Kwanzaa (December 26 – January 1) is a celebration of family, community and culture – something we try to recognize every day at the Literacy Council. Our students, who represent 85 countries all over the world and speak 60 different languages, share their traditions and cultures with us and with their fellow students enriching, all of our lives. It is an amazing thing to be a part of such a diverse community, to connect with people from all different backgrounds, and to learn from each other.
One of the seven principles of Kwanzaa is Ujima, a Swahili word meaning collective work and responsibility, and defined by the holiday as “building and maintaining our community together and making our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems, and solving them together.”
As we go forward to celebrate the holidays with our families and friends, the Literacy Council would like to thank our volunteers and donors for their collective work and responsibility, their Ujima. We would like to thank them for giving their time, their knowledge, and their passion to our adult learners. For helping others in their quest for lifelong learning. For being a part of something bigger than themselves and actively reaching out into their communities.
A Joyous Kwanzaa and a Merry Christmas to all of those who will be observing these holidays next week! A reminder that LCNV’s office at the James Lee Community Center will close at 5 pm on Friday, December 21, and will reopen at 9 am on Thursday, December 27. The office will also be closed on Tuesday, January 1.
After learning that I would be teaching at the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia, I honestly did not know what to expect. Of course, I realized that I would be teaching English, but I did not know what to expect from my students. What were their motivations? Levels of experience? Their learning styles? Their cultures?
During my first few classes for the Family Learning Program at Connections for Hope, I found that there was a great variety in the levels at which my students spoke. In addition, their cultural backgrounds extended to countries and continents spanning the globe. Students in this class represented up to five different places in the world, ranging from India, Sudan, Egypt, Dominica Republic, and Honduras. Initially, I was a little apprehensive about this, unsure of how to tailor my lessons in order to ensure everyone was included; however, this apprehension soon vanished.
Day one was here. The anticipation and excitement in the room was palpable. Basic introductions were done and fun was had, yet I felt there was still a disconnect between my students. I found that, as is common within society, students rapidly gravitated towards classmates with similar backgrounds and at similar levels. Though I had tried a few activities to encourage students to step out, I found nothing really seemed to work. That is, until I introduced a review game that incorporated competition.
The game was set. The anticipation and excitement that filled the room on day one was once again alive and well. The goal of the game was for students to recognize certain vocabulary words when they are spoken aloud. I split the class into two groups. There were words written on the board related to the unit that we just finished. I would call out a definition of a word and one person from each team would go to the board and mark the word that I was speaking about. The first one to mark the correct word earned a point for their team. It was meant to measure the students’ ability to understand the vocabulary and test their listening skills. Once this game began, I immediately realized what was missing during class—Competition! The students were passionate about the game and encouraging towards classmates they had never spoken to prior. Most importantly, students were talking to other students that they would not otherwise interact with and the level of engagement of my lower level students blew through the roof.
Finally, I felt that I had found the key to this class and it taught me a poignant lesson. I learned that regardless of your experience or background, when your students have a common goal—even one as simple as a vocabulary game—they will try their best to work together and work around the language barrier in order to achieve that goal. In addition, it forced them to use the English words that they knew and it allowed them to communicate in a less structured way. And from now on, I know to use competitive games in the future to get these students warmed up and more comfortable with each other.
This year I am serving as one of the Corps Members with the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia. Though it is my first time serving with the LCNV, it will be my fourth term of service with AmeriCorps. I have viewed each service year as a fantastic opportunity to become a part of my community, to gain knowledge and experience, to be exposed to different cultures and beliefs, and to challenge myself to grow. AmeriCorps has been an amazing supplement to my education, has driven me to pursue further education, has interested me in new fields and possible careers, and has supported me in all these pursuits. It is interesting to look back on the time I have spent with this service organization and see how my earlier terms helped to prepare me to serve with the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia.
During my first two terms with AmeriCorps I served through Jumpstart, a national non-profit that works toward the day where every child enters school prepared to succeed. The focus was on early emerging literacy. I worked one-on-one as well as within a classroom setting with my preschool aged partner child to help her develop her literacy skills and prepare her for the transition into kindergarten. During my third term I served through the Roanoke City Public Libraries as a computer literacy instructor to adult learners. I worked one-on-one with library patrons answering various questions they may have about computers and instructing classes on computer basics. Both literacy programs, though different types of literacy and very different audiences.
Though there may not be a direct connection I have been able to pull on experiences from my work with early literacy for my low beginner learners like teaching someone how to hold a writing utensil or introducing the letters of the alphabet. The computer literacy experience has been helpful when I have had to brainstorm ways to explain a seemingly complex topic to someone who is very new to the language. For example, teaching a person who has never used a computer to create an email account required that I create a series of small steps, each meant to introduce a different skill, that would ultimately build to the goal of creating an email account. It is very similar when structuring an ESOL lesson plan. Recently I felt overwhelmed by the idea of trying to introduce elections in the classroom. With a Presidential Election just around the corner, it seemed like an interesting topic and one that might be useful to my students. But what should I focus on? What is the objective? What would be useful to know? What background information would you need to understand the election process? And so on…. I went through several drafts which eventually broke up into many classes of lessons about government and elections.
