Structure, Staff Development, and Evaluation - Swearer Language and Literacy Programs

Nine program coordinators work with 8-25 volunteers per program, with an average of 16 volunteers per program. There are 10 programs. In addition, one librarian maintains the collection and works with the Assistant Director to provide support for people using the library.

Swearer Language and Literacy provides an interesting approach to teacher education and professional development. A layered approach to teacher learning enables student coordinators to model the same kind of learning that they hope their volunteer teachers will engage in with the learners in the 10 community programs with whom they interact.

Roles of coordinators and volunteers

Coordinators are hired by Marie Cora, program supervisor, and paid through the Swearer Center for Public Service and the RI Department of Education. Coordinators work an average of 12 hours per week. Their responsibilities include recruiting volunteer teachers, disseminating information about their programs to community partners, learners, and potential volunteers, providing ongoing support to the tutors through both formal and informal workshop and meeting sessions, and collaborating with the community partner at whose site the program runs.

Coordinators meet weekly with Marie, and have access to her through phone and email. Through weekly meetings, called Learning Community, coordinators have access to one another in a structured way. Throughout the week, coordinators work together in a variety of ways, helping each other accomplish tasks and develop programs. Learning Community functions more as a sharing session than as a workshop, per se, where overarching issues (alternative education, different populations, volunteering, and other broad-based concerns) can be explored. Coordinators act as professional development resources to one another as well. They mentor new coordinators; this model translates to the model the programs are trying to develop with volunteers and learners.

Coordinators' expectations of volunteers (including the degree of commitment expected and support available), makes the recruitment process similar to an interview process for any position being filled, and enables coordinators to screen potential volunteers so that the best possible match between program need and volunteer interest is made.

This selectivity impacts program quality positively, and also affects volunteer retention and commitment over time, as expectations are made clear and support can be more appropriately provided to volunteer teachers/tutors.


An initial 3-hour workshop/introductory session is held at the beginning of the semester for new volunteers. Returning participants are encouraged to attend as well, or are asked to participate as facilitators or presenters. Coordinators also act as facilitators or presenters. A professional workshop series is provided for coordinators and volunteers throughout each semester on topics concerning reading, math, ESOL, class dynamics, learning disabilities, policy, etc. facilitated by Marie Cora or other local professional educators. Marie also provides many workshops in response to stated needs of volunteers as reported by coordinators. Coordinators arrange the workshops which Marie facilitates. These workshops are more focused (e.g.: teaching writing, or working with non-literate learners) since it is a specific program which makes the request. Fewer people are in attendance and thus, workshops begin with each volunteer talking at some length about the particular person or people they are working with, their needs, strengths, and areas of concern. Marie responds and integrates their questions/concerns into the general workshop content.

In addition to the initial training and workshop series, weekly meetings are held in order to facilitate communication among coordinators and volunteers. These meetings are similar to sharing sessions -- outside resources are brought in, readings about issues that invite students to think about bigger picture issues are read and discussed (e.g. articles related to welfare reform and its relationship to adult education and community wellness overall). Additionally, during these weekly meetings, volunteer teachers work on lesson planning for the week and produce suggestions relevant to the skills/activities that learners should accomplish upon completion of various levels of study. Volunteers learn to ask themselves how to think about setting up a semesterıs worth of work, working from a learner-centered approach. Much of the content work is based around themes, acknowledging that although some learners may want grammar structure, a theme-based curriculum can build on structures, can contextualize that language work in ways that "straight" grammar teaching may not. Volunteers share classes and engage in team teaching, another means of helping them help one another as they learn more about teaching adults.

In order to keep track of their activity, volunteers keep information in binders, including documentation, information on learners' progress, curriculum developed (retroactively), day to day events in the classes. Lessons and curricula developed over the past couple of years will be posted on Swearer Language and Literacyıs website.

Coordinators and volunteers have gone to local conferences and workshops, and visited programs in the community. Program visits have been enlightening in showing staff differing models and approaches to education. In addition, staff enter programs with certain expectations and assumptions or develop them through their work here that do not necessarily match the reality of many programs' and people's situations and experiences. Program visits have proven instrumental in getting staff to question their role and approach to the work in a healthy way.

Finally, Marie and others in the education community are available to students during the afternoons when they come to the Swearer Center Resource Library to prepare their lessons for the evening sessions. These "library hours" have proven highly effective in helping individual tutors or teaching teams to locate resources and develop appropriate activities. These drop in meetings serve as individual staff development sessions for new teachers. A resource library coordinator is also available to assist volunteers in finding and utilizing appropriate materials.


Another important element for volunteer teachers is explicitly examining the evaluation process. For these programs, evaluation is ongoing. Lesson plan sheets, completed after each class provide space for a narrative account of the what worked and what didn't work in class, individual learners' contributions/progress, exploration of materials used, etc. Learners define their own short and long term educational goals and develop a Learner Profile or IEP (Individualized Education Plan) with their tutor in order to meet those goals. During instruction, tutors and learners work together to set the goals and measure their progress toward them. Curricular frameworks and homework materials have been developed by teams to provide more structure and improved continuity of lesson content. By the end of a semester volunteers and coordinators have produced layers of evaluation in order to best consider needed shifts or changes for the following year. Volunteers also write about their experience overall with the program, and participate in focus groups and discussions about their programs with others in similar programs within Language and Literacy. Additionally, about half of the programs provide adult learners with written evaluation, a factor found to be helpful in learner retention in those programs.

Three volunteer conferences have been held in the past several years. These conferences provide volunteers with opportunities to share best practices, interesting lesson plans, and lessons learned among a group of their peers -- some of whom may graduate and others of whom are likely to participate in the coming year's programs.

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