My student, Kasem, asked during our first meeting, "Woah! Americans leave home when they're eighteen?" "Yeah! It's actually quite common for students to travel across the country for university,” I replied.
As the conversation continued, I noticed how fascinated Kasem was by American culture. In a way, we were similar. He had never spoken to an American before, so he wanted to learn all about the United States. I had never tutored a foreign student before, so I was interested in Kasem's experience as a refugee and Syrian background, just as he was interested in my background. Throughout the semester, Kasem and I got the chance to learn a lot about each other's cultures, lives, and dreams, all thanks to Paper Airplanes.
I began tutoring with Paper Airplanes to practice my teaching skills online after completing my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) training. The TEFL Academy recommended the Paper Airplanes English program as a useful learning opportunity for new teachers.
After completing the Paper Airplanes tutor training, I was paired with Kasem, a medical student living in Jordan. I immediately found out that Kasem and I had much in common: we were both students, had similar personalities, and were eager to learn about each other. This made it easy for us to get along throughout the semester.
Kasem and I officially met in our first tutoring session over Skype. At first, Kasem was a little shy and seemed nervous practicing his English. I encouraged him to speak as much as possible, as I knew he didn't have many other opportunities to practice. Gradually, he started talking more and I would correct him a bit during each conversation. As we spent more time in class, we got to know each other better. Kasem started sharing his experiences, more of his personality, and his interests.
I asked Kasem, "What do you do in your free time?" He replies enthusiastically, "PUBG!" PUBG stands for PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, a popular online video game. I joked, "That's a great way to practice English!"
After breaking the ice, our conversations became more relaxed and we slowly developed a strong bond.
Over the course of the semester, Kasem displayed a strong work ethic. I never had to pester him about doing his homework! He also had strong speaking skills. All I had to do was correct his writing. As such, we focused a lot on grammar and spelling in our sessions. As each week passed, his skills improved. Seeing Kasem improve his writing made me feel so proud of him and gave me a sense of satisfaction as his tutor.
Working with Paper Airplanes also gave me a deeper understanding of my language's own nuances! As native English-speakers, we are often unaware of how technical English grammar can be. For example, I did not understand the difference in usage between past simple tense and past perfect tense. I had to learn to distinguish between all the tenses in order to prepare for Kasem's lessons. It was a real challenge! It can be hard to explain these nuances to a non-native speaker, but this knowledge has certainly improved my own grammar. Since I started tutoring, I have seen an improvement in the syntax and clarity of my own writing.
Besides improving each other's English, Kasem and I also bonded over sharing our cultural backgrounds. Oftentimes, I asked about life in Jordan, his host country, and he would ask me about my life at Boston University. Surprisingly, we have more in common than we expected! We learned that all students tend to complain about the same things, play the same games, enjoy spending time with friends at cafés, etc. Kasem and I concluded that the world is much smaller than it seems.
As Kasem's tutor, I learned really interesting and unique facts about Syrian culture. When Kasem shared a traditional recipe for mujadara as part of a homework assignment, I got inspired to try my hand at preparing it! Since I was equipped with only the items available in my dorm kitchen, my attempt at Syrian mujadara was an epic fail, but don't tell Kasem! I was too embarrassed to ever admit that I gave it a try and failed!
Kasem and I had a lot of fun getting to know each other. My tutoring experience went far beyond just teaching English, as we learned about each other's cultures and interests. Due to my commitment to my work at AmeriCorps, I wasn't able to continue tutoring with Paper Airplanes the following semester, but I will always remember the time I spent with Kasem, what we learned about each other during our lessons, and how these lessons helped to bridge the gap between our two worlds. It’s safe to say that Paper Airplanes changed my life!