J is for Tutoring….???

A few eons ago, I studied education, specifically English Language Education, with a specialization in Reading. My student teaching experience was teaching mainstream (what a stupid, stupid, stereotypical, biased term!) high school sophomores and juniors for 3/4 of the day, plus 1 hour with functionally illiterate students, and 1 hour of working individually or in small groups with foreign students: 2 Japanese, 1 German, 1 Greek — all in the US because of their parents’ work responsibilities — 1 French and 1 Swede, both exchange students. This was in a rather affluent suburban community.

In the regular English classes, I felt like I was a tape recorder, repeating the same two lectures twice each day. When not teaching, I found myself having to deal with parents who didn’t like the test scores that their children received and found the student teacher an appropriate target of blame. I still wonder how that one woman could have read any dictionary definition of the word impale and expect me to mark her perfect child’s paper correct with the defining sentence: “I impaled the pretty picture to the wall“. I had to defend, to my supervising teacher, her accusation of discrimination because I marked it wrong. With the foreign students, the problems were more manageable, and sometimes laughable. One day, the Japanese girls, unaware of the value of the Yen in US dollars, brought in money one day to show the other students what their currency looked like. We had to get the school principal to put the money, worth about $10,000, in a safe for the day. But the last class of the day — my functionally illiterate students — was the most challenging but also very rewarding. These kids knew they couldn’t read. They knew that they were the “burn-outs”, the outcasts that nobody wanted. And they all knew that they couldn’t read well. Most of them knew that they only had a few more months of school and that if they didn’t learn how to read then, they never would. The consequences of that were apparent to all. Everybody knew that they couldn’t read, except perhaps for the vice-principal,  a coach known chiefly for his award-winning sports teams, who insisted that they were just lazy. He insisted that their community didn’t have any problems with literacy. In his book, that was for kids from the “city”.

It was a very long year. I had talked to them about a job early in the Spring, but found out soon afterwards that I was pregnant, with a due date not long after the start of the school year. When I did return to the workforce a few years later, my career took off in a much different and unexpected direction. Teaching was not a consideration again.

Until last summer when a flyer was mailed to our house looking for volunteer reading tutors at the neighborhood elementary school. Why not?, I thought. I had the time, I knew that I had the skill, and I knew that one-on-one tutoring would be more to my liking than trying to manage an entire classroom. What I didn’t anticipate was that it would be so much fun and that I would benefit greatly.

I attended two days of a boring training. It could have easily been done in a few hours, but there was lots of “interactive sharing” as the facilitator called it. Perhaps others found some value in role-playing with a peer, but I did not find it helpful to pretend that I was reading a book to a six-year-old when I was facing a septuagenarian. Furthermore, I was appalled by the narrow view of the world many of the volunteers had. I left the first day feeling rather judgmental of my fellow volunteers. Hey, they were offering to help, so I needed to give them credit for stepping up. The monthly meetings, though, have not done much to prove me wrong. It isn’t that anyone is mean or stubbornly holding fast to their view of their world. Perhaps it is generational. I’m amazed, though, at the comments I hear at how surprised they are at the lives of their students. I’ve wondered, at times, if some of the volunteers actually listen to their students. But, even so, sometimes one additional hour a week is all that it might take to help turn a reluctant reader into a better, more eager, reader, or at least one with necessary reading comprehension skills . Every little bit can help.

I was assigned to work with a fourth-grade boy, named J. I started two weeks after the start of the program due to some pre-existing conflicts, but even with the late start, I did not get any information from the classroom teacher. On the first day, I started with a ‘get to know you’ session.

Do you like books? I asked.

No. I don’t like school.

Sometimes books don’t have anything to do with school. I like books, but I didn’t like school very much.

I like Pluto, J said.

I quickly got my brain cells firing trying to recall some details about the Disney character.  What do you like about Pluto? I asked.

Do you know that there is an enormous controversy with the International Astronomical Union about whether it is a planet? Some say it is a dwarf planet, he said excitedly.

