Zahra Gordon is a Caribbean-American poet and writer with more than 10 years of experience. Her love for literature inspired her to found Speakeasy Solutions, a social enterprise providing culturally sensitive private tuition and writing workshops. Gordon is an alumna of Howard University where she majored in English with a minor in Caribbean Studies. She also holds a Certificate in the Teaching of Reading from the University of the West Indies and has studied teaching at ROYTEC. Gordon tied for first place in the 2010 Furious Flower Poetry Competition and in 2015, her work was longlisted for the Hollick Arvon Prize for Caribbean Writers.
ZG: I moved back to Trinidad after college and started off helping my neighbours’ children with homework. In college a lot of people asked me if I was interested in teaching and I always maintained that I was a writer first and foremost. However, I always felt that teaching was inevitable because knowledge sharing doesn’t have to occur in the traditional classroom setting. Simultaneously, I was learning and observing a lot about Trinidadian society and noticed that Caribbean literature was surprisingly not mainstream, particularly for children. The business found shape between my helping neighbours and observations of culture and the education system.
ZG: There’s something I call “Lessons Culture” in T&T. A lot of emphasis is placed on standardized testing such as the Secondary Entrance Assessment and the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate. As such, many parents send children to get extra lessons to ensure they pass the tests, but not much focus is put on developing critical thinking or creative skills. My aim has been to capitalize on that Lessons Culture by offering a service that would help parents get the test results they want, but also develop the student holistically. Some parents were a bit apprehensive at first to teaching methods they found unconventional, but they’ve definitely been satisfied with student academic improvement.
ZG: I work with students from six to sixteen (or upper level secondary school age). Most of my younger students require assistance with reading and I tailor sessions to each student’s learning style.
RB: Why is it important that students learn creative writing?
ZG: A lot of times, parents ask if I tutor math or other subjects as well and I usually explain that I focus on my area of study/qualifications and also that a firm understanding of language/writing helps you excel in all subject areas. Creative Writing, like reading, puts the world in a child’s hands. Telling your own stories or creating an entire new world is empowering. It also activates so many skills – organizational, critical thinking, allows them to use their imagination.
RB: You offer reading services. Tell us about the reading culture and literacy rates in Trinidad.
ZG: Although government statistics state that the literacy rate is as high as 99%, the NGO Adult Literacy Tutors Association has conducted independent surveys which would put the rate closer to 77%. More than once, I’ve been in public spaces and had someone ask me for assistance with filling out a form. Reading is mostly associated with academics and newspapers. There’s a very practical attitude towards reading in that sense.
RB: How have teachers responded to your business?
ZG: Teachers are actually some of my main competitors as a lot of lessons providers are teachers. There’s a new crop of teachers going through programs such as those at the University of Trinidad & Tobago who have been trained in such areas as differentiated instruction, but change within the education system is slow and bureaucratic.
RB: What advice do you have for parents who cannot afford private tuition for their children?
ZG: For parents who can’t afford private tuition, I’d say everything can be a learning experience from a trip to the beach to baking bread. The key is to expose and involve your children in as much as possible so keep an eye out for free events and programmes. Don’t force your child to read, but try create an environment where reading is fun. Finally, be sure to join the library!
RB: Where would you like your business to be say 5, 10 years from now?
ZG: Soon, I’ll be launching a language enrichment program that I hope will eventually be available nationwide called the Caribbean Reading Circle. In 5-10 years, I’d like to see Speakeasy Solutions having a learning centre, offering writing retreats and working in partnership with similarly-minded local and international organizations that are Caribbean/African diaspora focused.