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Beverly Sass: Positive Reinforcement Brightens the Path to Learning and Volunteering at Project Light

by Sandy Chase

Beverly Sass uses positive reinforcement and other educational skills developed over close to her 30 years as an experienced teacher of students with disabilities. She continues to adapt Project Light’s Level 1 curriculum to ensure that her adults master objectives and achieve success.

Executive Director Elena Farkas speaks for many: “When you enter Beverly's class, you see the sunshine because she welcomes all with a warm, welcoming, and encouraging smile. She’s enthusiastic about helping her students, who learn in a positive, comforting atmosphere.”

Teaching adults for whom English isn’t their first language is an example of how Beverly is

rewarded. But she is positively reinforced when a student like Dennis Fernandez Ruiz—and others—want to learn. The following is based on a translation, but the ideas are his:

“We feel like part of the family in Miss Beverly's class. She knows our birthdays, gives us advice, and cares about us. She knows when we’re in class or absent. Many of us work and don't have time to study. Miss Beverly knows it and patiently explains things we might forget from the previous lesson.” 

According to Dennis, “She treats us like adults but uses techniques to work with challenging students, and it helps us learn and retain information. She helps when the material is complex and she uses techniques to explain new concepts and recycle old material. Miss Beverly motivates and encourages us to learn by using positive words and giving us small presents.” 

These presents—helping students achieve their goals by reinforcing learning —are found in Beverly’s basket. For example, they can choose school supplies, hand gel, candy, headphones, stationery, earrings, small art books, and other materials she buys. Knowing that she is achieving her objectives positively reinforces Beverly.

She also helps her students’ sons and daughters, Dennis’ five-year-old son, being a prime

example: “My son comes with me to English class, and Miss Beverly takes time to teach him how to write or do activities. Her persistence is obvious in his improved writing. Now, he can write his name and other simple words. Her involvement in my son's life has helped him to catch up in his kindergarten class.” 

Speaking for others in his class, Dennis says, “We are very grateful to Miss Beverly for her

patience, care, understanding, and desire to help us live in the new country.”

Beverly is perfectly matched with PL because her positive reinforcement helps to illuminate the way for her students’ learning and living in their new country. She and her students have created a friendly, engaging, and motivating environment.

PL is rewarded, too, because she helps boost the nonprofit’s mission to teach adults English skills that are necessary to function at home, on the job, and in the community.

How did you learn about Project Light?

I’ve visited Bradenton many times over the years and attended St. Joseph Catholic Church during my stay. I’m now a resident, having arrived from Cincinnati in July 2022. I was feeling kind of lost after retiring. But I saw an ad in the church’s weekly bulletin for Project Light and thought volunteering would help me transition from my 28 years of teaching. 

What about Project Light inspired/inspires you to volunteer?

I was an intervention specialist having taught K-12. I worked with students with special needs and wanted to help the PL adults who speak/understand little English. One of the best decisions I have made is volunteering at PL, which I began six weeks after I had arrived. Our community appreciates that you teach the first level of English to adults.

Describe the class.

Level l introduces basic information, such as name, address, phone number, and birthday, which I ask the students. It’s important that they know one another, so for at least a month at the beginning of each class, we learn how to greet, tell a little about ourselves, and answer one another. Students follow my directions and modeling. Next, I find out what they know: alphabet, numbers, months, days of the week, and writing the date. What materials do you use once you’ve achieved your initial objectives?

I follow with Ventures 1 and assign homework from the accompanying workbook to reinforce the lesson taught. (Ventures by Cambridge University Press is the series PL uses for all levels.)

Worksheets are also available for each lesson. I usually look at the start of each unit to see whether there are any worksheets that I think will help students.

There are vocabulary cards, with a picture on one side and the word on the other. I use these cards to introduce words and then have students write a sentence on the board so they can practice their writing. At the end of each unit, I test my students. From the scores, I can see where and who needs help with what.

What strategies/skills from your extensive career do you apply in the Beginner Level class?

Patience is upmost! I also use phonics in class. To reinforce learning, I also use a

a reward program, also known as positive reinforcement.

At the start of the year, everyone gets to choose a gift from my basket. Once students can show their understanding of initial concepts like students’ names and homelands, I reward them. If someone struggles, I just come back to them. I also bring the basket in once we review days, months, numbers, etc.).

Any other examples of positive reinforcement? Other strategies/skills from your extensive career do you use?

Two students still don’t know many English words, so I read the tests to them so they feel some success. I also use concrete examples whenever I can. Students’ actions, making learning more concrete, sometimes help reinforce language. For example, when I was teaching prepositions, I brought in a bag and had each student put something “in” the bag, “on” the bag, and “under” the bag. I do a lot of repetition. Whatever can help with learning, I incorporate into the lesson plan.

What have you learned from your students?

They all love being in the United States. Many students have family back in their home

countries, and I can see how they miss them so much. They want to do better. Learning English is important to my students. I also have learned a little about their culture, such as holidays, as the adults learn about American culture and people.

What are your challenges?

Challenges have been many. Because I don’t speak Spanish or Creole, for example, it’s difficult at times to understand what my students are saying and what they need. The adults are at so many different levels. I have some students who do not understand any English and others who are a little more advanced. It can be frustrating to try to ensure that they are all learning. Most students work during the day at their jobs, so it might difficult to attend all classes.

Do the more advanced students have an opportunity to help others? What does that

assistance look like?

The more advanced students do help the others, but they speak in their native language,

sometimes adding to the challenges because I’m not sure how much their assistance helps student retention.

Have any of your students shared about helping their children with school?

One student, Dennis, brings his son who is in kindergarten to class. It is difficult for him because two languages are spoken at home. Occasionally, other children have come to class, and I find them helpful.

What rewards have you received from your PL experiences?

The rewards are just as many. I love seeing my students smile when they understand. They appreciate what I’m trying to do and work hard to meet expectations. I have had friends who came to the US not knowing any English. It’s a difficult life and if I can help just one, it’s worth it.

Besides the beach, are there other favorite pastimes?

I love to read. I am also taking a class at the library for sign language. I love to travel. In 2023 I went back to Cincinnati to stay for about a month. I also traveled to Texas, New Hampshire, and Vermont. I went on a riverboat cruise on the Rhine, which included Germany, France, Amsterdam, and Holland.

What would you like to tell others who are considering volunteering?

There is such a need, especially here in Florida. You don’t have to have a background in

teaching—just a willing spirit. It really doesn’t take a lot of time to teach one class. ESL classes help the entire community. It’s fun and you meet such interesting people. Project Light leaders and volunteers are passionate about this cause. It’s contagious.


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