Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The "lows" and "highs" of tutoring a 2nd grader = A Small Step

    This year I have signed up with the Big Brothers and Big Sisters organization of Ozaukee County. This group, which matches adult mentor volunteers with children in need in our county, has both a community program and an in school program. I had volunteered for the community program. I wanted to be able to pick up the child I am mentoring and be able to take him/her to various community sites, activities, or even just hang out at my house. But a whole year had passed and I had not been called at all with any possible match. I knew the reason: what child who is somewhat in the know about this program wants to be matched with a 70 year old grandma when there could be younger adults in maybe the 20s or so who are available? I understand, but I was disappointed. Finally I got a call. There was a need to immediately replace a Big Brother to a 2nd grader in the-school program. His mentor was leaving town for a new job. We made the match and I have been meeting with David (fictitious name) weekly since December. David has already been held back for a year in second grade and he is still having difficulty with his school work. We have been working especially on his writing which in the beginning was illegible. I have had to work very hard to get him to 1) write more neatly 2) erase more thoroughly before writing the letters over the corrections 3) keep his letters a standard size and generally reduce that size 4) get him to make the taller letters such as the b and d with taller stems and the p with a tail below the line, 5) capitalize when appropriate, and 6) correct and improve his spelling so that more words are understandable. Sometimes I was having to correct him every few letters.

      Early on he would try to distract me with jokes and off topic comments to avoid working through to the end of the writing project. It was as they say "like pulling teeth." It was so bad that when I described the situation to one of my fellow water aerobics colleagues who had been a teacher, she questioned whether the boy had a problem with writing comprehension, something similar to dyslexia or another such learning disability. However, there was a reason that I knew such was not the case. As some of my readers know, I have a large antique toy collection -- well some are not so antique -- they belonged to my sons, or I have even purchased them as an adult. Since the beginning I have brought along, hidden in my bag, one of those toys that I thought might interest David. If we finish the school work the teacher has assigned, and if there is time in our hour together, he can play with the toy that I bring. On at least one occasion, he liked the toy so much (the M.U.S.C.L.E. men toys which I have written about on this blog) that he asked me to bring the same toy the next week as well. On that second occasion, we had quite a bit of re-writing to do on a story he had written. He knew what toy was in my bag and he wanted time to get to play with it, so he buckled down with only a couple of his distracting comments and finished the school work in record time. Sooo, I know he is capable of doing the work. He just didn't care enough to do the work and perhaps no one at home was interested in helping him. In fact, on one occasion as I corrected his letters again and again, he said, "No one has ever told me like you have how I have to write these letters. No one ever helped me like you do."

     We do have a good time for part of our hour together. David is a nice boy and he has a remarkable memory. He will often recall things that I have told him about his school work, about my life and family, and about my experience in medicine and in raising two boys and seeing that they learned in school. He frequently quotes what I have said to him back to me. He has a love for science as indeed I do and surprises me with his memory about science booklets and science topics that he has learned about. He also has a great love for Super Heroes, has seen their movies, can quote many of their lines from the movies, and demonstrates a great imagination when describing these magical beings' antics.

     David also has quite an understanding about life and his situation in it. He understands about Big Brothers and Big Sisters organization and knows that he has need of this help. On one occasion we had a particularly long story to rewrite so that it would be presentable enough to have posted on the hallway wall. The rest of the class papers had already been hung up and there was a space for his when it became legible. Therefore, on that particular day, I was not allowing any fooling around and insisted that we finish rewriting that booklet. It was quite tedious. When we finally finished, there was just a little time left. David was clearly not speaking to me. I said, " Are you mad at me, David, because I made you work so hard until this was finished?" David thought a minute and then said, "I am not mad at you; I am just mad." He is smart enough to know that he must tread lightly with me. He knows that if I complain about him, that he is not being cooperative, he might lose out on getting anyone from the Big Sisters Big Brothers organization. He has had that explained to him and has signed his end of a contract to always be cooperative.

      On one occasion, I was quite impressed with David's maturity. David's class goes out to recess right after lunch but David joins me for an hour. I often find David at his locker getting ready to go outside because he has forgotten that it is our day. On one of the first few weeks of my mentoring, the little girl next to him at her locker asked who I was. I spoke up and said I was David's big sister. She gave me a funny look and said, "Yeewwww!" She obviously thought this was a little strange that I should be grey haired and be the big sister of a 2nd grader. I wished I had been quicker to respond and that I had said something like: "Well, little girl. David and I are from another universe and in that universe people live to be 500 years old, so it is not unusual for sisters and brothers to be 70 years apart in age." But I hadn't thought of this until after the whole encounter was past. However, David was just very matter of fact. He just said, calmly, "This is Ann. She is with the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program." That was it. This little girl later became my friend and would give me hugs when she saw me, but her initial reaction did set me back a little bit. But it didn't phase David.

     One day we finished our school work quite quickly. David's teacher had not put too much aside for us to do. We meet in the school library so I told David we might have time for both the toy I brought and to perhapsto read a library book together. David made a face. I said, "You don't like to read?" He said, "No, I hate to read. I don't read unless I have to." Well, undaunted, I went over and began looking for a suitable library book. There was one whole shelf of graphic novels. Knowing David's love for superheroes, I found one about Hercules. I simply sat down and began to read it outloud. The next thing I know, David is putting the toy I brought back into my bag. Then he is standing looking over my shoulder at the pictures. The next thing I know, he is reading some of the dialogue out of the bubbles with me. I was impressed. We soon ran out of time, but I suggested he should check this book out and he could finish reading it at home. The librarian overheard us and said, "David, you have "library time" this afternoon, don't you?"  David said, "Yes, but I forgot my other library book at home, so I can't check out another one." The librarian continued to try to be helpful: "If you bring the library book back tomorrow, I will put this book aside for you and you can come down here and exchange the books tomorrow." I was so excited, I went home and described this whole situation to my husband. I actually thought I had made a difference for this boy and maybe he would learn to like to read. Well, as it turned out he forgot to bring his library book back until the next week, but he did check out the Hercules book and on the second week at our session, he was excitedly telling me how the story came out. Now, I am no Pollyanna. I know it is going to take a lot more than this one interaction to make a reader out of David, but I certainly got a big rush out of his response to my efforts. And other little bits of his responses really make me proud. At our last session together David said, "I like how you listen to what I say and nod your head, and say, 'Yes,' and 'Hm hm.' " Such simple things -- read to a child a little bit, listen to a child, help him a little bit with his school work, and show an interest in what he is learning. That is all I have done. And yet it is probably making a big difference in his life. Indeed, I will continue in the program. It is only my being able to give back in a very small way. I highly recommend programs such as this for any age person who wishes to be a mentor.