I have only been serving for a few months with the Literacy Council but I have already learned so much and have made many connections within my community and within my classrooms. I can’t imagine how great the impact will be by the end of the service year. And who knows what will happen after this year – there are so many opportunities – and that is what I love about AmeriCorps.
Washingtonian Assistant Editor Mary Yarrison’s article, “How to Choose the Right Charity to Get Your Donation,” provides a two-page guide to help make sure you’re donating to the worthiest causes this year – and the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia is mentioned as one of the five most highly regarded Washington-focused nonprofits! Click here to read the full article.
Each year LCNV changes the lives of over 1,500 adults and their families, leveraging the help of 700 volunteers. This allows 90 percent of LCNV’s operating costs to go directly toward our programs. Your donation helps to provide quality education for adults in need, giving them the tools and skills they need to succeed and the hope of a better life.
Right now is the best time to give to LCNV because your gift will be matched dollar-for-dollar, up to $25,000! This is LCNV’s biggest challenge to date – can you help us meet it by making a donation now at www.lcnv.org/donate? All new and increased gifts to LCNV will be matched. If you give a gift of $25, it will be matched with another $25 and become $50 – enough to provide a scholarship to an LCNV learner! A gift of $50 will double in value to $100. And if you can possibly share $100, it will become $200. No matter the size of your gift this year, you’ll be making TWICE the difference in the lives of our students!
In addition your donation to LCNV may earn you tax credits if you live in Virginia! Gifts from individuals totaling $500 or more, or gifts from corporations of $615.39 or more, made from July 1, 2012 – June 30, 2013, may be eligible to receive tax credits in Virginia equal to 65% of the donation. Contact Suzie Eaton, Senior Director of Development, at 703-237-0866 x 109 or email@example.com for more information, or go to www.lcnv.org/nap.
Hanukkah also known as known as the Festival of Lights is a Jewish holiday that usually occurs from late November to late December. This year, Hanukkah begins in the evening of Saturday, December 8th and ends in the evening of Sunday, December 16th. It lasts for eight days and eight nights. This holiday commemorates the Maccabeus successful rebellion against the Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the 2nd century BC. “According to the Talmud, a late text, the temple was purified and the wicks of the menorah miraculously burned for eight days, even though there was only enough sacred oil for one day’s light.” Today, celebrators light a Menorah or Hanukah that has a total of 9 candles. Throughout the holiday, 8 candles are lit. The candle in the middle of the row is called the Shamash which can be higher or lower than the rest. The purpose of this candle is to have it available to light. This Holiday was extremely interesting to research and it sparked my idea to write about one of my good friends, Helen Sperling. Mrs. Sperling is a Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor who turned 92 this year. I had the opportunity and privilege to meet and befriend Mrs. Helen Sperling when I was in high school, where she spoke and told her story to our school. Every time I go home, I try to get in touch with her and have lunch. Mrs. Sperling survived three concentration camps, including Ravensbruck and Buchenwald. Her story will bring to tears even the most hardened soul.
When did WWII start? Depending on the person asked, the date will vary within a decade. If an Italian veteran was asked, he might say the year 1935 when troops under Mussolini invaded Ethiopia. Ask an Austrian and the year might be 1938 as the Germans marched into their country. For many of the Jewish population in Europe, the year 1933 indicated what was to follow when the students of the University of Berlin burned thousands of books by Jewish authors. In 1938, when Synagogues and Jewish shops were destroyed by Nazi mobs in Germany (Kristallnacht), it left little doubt for many in the Jewish Community that the future was bleak. For Helen Sperling, the War started in 1939.
During our first lunch, the tiny 90 year old woman sat across from me. She still had a heavy Polish accent. Being the recipient of the Helen Sperling Scholarship, this was a special privilege and honor for me. She told of when the Germans entered her hometown on the outskirts of Warsaw, Poland. They entered her home, verbally abused her father and mother, and tossed many of the household belongings looking for any valuables. She remembers a German soldier sitting in her father’s chair as if he now owned their home. He put his “ugly shiny black boot” in her mother’s face and ordered her to polish it, which she did. Helen admits being a well loved but spoiled and pampered child and this first episode left her confused, scared and angry. The first time she ever saw her father cry was when the German officer, living in their house, dug up the beautiful lilac bushes in her front yard to have them sent back to his own home in Germany.
