Category Archives: Tutoring

Tutoring is more than child’s play

Since I retired and moved to Arkansas five years ago, I’ve been doing a little tutoring. Yes, I tutor kids and adults too in reading, writing, and language.

The word “tutor” comes from the Latin for protector, so a tutor has a privileged and responsible position vis-a-vis his tutees, a position of trust and confidence. In the case of children, the parents entrust the child to the tutor so he or she can grow in knowledge and critical thinking abilities. He will know how to take on the world on his own.

lar, lares
The Wikipedia article on lares, a type of Roman tutelary spirit, shows a “Lar holding a cornucopia from Lora del Rio (Axatiana) in Roman Spain, early 1st century AD (National Archaeological Museum of Spain).”

In ancient Rome, tutelary spirits guarded the household, protecting and defending the inhabitants. They cast a protective shade over the huddle of family. They acted almost like a talisman, or charm, and so too the tutor can provide such magic to ward off the dangers of the world at large.

With kids, it’s great fun to see them develop as readers, thinkers, and writers. They are naturally curious and fidgety, and so our lessons may at first resemble squirrel chases inside a cage. I get them to sit down and read a bit, and they do. But pretty soon they are fidgeting, cracking knuckles or looking at the ceiling. I put a pen in their hand, and they resist its power. Oh, the pain of this business of thinking and translating thoughts into words!  They can talk bushels, but writing is a different monster altogether.

What’s most difficult is to convert all the diffuse energies of childish play into something logical, linear, disciplined, of course. It’s a conversion that most adults have not yet made, if we can judge by such phenomena as our recent presidential election. Who needs logic and reason when we can have games and carnival? When creepy clowns beckon in the guise of wise men?

For man doth not live by bread alone. Nor do we protect ourselves, and stand our ground, with guns alone. It’s ideas that protect and transform us. It’s the ability to digest, combine, and reformulate others’ ideas — and to make of them some kind of intellectual and spiritual life of our own.  Woodworking and flower arranging are great hobbies and talents. Soulmaking is of another order.

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Are you squirrely tonight?

squirrel and nut
Central Park squirrel, cum nutkin, has nothing on the Arkansas variety! (Photo from www.psychologistmimi.com.)

Every other week I’ve been tutoring kids up in Bentonville, a smart group of Indian-American kids whose immigrant parents want them to assimilate and succeed. They are ahead of their grade levels already and like reading if not, necessarily, writing, which comes less naturally than reading, or speaking, and which requires more learning and more patience.

One of the kids — let’s call her A — is just seven years old now, eight this fall, like my granddaughter Ruby. She’s the youngest kid I tutor and the silliest, which I appreciate.

When I came to the door the other night, A hid behind it, on the inside, and opened the door so I couldn’t see her. “Oh, my goodness!” I proclaimed. “An automatic door opener!” A’s mother and I smiled.

Sometimes A is quite attentive and focused; other times, she’s full of exhaustible and combustible energies. She curls in a ball on her chair, beside mine, and tries out various feline positions. She hums and jabbers and is intent on telling me stories of the day or jokes.  Sometimes she runs around the room.

It’s at junctures like these that I think the two of us should step outside, into the backyard, and find a tree to climb. Go way up to the crown and have a look-see at the neighborhood. Scramble out on the branches and grab some nuts. Sit there together, crack the nuts in our steel jaws, and pick out the meats with our claws.

Then and only then return to the educational business at hand.

Wouldn’t such a climb be what is called “active learning”? In truth, I might try to accommodate my tutees with some such squirrely exercises. (I remember teaching college way back when, when the simple expedient of throwing a rubber ball around the room to all who wanted to ask or answer a question produced astonishingly results!)

Journaling

So I have asked my tutees, or students, to keep journals — and I figure I’d better do so too. Better resume my journaling, or blogging, that is, for the sake of the practice if not perfection it might lead to.

In fact, if practice makes perfect, that’s certainly not the aim of journaling. It’s, rather, the achievement of fluidity or fluency, making a daily habit of writing as if you were water flowing and could no more help flowing than a river can.

This journaling is a habit I used to keep back in the day — way back in the day, say, as long ago as 45 years, when I was starting out teaching English in Detroit (Wayne State University). I can plunge now into my closet and find dusty journals from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. To me these records have historical and sentimental value, and may have utilitarian properties too, as I’ve thought often enough of mining them for story (fiction) or art (collage) ideas.

The downside of keeping a purely private journal is obviously that it’s private — written in the dark with no audience besides yourself and your carping conscience or niggling vanity. And we all know that performing in the dark, however much practice squints toward perfection, soon palls.

Journaling is fluidity, fluency, yes. Practice makes if not perfect then flowing and going toward some sort of outcome and delta. Writing becomes not something to shirk or avoid, but precisely to pursue, no matter how much in the dark you may find yourself, no matter how trickling the effort may seem some days.

And if my tutees must do it — go, and go with the flow — so must I.