…The single most important predictor of academic success is the amount of time children spend reading books—more important, even, than economic or social status (Atwell, 2007).
At the start of a new school year, I walk down the hall with the mild-mannered fifth grader I have tutored since she was six. “How was your summer? Did you read any books?”
“Only baby books to my sister,” Karly responds. Her pink t-shirt with “princess” in sparkly letters contrasts beautifully with her dark brown skin.
I remember when this princess, whose behavior was always royal in the best sense of the word, struggled to first decode and then understand those “baby books.”
Karly’s first grade year was my second as a volunteer tutor in a school that draws students from all over the city, from Rochester’s infamous “crescent of poverty” to its more comfortable neighborhoods. The previous year I had worked with a first grader who never caught on to the pattern of at-bat-cat or an-man-van. He was sweet, polite, and tried hard. But his educational needs exceeded my capabilities.
After that experience, I reminded the teacher that although I am a lifelong reader, a writer, a mother and a grandma, I have no teaching credentials. “I’d love to continue in your classroom,” I told her, “but please let me work with a child to whom I can make a difference, someone who just needs extra attention and encouragement so that we can both succeed.” My goal was to get kids hooked on stories, to nourish the “soul” while feeding the brain.
Karly was one of three children I tutored my second year. Even without training, it took me little time to discern her deficient vocabulary.
“A. hot. dog. g,g,g,got.”
“That’s right. Got.”
“On. a l-log. in the…” Her voice dropped to a whisper as she tried to figure out the next word. “F – o – g, f – o – g, f – o – g,” she sounded it out under her breath.
“You’ve got it. Say it out loud,” I encouraged.
I realized that she couldn’t read the word because she didn’t know what it meant. Despite the fact that she lives in an area where fog is not uncommon, and she surely knew the concept, she didn’t know the word.
Not long after that, I discovered that little Karly spoke fluent Creole. She was born in this country, but her parents were born in Haiti. I have always known, abstractly, that children bring their family backgrounds into the classroom. But now I saw just how big a part it plays in a child’s education.
This proved true not just of Karly’s vocabulary struggles, but of social situations as well. Her classmate, Asia, was a hardworking student for the first three-quarters of first grade. When she learned her parents were divorcing, she began to express her unhappiness with name-calling, hitting, and other unacceptable behavior. I rarely saw her the last weeks of school; she was invariably “serving time” in the principal’s office. A year or two later, a little boy, who struck me as quick, alert, and eager to learn, also suffered the consequences of a divorce. The last two months of school, he never appeared on my day. The teacher sadly told me that he seldom showed up; this first-grader’s education seemed to be a casualty of the turmoil surrounding his family life.
Karly finished first grade at grade level. The following year I progressed with her to second grade, where I learned that she didn’t have the storehouse of fairy tales that my children and grandchildren grew up with: “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “The Three Little Pigs.” No doubt she had heard folktales as a toddler—her father completed his M.S.W. degree that year, and the parents were loving and concerned—but the stories she heard were not the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Andersen tales that make up the American corpus. Her lack of background continued to impede her as we progressed together through the grades. In fifth grade, a book by Roald Dahl spoke to her spirit, and suddenly she turned from a reluctant reader into a more enthusiastic one. The next year she switched to a charter school, and I will never know the rest of her story.
One of the first graders I worked with was Janae. At our second session, she moaned that her older brother told her she must be stupid if she needed a tutor.
“You tell him that it does not mean you’re stupid. It just means you need a little extra help to be the best you can be. People who get help when they need it are smart.”
And smart she was. The one-on-one attention, sight-word drill, and chance to make mistakes in a safe environment proved just the nourishment she needed. Her reading score rose from nine in September to sixteen in January. By June, she was top reader in her class. Credit the teacher for excellent teaching and recognizing Janae’s needs. Credit Janae for hard work. Credit her family’s encouragement. I’ll take credit only for giving her undivided attention, praise, and an occasional hug for a mere 30 minutes every Wednesday morning.
Family background can be deceiving, I discovered. One year I started off by reading The Cat in the Hat first to Davonne, then a half hour later to Janelle. I invited them to chime in with the rhyming words. Before I turned the final page, I asked each one if he or she would tell mom about the Cat’s visit.
“Oh no,” Davonne answered quickly. “I’d just get into trouble.”