Score: J: 1, My Assumptions: 0

I quickly wondered why J had been assigned to additional tutoring. I found out later that he had scored at a reading level equivalent to the first month of first grade. I was astounded. J is a very smart boy, but he is only interested in certain things. School isn’t one of them. When I come to the classroom to pick him up for our weekly sessions, frequently he appears to be daydreaming. The classroom is a rather noisy, boisterous place, with students frequently doing many different tasks. I commend the teacher for her ability to be the ring-leader in such a circus. But it isn’t a good atmosphere for someone like J who dislikes noise and is easily distracted. Having him write with pen and paper isn’t much fun for him either. He dislikes his penmanship and at the beginning of the year he would do whatever he could to avoid writing exercises with me.

By our third or fourth session, I decided that I would write if he would dictate to me. Together we started to write a paragraph. He didn’t want to do this, but I told him that he had to give me instructions on anything that he wanted. Do you know how to make an omelet? he asked. Together, we wrote the recipe. I looked over it in amazement when we finished: it was an omelet — not a scramble — and he knew exactly how to make one like the finest Sunday morning brunch buffet line cook.

This was not my only surprise. I’ve learned to stop making assumptions. J has something interesting and surprising to discuss each week. Sure, he would rather play a video game, but what 10-year-old boy wouldn’t want to? One week we were talking about John Glenn and his historic first orbit around Earth. J, when I told him how old Glenn was, said something that I didn’t understand, something about someone being as old as Glenn. Who’s that? I asked.

Oh come on! You don’t know the President of Cuba? You should! How on earth, I thought, does this boy who seems to pay little attention to the outside world, who can’t tell me that 6 + 5 = 11 unless he uses his fingers, know about Fidel Castro, much less how old he is. Had he been of Cuban ancestry, it would have made sense, but he is not. Kids can be such a surprise, and J is full of lots of them.

Our discussion this week centered on economics and politics. He asked good questions about what was meant by “economics”. When I mentioned that Economics is sometimes called the “dismal science”, he asked me to define ‘dismal’. “Ah“, he said, “just like school!“.

I don’t know that I can take too much credit for J’s progress this year. He could read at the beginning of the year; he just wouldn’t do it on demand like some sort of dog performing tricks. He knows more about the planets — their geological makeup, their orbits, the history of their discovery, and, in some cases, the mythological origins of their names. He is not very good at knowing his multiplication tables, but he understands how to use a formula. He knows how to read for content, and when to question information. In working on a ‘research’ paper recently, he had no problems at all understanding how to sequence his facts. These are all skills that you would expect a fourth-grader to have. He just can’t write a legible sentence and doesn’t want to play along if he has to. Can you blame him? Why would he want to fail?

I understand that he needs to know how to do basic arithmetic. I understand that he needs to be able to write, although paper and pencil is less important when one can use a computer. If I were the queen of the school universe, I would put him in a small classroom with other kids just like him. I would give them all computers and let them type. I would allow kids like J to use a pen, if they pressed so heavily with a pencil that they broke the point every other letter. And I would help him to focus on tasks for short periods of time without a lot of interference or background noise. I would take the type of games he likes to play — his favorite on a computer is Minecraft; for board games it is RISK — and use them to help illustrate his lessons. Both of these rely on strategy and understanding of how systems — political, economic, manufacturing, military — work.

I don’t have a clue, though, how you do this for every kid out there. When there are 30-35 kids in a room, one teacher just doesn’t have time.

I hope that I’ve made a little difference for J this year. Even if it is only that he has 1 hour a week where he is out of the classroom and it seems like fun and a little bit of knowledge seeps in. Maybe he’ll pick up a book this summer and read. He has started to read chapter books and talks about them, but he’d still prefer a game or tv. My goal, and the goal of the program, is not to turn him into a lover of books, but to get him to read at an appropriate level. I think he is doing that now.

I know that I’ve learned from this experience. I wish that businesses would have more involvement in helping our schools. Wouldn’t it be great if employers would give their employees release time to participate in tutoring programs? Wouldn’t it be good for kids to understand that even if you are doing something that seems unrelated to reading, you still need to know how to do it?  J and I a few weeks ago listed all of the things that would be needed to come up with a game like Minecraft. It didn’t take him long to realize that you couldn’t make a computer game unless you possessed math and reading skills. Will this get him to learn his multiplication tables? Maybe not directly, but maybe eventually it will sink in.

