Junior Helps Spread Literacy in Two Languages

Katie Keen of Benton majors in international studies and Spanish. But her overall interest is helping people to learn to read, whatever the language.

Keen, a junior at UALR, is an AmeriCorps volunteer for Literacy Action for Central Arkansas helping teach new tutors that volunteer. It started simply by passing out flyers and holding a sign-up sheet for any adult in need of English classes at In His Image Youth Development Center. But now, her two-hour commitment has become a highlight in her life.

“These one-hour classes at 8 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays have become favorite times of my week — a constant reminder of why teaching English is so important,” she said. “I leave each class feeling like I am working for something that matters.”

She teaches 12 adult native Spanish speakers in the English and a Second Language class.

“It is amazing to see the progress and the excitement they show while learning English. We started out with the pronunciation of the alphabet and we have just started working with irregular verbs,” she said.

“Each student shows tremendous dedication by arriving on class on time, every time and working so hard to learn this crazy way of speaking we call English. Although sometimes the material is difficult and initially difficult to grasp, they always seem to keep a light heart and a good sense of humor. I love that our class time is filled with as many laughs as it is lessons.”

Keen’s volunteer efforts also are expanding and enhancing her major course of study.

“Being from a different country, the students often times have different experiences and perspectives than me,” she said. “It allows for many interesting conversations in class. I love speaking with them and learning how things are done in their home country.”

Likewise, she is teaching more than conjugating verbs and funky spelling rules. In class discussions, she is teaching about American history, culture, and holiday traditions.

“It is always interesting and helpful for them to understand this American way of life,” Keen said. “However, I did have some difficulty explaining why we hide eggs on Easter and how on earth that bunny comes into play.”

Keen is also experiencing the enormous satisfaction a teacher receives when a student succeeds — especially students whose inability to speak the language keeping them from achieving the American dream. She tells of one student who improved her English skills enough to land a job at the Post Office.

“She is so proud to be working for herself and her family,” Keen said. “Now that her English has become proficient, she is now able to speak with her child’s teachers about his progress in school. This is crucial to the educational development of her child and also to his cultural assimilation into the United States.”

Keen said teaching English to the class has been a wonderful experience, filled with valuable lessons from both sides. Soon, Spanish speakers in Mexico can return the favor. Keen is heading south of the border this fall for a study abroad opportunity to hone her Spanish skills.

Then she leaves for Bolivia Jan. 10 for an internship with Proliteracy, the world’s largest organization of adult literacy and basic education programs. She will work with Soroptimist International of Bolivia, teaching language and other skills to indigenous women who speak the native Quechua tongue.

I am so excited about Bolivia and the opportunity to work specifically with women in need. From my internship with ProLiteracy, I hope to get a better understanding of how to make the power of literacy available to all,” she said “The internship lasts for six months, but I am planning on staying as long as I am needed — a year, maybe two. Who knows!”

She will be working with members of local mothers’ clubs that emphasize learning and parenting skills. The clubs also receive revolving loans to fund micro-enterprise projects, such as starting bakeries, raising and selling small animals, and selling artisan crafts.

A native of Atlanta, Keen moved to Arkansas for her last year of high school, graduating from Bryant High School. Why major in international studies?

“I guess I always loved politics, particularly how countries relate and deal with each other,” Keen said. “But I was also always confused at how the wealth and achievement gap between developed and developing countries could be so broad, and, to a large extent, so ignored.”

She said she is committed to continue her work helping people improve their lives by improving their language skill.

“Once I finish my bachelors, if Literacy Action of Central Arkansas has a position open, I would love to work for them,” she said. “I also would love to do something with Peace Corps. I’m still kind of young, so a lot of things are still in the air.”

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