After last night’s tutoring session, we are on Winter break for the next two weeks. As I wrote back in August, this is my first go-around as a tutor. I thought today might be a suitable time to update you. It turns out that I do have some things I can impart to a student but there are many more things for me to learn.
I teach online via Zoom, a platform with which I am only passingly familiar. For example, today I confidently can share my screen, including reading and math materials, but I have yet to master Zoom’s whiteboard features. I plan to practice with it a bit over this break.
More importantly, we employ numerous online teaching tools, ranging from Google Classroom to reading and math resources that I have to learn week-to-week on the fly. It was slightly embarrassing for me to have to ask my fifth-grade mentee how to operate an animated educational game feature on my computer. She told me, “Don’t worry, that’s okay. I’ve been using it for years at my school.” Despite being just ten years old, such technology already is second nature to her whereas I am like an old dog trying to learn new tricks.
Initially, my ignorance when it comes to using this technology seriously hampered my efforts at mentoring. My first week I got hopelessly lost among all the open Windows. The dire situation quickly escalated to the point where I could not steer myself back to a safe harbor. With an apology, I ended our session early. I left feeling bad that I had wasted this kid’s valuable time, and worried he would tell his mommy. Fortunately, over time I acquired sufficient technological skills to manage large sections of the weekly curriculum. I’ve also met a couple of times with my organization’s technology guru, who provided helpful, generous assistance to this doddering dunderhead. As a result, I am happy to report that for two straight weeks leading up to the Winter break, I have managed every facet of the agenda without serious interruption.
Things might have been worse, except for the fact there is a shakedown period early in the school year where both mentees and mentors quickly come and go. I initially was assigned to assist a second-grade boy, whose attendance was sporadic at best before he stopped coming altogether, despite our efforts to engage the parent. Next, I was assigned to mentor a sweet third-grade girl, whose mother was likewise disinterested. Whenever I met with the girl on Zoom, I would hear her mother off in the background, engaged in loud, distracting arguments with unseen individuals, which were peppered with enough foul language to, as they say, make a sailor blush. Not exactly the most conducive atmosphere for a serious learning experience. Amazingly, my young charge seemed unfazed by all the commotion, which, I inferred, must be a common feature of home life for her. I fretted: What are the girl’s prospects for future success? I was not at all surprised when the girl disappeared from our program.
Between these two assignments, and without an assigned student, I would be asked to “substitute” for a missing mentor or else dismissed from that night’s session. Not the most auspicious start for me, to say the least.
Finally, a few weeks ago I was assigned to mentor a bright and eager young lady, who is in the fifth grade. By now I was sufficiently comfortable with the technology to do a bit of actual teaching. For me, the payoff was immediate, almost exhilarating!
With a bit of independent research, I’ve learned that, while second and third graders must learn to read, by fifth grade a student ought to be reading to learn. See Chall, J. S. (1983), Stages of Reading Development. So long as my student remains a willing learner, I plan to teach her accurately to read words with more than one syllable, to recognize prefixes, suffixes, and root words, to enjoy reading different genres, to become familiar with describing settings, characters, story plots, to identify the major and minor themes, to compare and contrast information that is gleaned from different texts, to understand similes, metaphors, and other descriptive devices, and to draw inferences by using clues from a text along with prior knowledge. A challenging list. If we can accomplish some of it by the time school ends in May, we will have accomplished a lot.
Last night, for example, we read a 600-word piece about scientists who study polar bear paws! Mentor and mentee both discovered something new about polar bears. In addition, I might have discovered my teaching niche.