Here’s my picture of the day. Not from any far flung planet, but it does remind me of a lesson that J & I did on prisms and light and using mnemonics.

River Rock Rainbow

This post is part of the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Today’s letter is J. Thanks for stopping by. Please leave a comment and let me know what you think. You can find other A to Z participants by clicking on the graphic. You’ll find an index of all of my A to Z blog posts here.


19 responses to “J is for Tutoring….???

  1. Anne,

    I want to commend you for taking the time to tutor and help this child. It is my belief that every hour you spend with him is an hour invested, not squandered. I hope you will consider continuing your good work.

    Thank you,


    • Thanks, Eric. I may not continue in the program that I currently am tutoring in, but am considering doing something similar in an inner-city charter school that I have heard great things about.

  2. J sure sounds like a very bright boy. And he’s fortunate to have you as a tutor. For some years in my life I was involved with adult ESL teaching, and some private tutoring. I know it can be more rewarding and worthwhile to spend time with a single student. That’s why I rather tutor than teach a whole class. Kudos to you for your caring tutorial to J.

  3. Hi Anne, I have nominated you for the Sunshine and Genuine Blogger Awards. You can pick them up here: http://wp.me/p23TG1-zX The is no time frame in which to respond, I just wanted to recognize you and your blog.


  4. Loved this! I am sure your time with J has been a great benefit. What a bright kid he is and what a sad thing that our schools are unable to accommodate kids that don’t fit the required cookie cutter shape.

    • J has a very good teacher and she does try to accommodate the differences, but there are just so many kids in her classroom that she can’t give them all the individual attention that they need.

  5. What a great post. J needs more people in his life like you. My son when young hated school because it involved so many boring tasks he had no interest in. He’s all maths, science and computing now, which makes his life a great deal better. But it would be fantastic if we could separate kids out into the way they learn. Even if the quiet introverted ones had half their lessons out of the mad bustle of a classroom, it would be a definite step forward.

    • I agree. I never would have known, from your blog, that your son hated school. Such a difference between school and learning.

      I don’t think that all kids in one room, facing forward, quietly raising their hands to be called upon in an orderly fashion, is the solution either, but “mad bustle” certainly describes the classrooms I’ve observed this year. They certainly make me feel discombobulated. I’m sure that there are many kids that don’t do well in that environment.

  6. GORGEOUS story and image! You are so lucky to have met each other!

  7. This is fabulous! I love hearing about other people’s experiences tutoring!

    I had a similar student recently, named Andre. Andre also hated reading, but he did like science and was able to use the word “inertia” correctly in a sentence! Great student, but sadly not well adapted for the inner-city school district he attended (or maybe the other way around). I’m sure J learned a lot from you, even if it didn’t all sink in at once. You are awesome – keep doing what you’re doing 🙂

  8. What you’re doing is so very important to a kid like J, and I hope that he will stick through the K-12 world even though it’s not meant for kids like him. My own kid barely graduated high school – we got a notice he was failing 3 classes a month before his graduation date, and he had at best a 2.0 average through 4 years – but he graduated from college with a degree in Philosophy, a 3.86 GPA, and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He just didn’t like being in school all day. I wonder how many smart, capable kids give up on the system and struggle through life. Volunteers like you are such special people and can make such a difference in the long run.

    • My son’s experience was similar as well, although his grades were OK. But, he definitely hated school, would misbehave so that he was dismissed from the classroom, then finish his day’s work within an hour, and spend the rest of the day reading what he wanted. He graduates with a degree in aeronautical engineering from one of the best aero schools in the country next month. He went to a high school that gave the kids a lot of leeway but expected them to live up to their responsibilities – and almost all of the kids did!

      • Trusting the kids to take responsibility – that’s the key thing for these kids in high school. Congratulations in advance on his achievements, I’m sure your support has been very important to him.

  9. I am so glad J has had you. I wish it was so much more.