On the main floor of Occidental College’s Academic Commons, a sign that reads “Community Literacy Center” marks an area filled with children’s books, board games and puppets. Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, elementary school students race around to find a good study spot, laugh together during group activities or read quietly alongside Occidental students.
These elementary school students are part of Occidental’s Community Literacy class, EDUC 140. In this two-credit course offered by the education department, Occidental students are paired with an elementary school student to work together on language arts activities.
Professor Désirée Zamorano, an author and former public school teacher, has run the Community Literacy Center for 15 years. Zamorano said there is no set curriculum for the course. Instead, Occidental students are given the freedom to shape the course in a way that will best support the students they partner with. The one-on-one relationship allows for personalized engagement and student-centered learning that can provide a more positive learning environment than mainstream classrooms, according to Zamorano.
“I get a lot of phone calls from parents of first graders at the beginning of the year who say their first grader is failing, and I’m like ‘No, your first grader is not failing, the curriculum is failing your first grader,'” Zamorano said. “Often, a kid is viewed one way in their school setting and viewed much more positively in this setting because we can afford the one-on-one attention.”
Alyssa Ramlochan (junior), a psychology major taking the course, remembers struggling with areas of reading and writing when she was younger. According to Ramlochan, one of the biggest lessons the class taught her has been to take her time.
“Every kid learns at their own pace,” Ramlochan said. “There are different levels each kid is at. You have to go at the pace that they’re comfortable with.”
While some kids come ready to dive right in, others have a more ambivalent relationship with language arts. Rush Stroska, a student in the Community Literacy program, always has reading last on his to-do list, according to his mom, Roxanna Stroska. As a 9-year-old athlete, Rush prefers golf to reading. Roxanna enrolled Rush in the program to help him find what he liked to read and said she was happy to learn her son would be paired with a student on the football team, Garrett Pittman (sophomore).
“If I bring Rush here to a peer and a role model, it makes reading fun. He can relate and identify with someone like Garrett, so there’s no resistance to come here,” Roxanna said.
Roxanna said that although she heard the number of male students enrolled in EDUC 140 this semester was higher than usual, she hopes more male athletes will sign up for the program next semester because Rush’s partnership with Pittman has been a good fit. Zamorano said she understands the significance of the elementary students being able to identify with their Occidental peers.
“I like to make sure the population of the Literacy Center mimics the population of the community,” Zamorano said. “I think that’s really important.”
Zamorano said she is intentional about the elementary school students she brings into the program and focuses on including students from populations that are typically underrepresented on college campuses. Ramlochan said the program offers elementary students not only a reading and writing tutor, but an introduction to college.
“This program gives some kids a chance to come here and see a college campus that they might not have had the chance to,” Ramlochan said.
Matthew Lee (sophomore) is minoring in education and taking EDUC 140 for the first time. Lee said while he already sees the impact of the Community Literacy Center on both the elementary school students and the Occidental students, he believes Occidental could have a stronger relationship with its surrounding community.
“Oxy’s community should to try to branch out more into the community and share our experiences and knowledge with other people,” Lee said. “I also think it’s important that students have exposure to various backgrounds and perspectives.”
While Lee and Ramlochan said the class has allowed them to gain experience for a professional career, according to Zamorano, her personal goal is more simple than that — and is the same for all students.
“My hidden curriculum is that the students become producers instead of consumers. Everyone is born creative but it somehow gets drummed out of us,” Zamorano said. “The whole point of the class is to reconnect with the joy of language arts.”