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Tutor Helps Students Hit Hard By Pandemic, Language Barriers


Virtual school is challenging. So is virtual tutoring. Ramiro Lobo tries to coax his students into another round on their laptops.

RAMIRO LOBO: I might ask them to, like, choose a song that they like. We might have, like, a supposed dance party. But sometimes the kids are, like, not turning on their cameras. So I'm just, like, being silly for them. And I feel like that will, like, lighten the mood a little bit.

SIMON: Mr. Lobo works with high school students in Oakland, Calif., through an organization called Refugee & Immigrant Transitions. It's not just help with algebra. His students have bigger challenges. Many have just arrived in the U.S. from Afghanistan, Ethiopia, El Salvador, Honduras.

LOBO: The language barrier is definitely the biggest challenge that students have been facing after going online and even in-person, right? When they're completing homework - right? - most of the directions are in English. Or if they try to look up, like, a resource related to their homework, a lot of the things that they'll find are in English. And I know that talking, like, with my students, that kind of leads to a lack of engagement. First, they can't understand the language of the assignment. They're not exactly sure what they need to do or what it might be asking them. And then the concepts on the assignment might be difficult themselves.


LOBO: Another, like, thing they're having to learn is how to navigate all these different applications and platforms. We, like, walk them through their Google Classroom, how to add all their different classes that they have, how to find the different assignments, how to practice, like, writing emails, how to navigate a computer in general if students aren't familiar with that.

SIMON: And Ramiro Lobo's also seeing how much his students have missed being with each other.

LOBO: A lot of times when they come here - right? - they don't necessarily have a family member or someone that they're really close to. Sometimes they're living with, like, distant family members. So I know, like, a lot of students have expressed that they have been feeling, like, isolated during the quarantine. And that is, like, a big reason why I always try to begin my session with making that point of connection and just really - not just, like, focusing on the work and, like, what we need to get done, but just making sure that they're seen as a person and just know that I am here for them to, like, connect with.


LOBO: And I think, for me, it has changed my goals because I've had the opportunity to kind of support students on providing them, like, low-access Internet and providing relief funds to them and just working in a more holistic aspect. And I think that has made me consider, like, potentially looking into, like, school counseling or potentially, like, being a school social worker or working in, like, case management in some capacity with students that help serve all the needs that they have outside of the classroom as well.


LOBO: I think, a lot of times, it gets overlooked that many of the students that I work with - they've come here, you know, alone to, like, a new country, are learning a new language, are trying to learn all these new concepts in their classes, are trying to navigate technology, are trying to get a job to support themselves and also to support their families who might be back home. I wish people just understood, like, how hard they work and just how amazing they are as people and as members of our community and just how brave and strong they are through all of that.

SIMON: Ramiro Lobo of Oakland, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.