Monday, November 15, 2010

Program Snapshot: Afternoons in the 3rd grade

We have four different tutoring programs within DC READS: our traditional one-to-one after-school tutoring for third graders; Saturday tutoring at libraries and community centers; morning tutoring, where we serve as de-facto teachers' assistants in classrooms for all the different elementary school grades; and then our 4th and 5th grade program, which functions as an after-school classroom run by a group of tutors and coordinators and focuses on personal development goals, writing, vocabulary, and other forms of student enrichment. Over the course of this year, we'll be posting a mixture of tutor and coordinator reflections to allow us to convey our experience as educators and mentors, while also filling our readers in on exciting developments within each of our programs.

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The following post was written by Justine Achille, a sophomore in the NHS who is currently tutoring at Kenilworth Elementary School:


The session was going to go great. I knew it. I had printed out a vocabulary activity that I made up that I knew my tutee would enjoy, and I was bringing the white board. I didn’t really have a plan as to what to do with it, but that didn’t matter. As a rule, all tutees love using white dry-erase boards, and mine is no exception. So in my mind, the day was going to be a hit, without a doubt, and at first, everything was going just as planned. We ambled through a book about a nice woman who owned “The Strawberry Inn,” and then we began to tackle my vocab worksheet.

Outside of Kenilworth Elementary
First, I should probably back-track and explain that my tutee has been obsessed with the idea of “creating a community.” When I first heard this I was completely blown away. My tutee, this little third grader, is thinking of ways to build a good community! So I asked her how she would go about doing this, excited about what kind of insight she might have about the workings of a community or town. Her reply was something along the lines of: well… we could use milk cartons…and construction paper….and…Of course. She means literally, let’s build a community. I have to say, I should have probably expected this. But nonetheless, I decided to try to work with the idea. 



Thus the vocab worksheet was full of words describing either components of a good community, or those of a bad one. Her job was to read the words, try to understand their meanings, and decide if they should be part of this imaginary community. Wanting to challenge her, I threw in some words that I knew she would not recognize, but I hoped that together we could define them, and then she could learn their meanings. The first words we came to were “GREEN SPACE,” as in parks or something of the sort; the word was circled. Perfect. Next was “SIDEWALKS,” again, circled. Great. Then we got to “LAW ENFORCEMENT”; I expected that she might not know the meaning of this one immediately, so I was prepared for her pause. She began to read the word out loud. “Law,” she said confidently, and then stopped. I gave her another second to think, but instead of moving on, she looked to me. I then began with the old standby: now, let’s try to sound it out. And so we did. Or, I should say, I did.

We began with the very first letter: e. What sound does the “e” make? She excitedly responded with “Eh! Eh! Eh!” Correct. We moved on. The “n” to my surprise, made the “Mmmm mmmm” sound. Close. But not quite. After a quizzical look up at me, I gave in. It makes the “Nuh nuh nuh” sound, I confessed. Unfortunately, the rest of the word followed in a manner much like the “n.” Without wanting to lose the whole purpose of the activity, I shook if off, chalking up her mistakes to unfamiliarity with the new word, and we began to try to dissect its meaning. Thankfully, after finding the word “force” hidden in there, we were able to come to the definition rather quickly. I think both my tutee and I were a little wary to continue, given the amount of errors we encountered with “LAW ENFORCEMENT,” but nonetheless, we proceeded cautiously through the activity. After a lot more help on my part than I had originally anticipated, we finished, and I came to a decision about how we should use the white board that day: we would review phonics.

I started by writing the letter “D” on the board and asking her to give me the sound or sounds it makes and a word that begins with that letter. Without hesitation she complied. To make it fun, I let her take a turn and quiz me – tutees seem to love feeling like they are controlling the game. She gave me a letter and then we switched back. The game continued smoothly, building her self-confidence and my confidence in her. However, when we got to “c,” things got rocky again. I know “c” is tough; who would expect it to sometimes be an “s” in disguise? Certainly not me! But nonetheless, it is something that every child needs to learn to recognize eventually. When I pushed for a second sound that this letter might make, she began guessing at random, giving me any sound she knew. With a slow nod of resignation, I once again gave in and made the sound for her.

We moved on to vowels, and to my surprise, it was “long” vowel sounds that seemed to trouble my tutee the most. She stared at the large round “O” I had written on the board, and as the seconds went by, I closed my eyes a moment and just hoped that she would come up with the right sound. She had already done the hard part and given me the short “o” at the beginning of “octopus,” but as I continued to press: and what sound does the second “o” in octopus make? I received nothing but blank stares. She finally smiled and said “ohhh! I know!” Yes, yes yes! That’s exactly right! But wait, she wasn’t finished: “ohhh! I know!” she said, “It’s the puh puh puh sound!”

I froze, and prayed that my face was not betraying my true emotions.

I was crestfallen in the truest sense of the word. I, of course, had thought her original exclamation was her answer. As she continued to smile up at me, looking completely pleased with herself, I couldn’t speak. This beautiful, enthusiastic eight year-old girl does not know the sounds of the alphabet. Dumbstruck I just sat there for a moment, but the longer I waited, the more confused she was getting, and the angrier I became on the inside. How could her school have let her move on to the third grade without making sure she knew the sound of every letter of the alphabet? How could they let such a devastating learning deficit slip through the cracks? What teacher, who spends two hundred-odd days of the year with her, had not spotted this problem, which I had picked up on in only my fourth hour of knowing her? She is in the third grade! I was appalled and outraged and frustrated and more than anything else, deeply saddened by my discovery. 

Not knowing what else to do, I slapped a smile back on. Close, I told her, let’s try it again. The day certainly was not a hit. By the end of the session my tutee was visibly dejected as one can only be from trying and failing time after time after time. Hey, I said, you did a great job today. I held out my hand, our cue for our secret handshake. Slowly, she looked up, and seeing my gesture, a smile spread across her face. At the end of that long day, I couldn’t help but feel a new sense of urgency in my position as a tutor. It’s tough days like these that make me realize how the DC public school system struggles to serve their youth, but it is smiles like the one I saw on my tutee’s face that remind me that what I can do, even though it may not be much, is enough to make a difference. This is why I tutor.