Sunday, May 08, 2005

Inner City Reading Meltdown

Tutoring was exceptionally challenging yesterday. A single fourth-grader and I took turns reading a story in a textbook (we alternated paragraphs), and when we were done, I asked him to answer the reading comprehension questions provided by the textbook authors.

Zilch. Zippo. He rolled his eyes, smiled, fidgeted, said the longest "Ummm" I've heard in weeks, and made it very clear that if he did remember anything of the story we'd just spent 30 minutes reading, he wasn't letting on. It wasn't for want of asking what the unfamiliar words meant; we'd worked out a system whereby he knew to ask for definitions. No, he simply appeared not to recall anything.

My challenge in such cases is to avoid passing along any frustration to the student, who, having failed to answer the questions, doubtless feels his own inadequacy at some level. And then to send him back out to mom at 4pm with a smile in his heart and a spring in his step and a fervent desire to return next week. By the time his mom showed up and all the other kids had crowded around the piano to hear the "Peanuts" theme, our traditional session closer, I'm not sure how much he cared. I guess that's good ....

Like many of the kids who show up for tutoring, he relied extensively on repetition and rote, repeating and shuffling words from the last sentence or two in an effort to present an acceptable answer. (It was like fridge magnets, but slower and less fun.) I attribute that weak process to overcrowded classes and overworked teachers, and I know that the couple hours of extra help they get from us each week really might make a major difference, particularly because most of their parents simply cannot read to them in English. That's why I keep going back.

The worst part is that the kids we see are the fortunate few whose parents care enough to drive them across town once or twice a week for free tutoring.

The comparison between this set of challenges and the ones I'll be revisiting in New England next weekend is inevitable and perverse.

For what it's worth, my little pal said the best thing that happened to him last week was going over to his friend's house. Because his friend has a Gameboy.

Well, it beats smoking pot.


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