How to Make a Difference

by Anthony Jang '15
May 1, 2015

Anthony Jang is a community fellow for Partnership for Adult Learning (PAL), an organization that promotes partnership and friendship between Brown students and adults with developmental disabilities in Rhode Island. 

"So, Santos, what do you want to do this semester?"

Santos makes her characteristic big smile: "I don't know."

I decide to make some concrete suggestions: "do you want to work on math?"

Her smile grows: "Yes!"

"How about drawing? Or do you want to read some stories?"

Her smile grows again: "Yes!"

"Uhhhh… So what do you want to do this semester?" I repeat in my broken Spanish: ¿qué quieres hacer?"

Big smile: "I don't know."

It was my first day with Santos, whom I've met through Partnership for Adult Learning (PAL). PAL is a Swearer Center program that pairs Brown students with adults with developmental disabilities for one-on-one tutoring and partnership. When a PAL tutor and learner meet, the first session is typically spent talking about topics to pursue during the semester.

After convincing myself that math seemed to excite Santos more than other topics, we had settled on arithmetic as our project. And for the rest of the semester, the Barus & Holley classroom chalkboard was filled with drawings of numbers and apples every week. Under '3+4+2=' were groups of three, four, and two apples. For '7-3=', there were seven apples with three crossed off. After practicing together, Santos could do these problems pretty easily. Simple enough, I thought.

However, every week we met, something was missing. Some weeks, Santos couldn't differentiate between '+', '-', and '='. In other sessions, she forgot how to do subtractions. The more I met with her, I realized that Santos wasn’t able to do these problems on her own, and needed my instructions in the beginning of every session. Sometimes, she struggled to understand concepts that she'd known in previous meetings. And while struggling, she still managed to seem so happy doing it.

At the time, I was a teaching assistant for a course in neuroscience, and the TA in me was restless. I wanted to push her harder, give her homework, and tell her to explain to me the concept of addition, subtraction, and equality until it clicked. However, I also didn't want to make our meetings a chore for Santos.

As PAL tutors, it seems like we're in a constant struggle to balance having fun and being rigorous during our sessions. We all joined the program hoping to help others gain valuable skills and knowledge. However, every semester we see new tutors become helpless and disappointed by the fact that their weekly lessons don't seem to make any noticeable impact on their learners' lives.

Throughout my four years with PAL, I've gradually learned that the purpose of PAL is not to reach a concrete end goal, or have an "aha" moment of enlightenment through tutoring. What's important is the invaluable time spent between two individuals. By pursuing a mutual goal, whether that is doing math or learning random facts about volcanoes, a PAL learner forms a special camaraderie with the community that may be absent in the lives of many adults with developmental disabilities. As tutors, we become privy to not only the strengths our learners possess, but also the challenges they face in our current society.

Still, we can't help but feel disappointed from time to time that we don't seem to be making tangible progress. What motivates us is the fact that our learners come back the next week, eager to learn, and happy to spend time with us. Just as Santos does every week.