Published Online: February 29, 2012
Published in Print: March 1, 2012, as Unexpected Tutors

Unexpected Tutors

A Bronx teacher transforms her struggling freshman writing class into a thriving workshop by turning to older students for help.

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When he entered my classroom this September, "Tommy" was the smallest 9th grader I had ever encountered. At 14, he was no more than 4-1/2 feet tall. But what he lacked in stature, he more than made up for in boisterousness.

On the first day I taught his freshman writing elective, he arrived 15 minutes late. "I'm Tommy!" he announced brightly, interrupting me mid-sentence as I was going over course procedures with his classmates. He sported a Mohawk, the effect of which was to make him resemble a tiny dinosaur. "Sorry I'm late, Miss—I got lost coming from the gym." Then he looked around at his classmates, grinned conspiratorially, and said to me, "Hey, Miss! Introduce yourself to the class!"

I laughed. It was impossible not to find him adorable.

In the hallways of our school, Tommy was all confidence. The first couple of days, upper classmen would approach him and ask, "Why are you so little?"

"Why are you so little?" he'd retort smartly, as though that were the only logical response to a six-foot-tall senior. After a week of this, he had a full posse accompanying him wherever he went in the hallway.

Ilana Garon<br/>
—Aaron Epstein
Ilana Garon
—Aaron Epstein

In his coursework, Tommy was less successful. He had an Individualized Education Plan, which granted him extended time on tests—but realistically, he needed a lot more help. Though he hadn't been labeled as such, he was almost certainly dyslexic; he constantly rearranged the letters in words or forgot letters altogether. Moreover, he had no internal sense of organization in his writing: Everything he wrote read like a random selection of unrelated sentences. It was as though he had simply written down every thought he had, list-like, and decided he was finished with his essay. When presented with any directions that hadn't been read aloud to him (or for which he had missed the explanation—he was absent regularly due to various medical conditions), he would glance at the assignment sheet for a couple of minutes, and then sigh and plant his face down on the desk in an elaborate show of defeat.

"Poor Tommy—he really should have a paraprofessional with him," his science teacher commented to me. "He's completely lost in all his classes."

He wasn't the only one who was lost. The freshman and I were all slogging miserably through the term. The elective met two or three days a week during 10th period, at which point the kids were exhausted and unfocused. The make-up of the class was also a problem: 33 students, one me. With that ratio, it was impossible to give these kids the type of one-on-one attention they needed in a writing class. After seven years in the system, I was an old hand by Bronx teacher-retention standards, but in this situation, there was no question I was struggling.

Something had to change—and it began, at least in part, with Tommy. After one too many days of seeing his little face on the desk, feeling my own hands tied because there were too many kids in the class for me to just sit with him the entire period and guide him through his essay, I had a sudden burst of inspiration. In addition to teaching English, I had an after-school job tutoring kids on the Upper East Side of Manhattan for their SATs. I reasoned that if Tommy had been a Park Avenue kid, his parents would have hired him a tutor. So I would do just that.

A Born Teacher

As it happened, there was an excellent pool of "tutors" available in my 10th grade Honors English class. So I started there.

Our school's top student was a sophomore named "Chantal," whom I happened to teach the period before Tommy. I kept her after class one day and explained the situation: "There's a little freshman who's having a rough time in the writing elective," I told her. "I want to bring in someone to help him, someone I trust to correct his mistakes and guide him with his writing a little bit. I think you'd be perfect—and I know you're free 10th period. I'd give you community-service credit, candy… whatever. Would you be into doing this?"

A born teacher, Chantal was game to help. She came the next day, and when I nodded in Tommy's direction, she headed over. I don't know what she said to him, but the next minute he was writing, and she was looking over his shoulder, making suggestions. Throughout the period, I kept an eye on them: Every time Tommy wrote a paragraph, he would hand his paper to Chantal, and look eagerly up at her. Chantal would read it through, mark it up in hot-pink pen, talk to him about it, and hand it back. Then he would make more notes in the margins based on her instructions and continue writing. By the end of the period, Tommy—assisted by Chantal—had completed his first five-paragraph essay draft of the term.

Chantal came again the next day, when I had a different section of the writing elective. Tommy wasn't in this class, but there were other kids who needed help. I talked to Chantal for a minute before the period, explained what I wanted the kids to do, and then we took a "divide and conquer" approach, splitting the room in half. The kids were remarkably willing to work with Chantal, totally unfazed by the fact that she was only a year older than they were. I realized then that it would make sense to "hire" more tutors—basically, replicate this experiment on a larger scale.

I went back to the honors class and explained that I could really use some extra hands in my freshman writing elective, that Chantal had done a great job, and that I hoped maybe some other kids might want to volunteer to help out as well. A few hands shot right up, but the majority of the class was unmoved. At the end of the next day, a student in one of my standard classes named "Franchesca" came to find me. "I heard you're bringing 10th graders in to help with the freshmen," she said. "Do you have to be in honors, or can I do it, too?"

Franchesca turned out to be a great fit. Though her writing wasn't as strong as Chantal's, her skills were more than sufficient to help the freshmen outline their essays and correct typographical errors. Moreover, Franchesca—a pretty and outgoing sophomore—brought with her a commodity I hadn't anticipated: a sense of "cool." Suddenly the freshman boys were motivated to write their essays so that they'd have something for Franchesca to work on with them. She circumnavigated the room self-assuredly, marking someone's paper here, encouraging another student there, even telling a small crew of freshmen boys to stop talking and do their work or they'd be in trouble. I marveled at how well they listened; clearly, I had tapped into a valuable resource.

Building Confidence

Now that I had seen the benefit of having extra hands in each classroom, I decided to give more thought to fine-tuning other aspects of the writing workshop. I made "peer-review" forms for the assignments so that freshmen could read each other's work and offer standardized feedback on key issues—organization, clarity, interest-value to the reader—before any of the tutors or I arrived at their desks. The forms allowed the kids to rate each other's work on a scale of 1-5 on each issue, and explain any rating under 3. Even for kids who weren't strong readers or writers, the forms made it possible to give meaningful feedback to a peer.

I also invested in 80 multi-colored gel pens. Nothing, I realized, made the kids more motivated to write than the chance to do so in sparkly green gel-ink, and to make corrections in neon orange. Having lots of available colors also made it easier to tell which revisions had been done by whom when several people in turn were handling the same paper: The tutors and I simply used different colors from whichever the peer reviewers had used.

Even with these changes in place, the workshop wasn't perfect: A class of 33 freshmen writers was just too big. While employing tutors and a few minor protocols made it easier for each kid to get some attention, I knew it couldn't truly replace the kind of intensive, one-on-one instruction these kids deserved. Still, it was definitely an improvement. In a school where truancy was a significant problem, 10th period's near-perfect attendance proved that I was on to something. The kids liked being in the writing elective. They liked working with the tutors, using gel pens, teaming up to read each other's papers. They were happy to have tête-à-têtes with me when time permitted. And most importantly, they felt more confident about the writing they were doing.

Last week, I watched Tommy sitting at my desk (for no reason I could discern other than that he had asked to, and I couldn't turn him down), intently focused on his latest essay. He was writing in metallic purple pen, and would soon show his paper to Chantal. And I thought to myself, "OK, we can work with this."

Vol. 05, Issue 02, Pages 14-16

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