She and her family were forced to move into a Ghetto in Warsaw. The ghetto was encircled with barbed wire and they were told never to exit the perimeter and to maintain a strict curfew. Violating either rule would result in the individual or the entire family being shot. Despite this threat, she told of how one night she snuck out of the camp to make a phone call to her best friend. She was a “gentile” and they always wished each other a Happy Birthday. When her friend answered the phone and heard Mrs. Sperling’s voice, she said, “You dirty Jew, how dare you call me?” Mrs. Sperling states she will never return to Poland in fear of seeing that friend, even since more than 60 years have passed since. She described how her family was put into a rail car and moved to the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. The camp was filled with Jews, prostitutes, gypsies and homosexuals. All the prisoners were shaved, tattooed with a number and they all suffered systematic and repeated abuse. Helen took pauses as she spoke. She told of how her block supervisor, a prostitute and murderess, was a violent woman and would often beat other prisoners but showed glimpses of humanity by sneaking pencils and paper to her so she could write poetry at night.
Prisoners were treated as sub humans. They had no value. She described that SS Workers could kill any prisoner on a whim. There was one SS guard that would routinely strangle a prisoner each night. He said, “It helped him sleep.” It may appear to be callous, but Helen reluctantly would add, “After weeks of hearing the screams of the dying prisoner, the prisoners, including myself, would get mad at the victim for keeping them awake.” Mrs. Sperling was forced to work in a nearby munitions plant that made mortar shells for the German Army. She told of how she took pride in her ability to sabotage the shells so that they would not fire. It was her way of fighting back and not becoming a slave to her captors. As long as she resisted becoming “their slave” she kept her sanity and there was still hope.
She showed me a photograph of her parents taken when she was very young. While in Ravensbruck she watched her parents marched to the “Showers.” They were called the showers to the prisoners, to trick them into the gas chambers, the main killing machine at the camps. Quietly, she said, “this is all I have left of my parents,” as she was holding their pictures in her hand. Their maid had the photographs and gave them to Helen many years later. Helen was moved to Buchenwald Concentration Camp where the abuse and degrading conditions continued to escalate. Mrs. Sperling related that there was one time when her fellow prisoners saved her life. She had received a severe beating from her guards and was bleeding. Bleeding on the white snow within the camp was worthy of being killed. As they had to gather for muster outside their barracks, her fellow prisoners placed her in the back and gathered close so that her guards could not see the blood droplets. By trying to hide Helen’s injury, the prisoners also placed their own lives in jeopardy.
In early April of 1945 as the U.S. Forces started to move closer to Buchenwald, many prisoners were forced further into German territory. Helen was not moved and remained at the camp until April 11th, 1945. On this date, the prisoners knew that the U.S. Forces were close. Many of the German guards evacuated the camp. In expectation of liberation, the starved and emaciated prisoners stormed the watchtowers and seized control of the camp from the remaining guards. Later that afternoon, U.S. forces entered Buchenwald. Soldiers from the 6th Armored Division, part of the Third Army, found more than 21,000 people in the camp. After Helen was liberated, she collapsed and was hospitalized for nearly three years. She had pneumonia, cancer, her liver had to be removed, and due to her treatment at the camp, she would never be able to have children.
After her recovery, she came to America and eventually married Leon Sperling, also a camp survivor. Unable to have children, she adopted two children. Helen currently is a renowned speaker about the Holocaust and currently lives in a small town outside of Utica, NY. When asked how this started, she tells of how in 1970, her daughter came home from school crying. When asked why she was crying, her daughter said, “The kids called me a dirty Jew.” Mrs. Sperling went to her daughter’s school and asked if she could speak to her daughter’s classmates. After being granted permission by the principal, she spoke to the students about anti-Semitism. When she was told that her talk had a dramatic effect on the students, she realized that she should continue to bring to light that the genocide happened in what was a civilized society and continues today in many places in the world.
Mrs. Sperling states that she is often asked if she can ever forgive the Nazis. To paraphrase her response: It is not important if we forgive the Nazis, it is important that we learned the lesson. She stresses that genocide continues in our world – Cambodia, Rwanda, Sudan. “We have not learned our lesson, but now that you have learned it – go and save the world.” She will tell all her audiences, that although she has come a long way since this barbarism, she will sadly admit: “The days are mine; the nights are still Hitler’s.” Mrs. Sperling will always leave her audience with the message – “remember the dead, honor the survivors who have rebuilt their lives and their families, but most of all, teach people, young and old, to never take anything for granted, and honor the liberators while they are still with us.” Having had the opportunity to meet with Mrs. Sperling and listen to her a number of times, I know she will end her talks with the Hasidic Story of the 36 hidden righteous upon whom the hope of the world rests. Since these righteous ones are hidden and we don’t know who they are, she points to the audience, “You could be one!”
The name Hanukkah comes from a Hebrew word. The translated meaning is “to dedicate.” This seems like a fitting title for my story. I dedicate this blog post to the beautiful, kind, incredibly smart and wonderful human being – Mrs. Sperling.