Sara Babb: Reaching the Unreached

Sara Babb started working with LCNV in 2017, when she first moved to Northern Virginia and wanted to engage with the local community to support newcomers. With life-long experience in English teaching, program development, and refugee and ethnic community empowerment, she became a volunteer with LCNV. “I chose LCNV over anywhere else – I loved LCNV’s mission of reaching the unreached. People normally have a threshold that the student at least need to know the alphabet before taking classes with the organization, but that is not LCNV – LCNV takes everyone.”

Sara has taught Intensive English and Workforce Literacy classes to learners with little to no English education, most of whom receive public assistance and are women from Afghanistan. During the process, she learned the importance of an integrated model for teaching nonliterate or semiliterate adults - not just literacy and conversation, but also community integration, cultural sensitivity, and workforce readiness – especially for literacy learners who do not have a defined career field. “I am excited that we are working to embrace newcomers and prepare them in a holistic way like cultural integration, literacy, conversation, law, professional behavior, vocabulary; but there’s not really a set of guidelines or parameters around the best practices for workforce readiness without a specified industry. Throughout the process, I have learned that this is something really needed,” stated Sara.

After volunteering with LCNV for three months, Sara was given the mission to design a new curriculum for nonliterate adults of immigrant or refugee background. As no suitable textbooks exist for teaching a workforce literacy course to this population, she designed a curriculum with original content to address the gap, as well as made adaptations to a basic picture dictionary and a life skills book for literacy-level English learners. With aid and support from LCNV, she has contributed tremendously in every step of the way in developing a robust program aligned to national standards for adult education and informed by evidence-based reading practices. “I loved how I always had support, was always able to call for good advice, and gather resources for the program,” recalled Sara, “It was a really nice balance of support and flexibility which allowed me to design the program in a way I thought would benefit the students the most.”

The challenges of teaching these specific groups of people are not limited to textbooks, however. “Being trauma-informed is important in the teaching process for this specific group of learners, which might be different from other groups,” stated Sara, “Sometimes when I was in class, the students might get a text message that there’s a bomb going-off in their home city, and their mother hasn’t been able to reach their brother in 12 hours. Sometimes while I’m here teaching, the students are concerned with their family members’ well-being in another country.”

As the intensive class was started specifically for individuals with little to no prior schooling who are trying to learn to read and write for the first time in a new language, Sara found that creating a scaffolded environment for students of different English proficiency so they can participate in the classroom activity is an important strategy during the teaching process. Dedicated to the low-literacy population, Sara’s class usually consists of students who know only basic English and students who are not yet familiar with the English alphabet. For these classes, Sara states that an inclusive approach that embraces both those who know the alphabet and those who don’t holds tremendous importance for the process: “When you have a student in the class that has never encountered the alphabet before, they are at a significant disadvantage than someone that can read simple words like bat, cat, etc. The divide between not knowing the alphabet and knowing the alphabet is the greatest chasm in English language learning. If you leave behind those students and you don’t teach them the alphabet while integrating them into the classroom, their self-esteem and morale just tanks - they really lose confidence and have so much less motivation to engage. It is important to be prepared to include those who do not know the alphabet in more difficult topics to keep them engaged, while having separate time for them to work on that very basic literacy so they can catch up.”

For Sara, her fondest memory at LCNV was seeing students building confidence and approaching learning as a communal effort. Some of her students are Afghan women that had never held a pencil before. These students came in sad, with an ingrained belief that they cannot learn, are (quoting their own words) “stupid”, and that it is not worth it to try. “A lot of my students really underappreciated their ability. The obstacles are not the technical skills like writing or memorizing the alphabet, but getting over the mental hurdle of believing in themselves,” said Sara, “It’s really meaningful to see them gain confidence when they realize and say ‘I can do this, I am learning, and I am growing.’” When the students are smiling and laughing, the classroom is filled with positive, empowering energy. This creates a joint learning experience that is crucial to instilling confidence in the students. When students are building off each other’s experience and engaging in conversations, gradually, they are increasing their ability to try new and difficult things, while defining their own future in the U.S.

Sara shared a story during the interview to demonstrate how the students’ outlook could change after being empowered. She had a pair of students in her class for 6 months, after which they weren’t able to participate anymore because their funding had expired. When Sara held an information session about a new class being offered, the two students were there. They were excited and tearful to know there was another class with LCNV and Sara that they could take. During the information session, the husband stood up and shared a testimonial of how much his wife has changed since learning with Sara and the other Intensive class instructors – every night, she spent more than two hours writing in English, and has become more confident and engaged like never before. “Then they showed us a notebook. There’s more than 500 pages in the notebook and it was filled with vocabulary and notes,” shared Sara, “For me, their dedication to be engaged in learning is more meaningful than their growth, and the notebook serves as a verification as how much this class meant to them.”

This is just an example of the lives Sara has been able to touch through her teaching. Through ebbs and flows in enrollment and the changing needs of local workforce development programs, she has displayed a tireless commitment to the upskilling of her students. Her dedication, passion, and empathy towards the students has been invaluable to the whole LCNV community. We wish you the best of luck, Sara, in your continued work on refugee empowerment.

Instructors looking to improve their skills in working with literacy learners should visit LCNV website for training opportunities and resources. If you know someone who can benefit from learning English, please refer them to LCNV’s classes, too! We also recommend checking out the website for Literacy Education and Second Language Learning for Adults (LESLLA), the international organization of teachers and researchers devoted to serving adults learning to read or write for the first time in a new language.