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Instructor Spotlight: Deborah Alvarez

July 18, 2023

At the Shelby Literacy Center in Collierville, TN, Deborah Alvarez helps English language learners not just learn the language, but the history of their new country—all with a little fun woven in. Her classroom might be the National Civil Rights Museum one day and a movie theater the next, all to make learning English fun and relatable. And all her students’ victories, no matter how small, are celebrated. 

Meet Deborah Alvarez. 

The Basics 

ProLiteracy: How long have you worked with Shelby Literacy Center? 

Deborah Alvarez: I started as a volunteer tutor almost seven years ago when we first moved to Collierville. After retiring from being the ESL coordinator, I got a call asking to come back to ESL teaching. I jumped at the chance. I really missed the students!  

PL: Why did you decide to start working with Shelby Literacy Center? 

DA: I have been working in ESL for 18 years, starting in public schools in Michigan and Connecticut. I wanted to continue helping immigrants, and being new to the town, I thought this would be a great way to help and meet people.  

PL: What do you teach and in what setting?   

DA: I currently teach two Advanced level classes where we learn idioms, vocabulary, and pronunciation through studying American History. We just finished WW2 and started the Cold War.  


About Your Experience 

PL: What have you learned about yourself by working with students? 

DA: My students are facing the challenges of acclimating to a new language and culture, new job, and parenting, and [they’re] doing it with an optimism that is very infectious! Working with adults is different from working in a public school setting, and this has led to my biggest learning: celebrate any and all victories in the class. If someone can finally say “th” correctly, we all celebrate it! Any “quizzes” that are given are graded by the students themselves, and I never see the results. It is for them to measure their progress. If they can master five out of 10 of the new idioms, that is five new expressions that they understand and may use in their everyday lives. That is a win!  

PL: Tell us about a favorite/impactful/memorable teaching experience. 

DA: I love it when a student takes something they learned in the class and goes with it! For instance, one of my students was fascinated by our Native American unit. She then took her family to Cherokee, NC, for vacation last year and this year visited the Native American Museum in D.C. Some students have decided to learn more about their own country’s history to pass it on to their children. My Ukrainian students are trying to fill in their spotty knowledge of their history because it was not taught in schools during Communism. 

PL: How do you keep students motivated? 

DA: I try to find articles and other media that relate to the history that is being studied. We use … YouTube, videos, newscasts, poems, movies, puzzles, word searches, etc. If it can further their understanding, I add it to the mix. This year, we did two field trips: the movie Elvis and visiting the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.  


The Other Stuff  

PL: Name someone who inspires you.  

DA: My students. Each comes with his/her own story, and their optimism and appreciation for this opportunity inspires me.  

PL: Where would you go on your dream vacation? 

DA: Greece. Its combination of history and natural beauty has been calling to me for years.  

PL: What is your favorite book of all time?  

DA: Tough to answer because I go through many phases. Most recent favorite is In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson.  

PL: Are you reading anything now?  

DA: Rising out of Hatred by Eli Saslow (the middle school version) as preparation for our Civil Rights period in the fall.  

Instructor Spotlight is a monthly feature on the ProLiteracy website and blog. Nominate an outstanding instructor from your program to be featured!    

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