Later, I asked Jannelle the same question, “Would you tell your mother about the Cat in the Hat?”
“Yes!” The word flew out of her mouth. “I would never lie. Lying is the worst thing you can do.”
Her response reverberated with the family information she had shared with me: her daddy was in jail. I supposed that her mother had heard innumerable lies from Jannelle’s father and harped to her children about the negative consequences.
Despite Janelle’s unfortunate family situation, she shone under my tutelage. At first, she was reluctant to tackle a word she didn’t recognize immediately. She jumped from her chair at our desk just outside her classroom and ran down the hall.
“Get back here, Jannelle!” I called in a tone that I hoped conveyed both firmness and love. “You can sound out that word. I know you can.” With a little prompting and a large dose of encouragement, she puzzled it out.
One June day, we sat at our desk in the hall. Each of Jannelle’s braids was clipped off with a different color barrette that matched her pants and t-shirt. Months before I had asked if her mother re-braided her hair every morning, and had felt somehow reassured to know that she only did it about once a week. Janelle was reading me a Dr. Seuss book when the principal walked past.
“Mr. Kuter,” I said. “Jannelle has almost finished reading this book, and when she can read it, it’s hers.”
He smiled at her. “Janelle, I want you to come to my office later to read it to me.” He looked at me and added, “Please tell her teacher to send her down.” He moved on, and Janelle, motivated by the prospect of possessing her own book, her second, sat through more pages at one time than was her custom.
Before I left for the day, I repeated the conversation to the teacher. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” she asked me. “At the beginning of the year, she wouldn’t even read aloud in front of the three other children in her reading group. You have given her so much self-confidence.”
My reward was knowing that Jannelle would enter second grade reading at grade level, with the self-assurance, desire, and determination to succeed in school.
First graders need to memorize sight words. As the year progresses, we work our way from the yellow flash cards to the purple, from frequently used words like “can” and “day” to irrationally spelled words like “should” and “night.” I flip card after card, and my students get better and better at identifying them correctly.
“Which kind of ‘to’ is that?” I ask.
“I’m going to the store.”
A big smile, a high five, and we continue.
One year I tutored two first graders, both vying to be the first to work with me each week. Our final session, I consented to Jeylin’s request that all three of us work together. I had brought an end-of-school gift for each, books of course, Frog and Toad Are Friends for one, Little Bear’s Visit for the other. Jeylin read a chapter in hers to Briyah, then Briyah read a chapter of Little Bear to Jeylin. It was a perfect year-end wrap-up. The following week, I saw them one more time at an ice cream social the school put on for its tutors and their kids. We stood in a seemingly endless line awaiting the ice cream that had been left too long in the freezer and was being spooned out, one tiny hack at a time. I asked the girls if they had had time to read their new books. Jeylin shook her head, no, but Briyah smiled broadly.
“Yes,” she said. “Little Bear’s Visit is my favorite book.”
A favorite book. This may not sound like a big deal to parents whose children have many books, are read to often as toddlers, and become avid readers themselves. But for these inner-city youngsters, who have virtually no books except the ones I give them, it is a HUGE deal. To have a favorite book means liking it enough to want to read it more than once. In Briyah’s case, it may well have been despite, rather than because of, her home environment. It means that I succeeded in my primary goal as a tutor: to convey my love of stories and reading to my young charges.
Alas, this was my capstone experience as a tutor. The next year, I quietly faded away midyear because of illness, no doubt disappointing two children who deserved better from me than I was able to give them. Now I dare not go into that hotbed of germs known as an elementary school. Instead, I sometimes volunteer at the local food cupboard. It’s what I can handle, and it’s better to volunteer there than nowhere.
But I miss tutoring. I miss the relationships I formed with those budding learners. I miss the second graders who see me in the hall, run over, and beg me to please tutor them again this year. I miss watching them grow as readers, learners, and people. I miss their hugs, and I miss their appreciation. I still treasure the note Karly sent me in ragged, first-grade printing at the end of our first year together: “Thank you for making me smart.”
I didn’t make her smart—she was smart, as I told her—but I did give her a chance to discover her own intelligence.
If eyes are a window to the soul, to paraphrase Shakespeare, then perhaps watching a child learn to read is a window to the mind. What a privilege those years were of gaining access to the minds and spirits of inner-city children who, with a little extra help, may blossom into solid learners. For me, it was soul food.