On unexpected lessons and instructing ESL computer classes at @UBC_LE through @UBCTrekProgram

At the beginning of this year, I promised myself that I would really make and stick to a very important nugget of advice that I’ve always been told: If you’re given a chance to be in control, do something because you want to, not because you have to or should.

Learned this lesson over the last little while, but especially last year. So, come January was all set to put this mindset in motion and looking for a change of pace and scenery, popped down to UBC’s Centre for Community Engaged Learning looking for a way to better invest my interests and time through the TREK program. These weekly placements at non-profit organizations or community organizations invite UBC students to interact with the community.

I thought this post my be relevant given the talk I gave last week to a bunch of CAP/ Arts 1 students about how to get involved and gain meaningful university experience. And I had been meaning to say something about the 3 hours I look most to each week!

Fridays have always been my favourite day of the week since I can remember, ending a busy week and celebrating with food, friends, and my most important rule about Fridays: no homework gets done!  Still, Fridays have always been productive in a different sense, and often my favourite day because of something to look forward to after school. In this case, my weekly trek down (pun intended) to UBC’s Learning Exchange in the heart of Vancouver’s Chinatown has been an unexpected pleasure. The Learning Exchange is a safe space that invites residents of the DTES and those in frequenters of Chinatown to come in, use computer facilities, have some coffee, and learn new skills. A place of community, the Learning Exchange is often buzzing with conversation. The facility offers programs for seniors, including dance and exercise time, English workshops and even a documentary club!

Everyone once in awhile, we come across an idea, person, opportunity/ what have you, that makes you hesitate, reconsider, gets you all clammy and sweaty, butterflies in pit of stomach, heart going fast kind of nervous. For those who don’t like change, we like to avoid these situations and shut ’em down immediately. For me, these instances are not always welcome, but are rare and even more so, special. Admittedly, hadn’t had this out of comfort zone feeling in awhile.  This was uncomfortable, but an important feeling to see through. Being out of my element, I was in a new environment, and the prospect of interacting with members of the Downtown East Side threw me.
Lesson 1: Embrace, explore, and trust that out of comfort zone feeling

I’m not the type to just take something sitting down without finding out for myself (ie- I touched the hot stove when told not to!). In this case, challenging the knowledge I had about Vancouver’s DTES aka “Canada’s poorest postal code”. An ominous dark cloud filled with stimga is cast over East Hastings as stained by the drug trade, sex trade, and is a general danger zone that is to be avoided at all costs, etc etc. Born and raised in Vancouver, the information that I’d been taught about these othered communities has not always been accurate, so I am quite grateful that I’ve had an opportunity to form my own opinions about these kinds of contentious issues.
My most important rule from since I was tiny manifested in Lesson 2: Challenging self and assumptions, and critically evaluating about what others tell you is so necessary. Think your own thoughts.

I spend 2-3 hours on Friday afternoons facilitating an ESL Computers workshop to a group of 6-7 grateful, seniors who are very eager to learn. Teaching ESL (with no formal training) is one thing, but using limited English to explain how the Internet works is a complete other. Armed with my 2 other volunteers, my mediocre Mandarin, a whiteboard marker, and patience, we have covered parts of a PC computer, to how to use a mouse. Slowly but surely.  Am especially glad that the Learning Exchange provides worksheets that give an outline of the week’s learning outcomes, complete with Chinese translation!

Being involved with the Learning Exchange in this capacity has been a humbling experience. I have long considered education as my profession of choice, but the chance to work with adult learners was new and foreign. I have long been involved with children, youth, and general community placements, so this was new and exciting! I hesitate to call them students, because these grandparents have done more than just learn from me, their instructor. They’ve humbled me with their willingness to learn with no regard for their communication barrier. They demonstrate a resilient resolve to succeed despite difficulty, and to do so with a smile or an offer to bring me a dantat (egg tart) from one of the Chinese bakeries next door. This placement truly is a learning exchange: they learn from me about computers and their English terminologies, I (re)learn and practice the Mandarin I should have more diligently focused on while I was younger.

A volunteer placement shouldn’t be an obligation that makes an individual feel like they must show up to show face for X amounts of hours to fulfill some kind of school-mandated requirrement. Show up because you want to.  Show up, show more than face. Show up, be present.

I end this post with one of my favourite moments from this TREK experience so far:
A couple weeks ago I was meant to lead the workshop on my own as other volunteers weren’t available. Not only was I late and lost, but I was having an off day. Roll into the Learning Exchange, dash up the stairs to find my class already seated. Not enough computers apparently, so had to make do with sharing one computer between an entertaining husband- wife duo. That week we were practicing keyboard typing with letters, numbers, and symbols! Wow!!  Using the instructor laptop hooked up to the projector, I had typed out the following for participants to imitate and practice on a word doc:
“Hi, my name is ______. Today I am happy! My phone number # is (604) 888-8888.”
I offered my laptop to Husband to let him practice, so whatever he typed would be projected beneath my texts on the board. So he proceeds to go through the exercise and by the end of it I come back and I see that he’s typed out his actual phone number. No problem. I joke with him and say I’ll call him later to come bring me some food! Hilarious, everyone laughs. But just as I’m checking through the others’ work, I notice that the 6 others have also typed out Husband’s phone number without realizing it! I bring it up and the class erupts in laughter, a friend suggests a party at his house! Class ends on a high note, and giant smiles and fervent thank yous.

Within a challenge and outside comfort zone, discovered a new happiness and look forward to this learning experience!

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