By Mary McManus, second year AmeriCorps member
Tutoring elementary school students in Language Arts is not an easy task. When we tutor in math, it's so easy to see students have those "a-ha!" moments, because the concepts are mostly tangible. In English, progress is much more subtle and hard to measure. At City Year, we center our English tutoring on fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary. These skills are most often developed while reading. In my classroom, however, we focused a lot on writing. Writing is a very hard skill for students of any level to hone, so my incredible partner teacher places a lot of emphasis on the development of young writers. Since next year I'm going to get my masters to teach Secondary English Education, I thought it was an important skill for me to hone as well.
I have one student in particular on my English and Language Arts focus list who has shown amazing improvement. Last year, he was in our ELL or English Language Learners program because he moved to the United States from the Middle East when he was six. At the end of last year he tested out of the program because his English was deemed proficient. He is an amazing English speaker but he lacks a lot of confidence in his abilities. He doesn't like messing up in front of other people so more often than not he doesn't try to spell words or sound them out. That's why my goal for him this year was not necessarily to see his Fountas and Pinnell scores skyrocket (the reading assessment) or even see his spelling tests drastically improve, it was simply to get him to try; to, without my coaxing, see him be more willing to read out loud or write an entire essay on his own. A mentor of mine once told me that the goal of a good tutor should be to become irrelevant. I wanted to foster the kind of intrinsic love of learning that would outlive my time with him.
The beginning of the year started off with him being so intensely afraid of making a mistake that he'd hardly leave my side while writing an essay. Every other word he'd ask me how to spell it and every single time he was met with the same frustrating response, "you tell me." More often than not he'd go through the word, letter by letter, with me affirming each guess, and spell the entire word right. Every single time I'd tell him, "you did that, not me."
Throughout the year he'd still check with me every now and then with a harder word, but for the most part he either knew he could do it, or didn't want my annoying response. Then, very recently, my class wrote their personal narratives. He came up to me frantic, not knowing what he could possibly write about, and after a few questions, his eyes lit up and he darted away from me. I went to help a few other students and every time I looked over at him during the work period, he was furiously writing.
After a while I walked over and asked him how he was doing and if I could read what he wrote. He smiled and showed it to me, and on the page was a hilarious story about what he does when no one is around. It was an honest, intelligent, captivating story about how he dances around his room and pretends that his stuffed animals come alive and he has to tame them. I was exploding with joy and I looked at him and asked, "are you proud of yourself?" and he nodded his head furiously and I told him, "me too." Where there was once so much fear, I now saw a young boy who had a new way of sharing himself with the world.
He did that, not me.