Crouching Tutor, Visible Success

(Jennifer Doak tutors in the Tuesday Night Reading program and volunteered to blog about her experiences.)

My first student, to whom I taught reading and language skills over the summer, is a whip-smart, quiet third grader. She likes learning words by drawing pictures and playing games; one time, we jumped for the nouns, crouched down for the adjectives, and acted out the verbs. We even invited her more outgoing cousin, who’s also in FLOC, to join us.
She preferred to read books that weren’t challenging, but eventually I learned to make deals: Read a few pages of this harder book—just a few more paragraphs—and then we can play a game. It worked, most of the time.

The second, who I’m working with until April, is a bright, boisterous 11-year-old, talkative and easily distracted. She knows all the FLOC staff and has lots of friends here, but it’s occasionally difficult getting her to focus. She prefers interactivity, games with drawing or lots of movement, but between her mom’s hectic schedule and my admittedly infirm grasp of the language learning program we’re using, it’s slow going. I hope we’ll be able to finish out the year having made some progress.

Tutoring takes some getting used to. It’s a matter of negotiation, reading moods and gauging tolerance for stretches of word repetition and sentence reading. It’s also a matter of translation. When learning vocabulary, for example, the first definition that comes to my mind may not be something the student can relate to. If she’s never been outside DC, farm animals or foreign countries won’t register. I’ll throw out different metaphors or comparisons until one sticks.

I’m not a current or former educator by trade. The closest I got was working for a nonprofit that advocated for a collaborative, forward-thinking teaching model to be implemented in public schools. While there, I read up on the hardworking people who are trying to figure out the secret sauce for higher test scores and engaged students. Overcoming challenges in education isn’t like the multiple-choice quizzes my students sometimes take; even “all of the above” won’t do when the options given are insufficient.

It’s sometimes hard to set aside this big picture, even when working on such a micro level. What does two hours a week matter when faced with the overwhelming issues at hand—issues that my students experience on some level every day? And if what works for one student doesn’t work for another, then wouldn’t it follow that a system that works for one school fails miserably the next town over?

Maybe. But it’s also good to know that students like the two girls I work with, despite these challenges, are getting individual attention from us when their overworked teachers just can’t find the time. It’s encouraging to volunteer for an organization that, in their own small way, recognizes the value of one-on-one time spent learning educational building blocks like literacy and numeracy. I’m probably not the best tutor, and some days I feel like nothing sticks. But I think these students, mine and others, feel there’s value in knowing that tutors are taking the time to try.

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