As a fifth-grader Anna Lin became a teacher.
Her family would travel from Brookline to Thailand to see relatives in the summer and she was asked to help students learn English.
“I stepped in a classroom of 30 students, all wearing their green and khaki uniforms, and I was younger than them,” she recalls. “I felt like there was a wall between me and them and I thought we couldn’t connect.”
She started by using something she loved — math — to teach the language. PEMDAS: parentheses, exponents, multiplication, and division from left to right, and addition and subtraction from left to right.
“Math is universal,” Lin says. “I taught a little bit about order of operations and it was very nerve-racking but then I started to come back and teach and talk more with the students. After that month I began to look at them as friends and there was no longer a wall. I felt like I knew them.”
Summer after summer, she returned and taught. Until the pandemic gripped the world in 2020. She was a freshman at Brookline High School and she wasn’t thinking about what COVID meant for summer fun. She was thinking about teaching in Thailand.
“I promised I would come back,” she says. “I was sitting at my dinner table with my mom and thinking we don’t have to go to the country to connect with them. We can do it virtually.”
Lin began to reach out to friends at school and friends around the world who moved away, too. They could be teachers to their peers wanting to learn English.
She created a website, Language Virtual, and put out a sign-up sheet. That first year, there would be three students and three teachers.
Now, Anna Lin is finishing her junior year in high school. And she has 100 teachers her age, largely sophomores and juniors, teaching the English language. It also counts as community service hours that some students need to graduate. A lot of them are in Brookline but there are also teachers nearby in Concord, Belmont, and Revere, and as far away as Turkey.
“The exchange goes both ways. The student and teacher are understanding things about one another and where they come from. It gets away from stereotypes about other countries,” she says.
Language Virtual hosts fund-raisers to help cover the cost of Zoom accounts, and the costs associated with becoming a nonprofit. The hope is to score a grant and help cover the cost of laptops and Internet access for students in need.
For Lin, it is not something she does as a requirement. It’s a forever passion.
“I will do Language Virtual for the rest of my life,” she says. “There are so many people like me that want to connect with another person. It has opened my eyes to how much of a community we are together.”
In just two years, Language Virtual has attracted 700 students across the globe between the ages of 7 and 16, with the largest bunch of them being middle schoolers. They have students in America who have immigrated to the United States from France, Nicaragua, Ukraine, and Japan. And they have learners who live in China, Thailand, and other places, too.
Sometimes students come by word of mouth, other times they are referred by ESL teachers.
“Everyone learns English for different reasons,” Lin says. “Socioeconomic, university, it is a life survival skill. We are so different, but English is that connector and our organization is building friendships between so many people.”
Like 13-year-old Haruto Shigemura of Brookline. His mother, Emi, found out about Language Virtual and enrolled him to help in transition into learning English when they first moved here from Japan.
“I thought he needed an environment where he could get used to English,” Emi says. “He is very shy and would shrivel up in a large group. So the opportunity to talk with him one-on-one is valuable.”
That teacher is Luchenzhi “Sunny” Wang, a Brookline sophomore who has been teaching for two years.
“I feel like it really empowered me” Wang says of teaching Haruto. “When I first started working with him, I used a lot of pictures and drawings. He is Japanese and I don’t speak the language. I assigned him books. I can build lesson plans around video games he likes. Seeing him improve helped me see the meaning of being a tutor.”
Wang knows what it’s like to be new to America. She emigrated from China as a seventh-grader.
“English is not my first language. It was really stressful and I want to use the power I have to help other people who have just come to the US,” she says.
Having things in common makes a difference for the students.
“I was nervous at first,” Haruto says. “But once I got used to it, it was easy to talk to them because we are close in age.”
Language Virtual does not adhere to a specific teaching style. They have lesson plans around storybooks like “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” There are exercises around family, food, and animals. And there is room for teachers to cater curriculums to students.
“I am the teacher I am today through my experiences and I feel like the best way to grow as a teacher is through your own learning experience,” Lin says. “We are all human going through similar experiences at the same ages. Having student-to-student connection gives you that extra sense of welcome.”
Bezawit O’Neill, a Brookline junior, remembers the challenge of learning English.
She and her four siblings were adopted from Ethiopia. When she learned of Language Virtual earlier this year, she knew she wanted to volunteer and teach.
“I thought an adult would be in charge, but it’s Anna,” O’Neill says.
Seeing that there is no age limit for who can make change gives her hope.
On Saturdays, for about an hour, O’Neill meets with her student Linda, who lives in China. She is 9.
With Google Slides, O’Neill uses pictures to teach verbs. Sometimes she uses videos and songs.
“Because she doesn’t speak English, I come up with creative ways to teach. At first, I thought it would be really hard. But working with her and seeing how happy she is and how grateful she is when she understands something, we have such fun together,” O’Neill says.
“At first you see it as an opportunity to teach but then it becomes this huge community,” she adds. “They become your family and you are learning to work with each other.”
In a time of disconnection and dissolution, learning to see the familial in one another is a love language.
Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee and on Instagram @abeautifulresistance.