation.

Pictured, right: A wonderful tradition that happens during the last day of class is to have students bring in dishes from their native country to share with the class. Harriet made the Causa Limeña because she lived in Peru for 10 years. Potatoes originated in Peru, not Ireland as some people would say. Many Peruvian dishes are based on or contain potatoes. Causa consists of 2 layers of seasoned (oil, lemon juice, a little chile) mashed potatoes with a layer of tuna salad in between.

There was also a ceviche from Mexico, a seafood dish from Ecuador, a tabouli type salad from Iran, and some delicious coffee from Mexico, with brown sugar and cinnamon, and more! A vocabulary game was played before lunch.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Harriet - We are older now and are very comfortable here with our doctors and our hospitals and good health care. When you are younger, you are more adventurous. I love living in South America because of the comforts you can have if you have a certain level of income. You do not have to be fabulously wealthy to have as I did. A cook, a live-in full-time housekeeper and a gardener. He had a chauffeur. But we loved Peru. I would like to say I would like to live on a Greek island. Greece is beautiful.

John - You stand in line here to go to the movies and this kind of stuff. In Latin America, somebody stands in line for you. We lived like kings and queens down there. Of course, I told my kids that we will never live like this again in your life. Let us soak it in and enjoy it. You will be able to tell people about it and they will not believe it. Peru had more than just the servants. It has a lot of ancient cultures.  

Do you have a favorite book or author?   

Harriet - One of my favorite books is Madame Bovary. The author is not necessarily a famous author but I do love that book. Something about how that man, in that period, was able to write about a woman in such an interesting and in-depth way. I mean the psychology now. The author is completely different. I love Hampton Sides and his history. The history is so compelling and it is wonderful to read.

On Desperate Ground

John - I like nonfiction and fantasy, but not the modern fantasy. For fiction, J.R.R. Tolkien and I read Hampton Sides too, and the history. She gives me books and says “You would like this book”. I have read everything that she has given me.