Allies Spring into Action

Published by Program Manager on

Allies Spring into Action

Many people are familiar with BIIN’s long-standing citizenship and Conversational English classes and the Information/Referral/Assistance (IRA) program.  But there’s another program, known as “Allies in Action,” that has been added to the organization’s offerings in the last year.

With the pandemic, many K-12 schools have increased their use of digital tools and online platforms, and expect parents as well as students to be proficient in using email, Zoom, course management systems and other tools.  Allies in Action was designed primarily for non-native English speakers who are parents of school-aged children:  it offers them a chance to keep working on their ability to use English, while also expanding their digital skills and comfort with online communication.

After a five-week pilot in the fall of 2020, Allies in Action resumed in February 2021 for the spring term. The program met via Zoom on Wednesday afternoons from 4 to 5:30 pm, for twelve weeks. The spring leadership team included interns Arleth Murguia-Chavez and Bianca Lasagna, long-time BIIN volunteer Françoise Bracher and BIIN staff member Janet Morford.  While attendance fluctuated somewhat, seven adult learners participated regularly throughout the term, along with their “allies,” the dozen or so volunteers who worked with the students in pairs or trios.

Some of the Allies volunteers had previously been involved with the in-person "English for Parents" program, while others were TAMU students who learned about the program through BIIN's social media accounts.

Although Allies in Action uses the same English textbook series as the Conversational English classes, the structure of classes is somewhat different.  The smaller scale and high volunteer to student ratio in the Allies program made it possible to work at a very individualized pace.  At the beginning of the semester, students did a self-assessment to determine the level and chapter in the textbook series where they would begin.  Meeting week after week with their assigned volunteer(s), students could then work at their own pace.

Each Allies class would begin with some communication exercises and warm-ups, which were designed to be inclusive of any children who might be present at the outset.  Sometimes, one or more of the school-aged children would help read a children’s picture book, and then were invited to draw a picture in response to a simple prompt, “while the adults work.”  Group announcements or a short group lesson on phonetics in English or a specific feature of Zoom or another digital tool would follow.  But for the bulk of the time, usually about an hour, adult learners and their volunteer “allies” would meet together in pairs or trios in breakout rooms. This enabled the students to work at their own pace, while receiving a great deal of individualized guidance and support. 

By screen sharing a PDF of the textbook, and activating the annotation feature, partners could work remotely on language exercises, just as they would if sitting side by side in person.
Many students pointed out that working with the same volunteer(s) week after week enabled them to build rapport with their partners, and having extensive time in the breakout rooms with one or two people, made it easier for them to listen, speak, and improve their grasp of pronunciation in English.  As one student explained,

The volunteers give you time to practice and to have conversations.  This makes it easy for you to move at your own pace.  Since you are interacting with one person, you can ask anything you need and get answers right away.  Since it’s only you and the volunteer, you feel free to speak, and they explain everything very well to you.

Being able to work week after week with the same partner(s) is an aspect of the Allies in Action program that many participants -- volunteers as well as students -- appreciated.
Besides working through the English for Everyone series, students were encouraged to identify personal learning goals, and volunteers were eager to help them meet them.  One student, for example, wanted to work on reading comprehension, while another asked for help in preparing to take the interview portion of the driver’s license exam.  The volunteers who were working with these students went out of their way to find appropriate texts, videos and other resources to help them.  Although many participants, volunteers as well as adult learners, wished that it had been possible to meet in person, we knew that for everyone’s safety, the program had to meet online.  But in the course of the semester, everyone became more comfortable using the various functions of Zoom (including screen sharing, annotating, using the chat, responding to surveys), as well as the audio features of the textbook series.  So that was a silver lining of sorts, for volunteers as well as students.  As one student observed,

In the beginning, it was frustrating, because I wasn’t used to using the computer.  And it felt strange, being on line, and having everyone look at me.  But then I realized that if I didn’t get over this, I wouldn’t be able to move forward, and it was better to have courage and learn how to do this.  So I just kept learning, and now it comes easily to me.

To celebrate the hard work and progress made by students and volunteers alike, the class had an online celebration on May 5th.  After playing some games, including one that involved running around one’s house to gather various props (hats, sunglasses, stuffed animals, etc.) and then voting on the best items found in various categories, one of the program’s tech-savvy interns, Bianca, gave a quick intro to using filters on Zoom.  In small groups, partners were then invited to go into one of the breakout rooms where Bianca was operating a “photo booth.”  Using either real props or filters, pairs or trios of people who had worked together all semester took silly photos of themselves, to save as souvenirs of this semester-long learning adventure.

We then divided into two bigger groups, sending all volunteers to one breakout room, and all of the students with our two bilingual interns to the other.  Everyone then had a few minutes to prepare a few lines about what they appreciated in their partner.  When we came back together in the main session, the volunteers took turns sharing their words of recognition and praise with the adult learners, and students had the option of sharing their thanks out loud or in the chat.  This chance to share what each partner had seen in the other made it clear that besides helping each other learn specific skills, participants had forged relationships of mutual respect and affection.

Students and volunteers shared words of mutual appreciation at their final gathering on May 5th.
Indeed, this is part of what all of us seek in taking part in any of BIIN’s programs:  not only the chance to learn valuable knowledge or strengthen specific skills, but also the opportunity to get to know our neighbors better, and to contribute to making our community one in which all human beings are recognized and valued, regardless of where they were born, what language(s) they speak, or how they make a living.  As one of the regular participants said, “When I went to Allies, I was so relieved to see that so many people really care about helping immigrants learn.”

Allies in Action is on hiatus during the summer, but many of its participants are looking forward to the program resuming in the fall.  If you would like to help lead the program or to serve as a regular volunteer, please reach out to Janet Morford at   

Categories: Updates