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Everyone Is a Learner at the North Side Learning Center

Whether the subject is chemistry, algebra or history, Syracuse University student volunteers find that successful tutoring requires patience, creativity and good listening skills.

Laptop on a desk. Click image to read story
Rose Al-Saadi reviews an algebra lesson for a digital tutoring session.

On a typical weekday, the North Side Learning Center (NSLC) is bustling with after-school programs for members of Syracuse’s refugee and immigrant community. It’s a melting pot of languages, cultures and traditions for families who now make Syracuse home as they navigate a new country, learn a new language and—for many of the young people—adapt to life in a new school.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic halted in-person attendance at the City of Syracuse's public schools, the center's director, Mark Cass, knew he had to transition quickly to maintain consistent learning and the academic trajectories of the center’s students, some of whom are graduating seniors weighing college options.

We normally have students multiple times a week from four to 74 years old. There is a buzz of activity in the hallways where people are getting to know each other and collaborating,” Cass says. “Syracuse University students bring a tremendous amount of energy to the building. A lot of our tutors are also helping students connect with academic and financial aid advisors so they can make the transitions they’ve put so much work into.”

The NSLC, located on Park Street in the former Holy Trinity Catholic Church, is at the heart of the city's Northside neighborhood. The building embodies a feeling of comfort and familiarity, so transitioning that familial learning environment to a digital platform has been difficult. The shift to remote learning is especially challenging because NSLC provides immigrant and refugee families with broader services, including assistance to meet medical and nutritional needs, in addition to its primary role as a community and education center.

In many situations, there is a large family with just one electronic device in the home for multiple middle- and high school-age children. “The reality is many families are sharing one device for everyone’s schoolwork. We are working to tailor learning to each family’s situation and resources within the household,” says Brice Nordquist, an associate professor of writing and rhetoric in Syracuse University's College of Arts and Sciences. “We are really encouraging our tutors to be sensitive to the unequally distributed access to technology. It requires very careful and thoughtful administrative support.”

The tutoring initiative was developed when Nordquist submitted the idea through the COVID-19 Community Request form, which coordinates local assistance requests through the Office of Community Engagement. Nordquist, who has worked with NSLC for six years, coordinates arts enrichment programs at the NSLC and serves as a board member. He was recently named Dean’s Professor of Community Engagement for the College of Arts and Sciences, effective July 1.

Making the Grade

Rose Al-Saadi, a graduate student in biology at Syracuse University, responded to a faculty request in April to tutor NSLC students. Originally from Iraq, Al-Saadi moved to Syracuse with her family and graduated from Corcoran High School. As a high school student, she'd tutored other students in math and history after school at a local Catholic Youth Organization. “Coming from a different type of environment and background, I know how important it is to have tutors around, especially if you’re a person who speaks English as a second language. I can help students adjust in many ways.”

Now, as a tutor with NSLC, Al-Saadi works on math problems over Zoom with her student, who is a junior in high school. “My student is always on time and sends me worksheets in advance of our sessions. The transition to online learning has been very smooth. We use the whiteboard feature during our algebra sessions, too.” she says.

Barrington Bucknor, an undergraduate biochemistry and neuroscience major in the College of Arts and Sciences, started tutoring two NSLC students, one in high school and another in college, for general chemistry. He says he can relate to the students because he is also an immigrant and has also faced the challenge of adjusting to the pace of an online learning environment.

“The response I'm receiving is very positive, and they’re very appreciative of my help, which makes me even more excited to help them. General chemistry is very conceptually based. It’s hard to try and grasp concepts when you are not physically in the room,” Bucknor says.

The response that I am receiving is very positive, and they’re very appreciative of my help, which makes me even more excited to help them. General chemistry is very conceptually based. It’s hard to try and grasp concepts when you are not physically in the room.

—Barrington Bucknor

Both Al-Saadi and Bucknor shared that they feel optimistic about online learning based on their experiences during the first weeks of tutoring. “I have also found myself thinking of creating ways to help them grasp the material more easily, given the barrier of working online. I'm encouraged because the students have asked if I could meet with them more frequently,” Bucknor says.

Since so many of the NSLC students have limited English skills, a tutor can play a key one-on-one role patiently explaining assignments and helping to build a student’s confidence and study skills.

Ideas Are Bubbling

What has emerged is a radically interdisciplinary response, where students, faculty and staff at every level and department have gotten involved—even whole families in some instances. There is a mutual learning concept when our volunteer tutors say, “I think I learned more than I taught,” Cass says.

“It has been so uplifting for people from the University community to make time. Although our own students' face-to-face learning experiences have been put on hold, they’re still so eager to make time to connect with each other and with others. It’s incredibly heartwarming and it fills me with hope for our campus community and for the city,” Nordquist says.

The virtual program is giving the center an opportunity to think outside of normal circumstances and test how they will deliver services beyond quarantine. When school reopens this fall, they hope to continue the one-on-one tutoring with Syracuse University students and the Shaw Center.

“There is a silver lining. This crisis thrust us into accepting technology as part of how we deliver instruction. We want to come out stronger after COVID-19, expand services across grade levels and continue to use technology to support our face to face programs,” Cass says.

Jaclyn D. Grosso

This story was published on .


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