Showing Up to Learn and Grow: Nashville Adult Literacy Council Pivots in the Pandemic

Reading with family — the kind of moment made possible by the work of the Nashville Adult Literacy Council!

Normally right now we’d be preparing for our busiest day of the year, the day after Thanksgiving. And we’d be getting ready for Small Business Saturday, when we ask our community to shop local and, in return, give a portion of the day’s receipts to a Nashville nonprofit. Of course, it’s not a normal year.

We can’t have crowds inside the bookstore in the middle of a pandemic. So instead, all through the holiday weekend, we’ll be adding to our tally for an organization we really believe in: Nashville Adult Literacy Council (NALC). As you’ll see, they had to think fast and learn a whole new way of helping Nashvillians, and we’re so glad to hear that not only are they continuing their important work, but expanding it, too. Here’s a Q&A with CEO Kim Karesh.

Parnassus Musing: Can you give the real quick overview of what you all do?

Kim Karesh: Our mission is really simple. We teach reading, writing and English speaking skills to adults in Nashville. And we do that so that they can have a better life, whatever that means for them, so sometimes that means getting a degree or enrolling in the next kind of schooling, but sometimes it means being able to read a book to a grandchild, or to get a driver license so they can take a better job. So we really try to meet people where they are in whatever goals they might have.

In normal times, what would your operation look like?

Normally, we would enroll a student and then we had hundreds of volunteers who would sign up to help. And we would assign that student to one volunteer, and then they could meet together face-to-face for lessons. We also had some classes where students would come and participate in a classroom setting and receive instruction from a teacher. Obviously, all of that had to change. We’re working with a population that is most likely to contract the virus, because they have front line jobs, and almost half our volunteers are over the age of 60, which are at the highest risk for negative outcomes from the virus. So mixing those populations would have been completely irresponsible. We made the decision very quickly that we needed to close down our operations.

Adult learners and teachers gather for a banquet, seated around tables.
A scene from the annual Learner and Tutor Banquet, which the NALC had to cancel this year due to the pandemic.

How did you manage that shift, and what does that look like?

Yeah, so we did a couple of things. There was the emergency response where we got surveys out to our students to say, “How are you doing? What do you need?” And we tried to help them with referrals to get to the right place for things like food and unemployment and financial aid if they needed that for rent and utilities. So really went into some front line service initially. And then once we got over that first wave of the crisis, then we started saying, “How can we transform our services?” Because the number one thing that we were hearing from students was that they wanted to continue their English lessons. And so we started researching and implementing new online curricula. We’ve been adding new online classes with instructors, and we’ve been reformatting all of our registration so that we can do those things online now.

That’s really cool. Have there been barriers for getting people online and have you been able to address those?

Yes, and no. Sometimes in different orders. So we proceeded …. we tried to take things on, we just weren’t sure how it was going to go. We really weren’t sure if it would work or not. So when we had our first online enrollment, it was hard, because you’re communicating with people who don’t speak English very well, and are learning a new digital thing. But this beautiful thing happened, too, where there would be kids in the room, and they’d be showing their parents which buttons to push. And one group of women that had been together for somebody’s birthday, and there was one teenager and five women enrolling in English class at the same time, and this child was going around and helping each person enroll. It was chaotic and just so amazing, the adaptability and the resilience — which shouldn’t surprise us. A number of our students are joining by their smartphone.

There’s still a digital divide. We know that we are missing some students because they’re not comfortable with the technology, but the exciting thing is that we’re learning how to deliver online services and so there are some people who could not have attended in person, who are now able to attend online. And I think it’s going to transform the way we deliver services in the future.

NALC’s Kim Karesh

If there’s a silver lining there it is, right?

That’s exactly the sentence I was going to say. You have to look for the positive opportunities in tragedy. And that is one of the positive things that we’re taking out of this: just how much we’re learning. Our students do that all the time, right? That is the inspiration for us, is that we are working with a group of people where life gets more difficult and they have to decide whether they are going to learn more and grow, or give up and quit. And they always show up to learn more and grow. So all we have to do is follow that model and apply it to ourselves — to say it’s our turn to learn.

Is there a particular story that stands out to you in the midst of this change to digital learning?

Yeah, one of my teachers relayed a story the other day, of a gentleman that has been in the correctional system and hadn’t been able to communicate with his children for a variety of reasons. He’s going to be meeting his grandchildren for the very first time, and he’s taking reading lessons so he can read them a book. And that was really touching. Those stories are still happening, right? We aren’t getting to see them as up close and in-person as we once were, but they’re still happening. And that’s really beautiful to think about.


NALC is not in need of new tutors at this time, but if you’d like to support them directly, you can click here to make a donation.

This Thanksgiving we are thankful for readers, writers, book lovers of all kinds, neighbors looking out for neighbors, and finding new ways to connect. Stay safe, everyone!

Holiday Hours*
Wednesday, Nov. 25 — closing early! 10am–4pm
Thursday, Nov. 26 — Closed for Thanksgiving
Friday, Nov. 27 — 10am–6pm
Saturday, Nov. 28 – 10am–6pm
Sunday, Nov. 29 – 12 noon–6pm

*The store is currently open for limited browsing, with safety precautions in place. Curbside pickup is still available, and we ship anywhere!