Tales told out of school build literacy in St. Anthony Park


With an elementary school, a junior high, a seminary and a university campus, it’s pretty obvious that education is a major industry in St. Anthony Park. What’s not so obvious is the constellation of literacy and English language learning programs that support those institutions, programs that run largely on hour-by-hour volunteer power but add up to a significant contribution.

And as volunteers often do, these literacy “stars” say they receive as much as they give, learning about new cultures or drawing inspiration from young learners.

The St. Anthony Park Library serves as a hub of language instruction, not only by providing the space, materials and expertise, but by referring volunteers to programs that might interest them and by offering get-to-know-the-library tours to newcomers.

From a third grader who needs help with spelling, to a graduate student looking to polish pronunciation, people seek more than books at the library.

On a cold Thursday afternoon, De la Salle High School freshman Kendra Eull walks up the library steps. She’s not looking for help, she’s offering it. In her second year as a tutor, she earns community service credit at school. This year, third grader Juan is spending an hour with her each week.

Eull plans each session, usually getting Juan to read out loud, then offering a related activity for which she either brings the materials herself or arrives early to find them at the library.

“Sometimes we’ll play with play dough,” she said, noting that Juan seems to learn by forming letters with the dough. In December she put together a Christmas lesson, bringing some of her own favorite books. She sometimes creates a crossword puzzle specific to her lesson plan, using a Web site that one of her sisters introduced to her.

“Toward the end of the year, there’s a special project I like to do,” Eull said. She brings a kit that allows students to make up a story, illustrate it and send it in to be produced as a book. “Whatever will help the kids learn,” she said.

Eull is one of four tutors currently volunteering at the St. Anthony Park branch for the St. Paul “Read with Me” program. Ginny Brodeen, outreach librarian at the Lexington branch, oversees that and many other library programs.

“Many of the tutors will continue year after year,” Brodeen said of the seven-year-old tutoring program. “To me, that’s an indication of success.”

The commitment of an hour a week, and the relationship that results over time, is as important to many students as the tutoring itself, Brodeen said. In addition, many of the students come from households where there are no adults literate in English.

“The value of this is immeasurable,” Brodeen said. “None of our schools can give that one hour, one-on-one.”

The program targets students in first through fourth grades but is open to older students depending on need, she said.

And the need is outstripping the supply of tutors. Brodeen said more volunteers are needed; prospective tutors can pick up a brochure at any branch library.

One day last spring, small-business owner Chris Miller approached the St. Anthony Park library desk. He was looking for an opportunity to volunteer, and library staff matched him up with a new program, this one run by a group of retirees from the University of Minnesota.

“Partners in English” hooks up local residents with international students who want to polish their language skills, mostly in casual conversation, in whatever subject areas the students propose.

Miller met for an hour and a half a week during summer and fall terms with “anywhere from two to maybe eight or ten foreign students,” he said. Most already spoke English fairly well but wanted to hone their skills.

So far the groups have met Wednesday afternoons at the St. Anthony Park Library. Volunteers generally run the sessions in teams, with one responsible for preparing conversation topics in case the students don’t bring questions. But the students had plenty of ideas too, Miller said.

“Topics ranged all over the place — lots of interest in proverbs, local sayings,” Miller said. “One session we had a long discussion about coffee.” It turns out that in order to navigate the modern coffee shop, “you really have to know the jargon.”

Miller, whose business involves research on how humans interact with computers, got to watch a different sort of interaction in his volunteer sessions.

“You get to interact with people from a foreign culture,” he said. “You introduce them to what you love.”

One of his favorite sessions involved reading poems by Robert Frost aloud for the students. The satisfaction in tutoring, he said, comes from “sharing things that you love about the country, the city. You get to see the neighborhood through their eyes.”

Caroline Rosen, education specialist at the U of M’s Center for Teaching and Learning Services on the East Bank campus, said Partners in English grew out of a specific need: Graduate students who want teaching positions must demonstrate proficiency in spoken English.

She noted that they’re in a bind because their coursework takes up so much time and energy that they have a hard time getting off campus to practice everyday conversation.

“We thought about creating some of those opportunities for them,” Rosen said, and in winter 2005, Partners in English was launched.

Rosen said they chose the St. Anthony Park Library as a meeting place because so many of the students live in graduate student housing nearby.

Only a few dozen students have participated so far, but those involved say the need is great and they’re anxious to recruit volunteers. Most of the students so far are from South Korea and China; their spouses and other family members are encouraged to attend the conversation sessions, too.

“There were some students who came with babes in arms,” said Lucy Levitan, wife of retirees organizer Al Levitan, and an experienced tutor of adults learning English.

Even the International Institute of Minnesota, which has its own busy complex of literacy programs on Como Ave. across from the Fairgrounds, relies on the St. Anthony Park Library for at least one of its functions.

Students from the Institute, who come from all over the metro area, regularly tour the branch and get an introductory lesson on using libraries from staff.

The library hasn’t forgotten its traditional role, either. In support of all the international efforts going on in the neighborhood, the St. Anthony Park branch recently dedicated $1,000 of its precious acquisitions budget to English language learner materials, including sets with audiotapes, compact discs and DVDs to build both speech and literacy.

Librarians also conduct preschool story times on many Friday mornings throughout the year, livening up the basement reading room with flannel-board skits, finger puppets and a whole repertoire of routines to help children wiggle out their wiggles while learning about books.

“For many of the children,” said head librarian and frequent wiggle-facilitator RoseAnn Foreman, “English is not their first language,” adding that whatever their first language may be, early storytelling helps them get ready to read and to succeed in school.

In addition to schools, libraries and other educational institutions, neighborhood churches pitch in with their own literacy volunteer programs.

Two blocks away from the library, Astrid Anderson coordinates a tutoring program at

St. Anthony Park Lutheran Church, also serving international students and immigrants. The program has been running steadily since 1989.

Anderson said about 20 students are currently working with a dozen volunteers, usually in individual sessions in the students’ homes, although group sessions materialize often enough when a student draws in a spouse or a friend.

Volunteers are asked to commit two hours a week and can receive training through the Minnesota Literacy Council, which also refers some of the students needing tutors.

Anderson said she’s been working with one student for two years, although many stay in the program for shorter periods.

“Most of the time it ends up that you become a friend,” meeting needs that go beyond reading and conversation, she said. She added that many newcomers need advice about seemingly simple matters such as where to go shopping.

Partners in English tutor Lucy Levitan spoke warmly of her long experience as a volunteer tutor and the rewards she finds in the work. “I personally find them so brave and smart and interesting,” she said of her students.