From Netanya to Inner Richmond: A JCL Tutoring Success Story
February 28, 2018
Posted by: Gil Allouche, Tutor, Jewish Coalition for Literacy
I started tutoring at the end of 2015 at Argonne Elementary School in San Francisco. Founded in 1919, Argonne is a public school in the Richmond District offering a warm and supportive environment to its students. Like the other schools in the San Francisco Unified School District, it has a diverse student body. A recent school survey for parents, for example, was provided in Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Tagalog and Arabic, as well as English. At first I tutored 3 or 4 children, and would divide my time among them, but after a few months I realized I needed to concentrate on one boy in particular. To be honest, I'm not sure if I chose him or he chose me.
Connor spoke English fine, but would not read publicly. If you asked him to, he would just stare at you. Even under the coercion of his teachers he would only read at a whisper. It was apparent that they were getting frustrated with him. I also had the impression that, despite being an English speaker, there were many words that he didn’t know or understand, but he was too embarrassed to admit it.
Now my first language is Hebrew, so I'm not unfamiliar with what he was feeling. I've struggled with similar issues, reading quietly due to low language confidence, brushing off words for which I did not instantly know the definition and so on. In fact, I was a bit of a problem student myself at one point. But my experience is that having the love and belief of a person in authority can turn things around. That’s partially why I decided to volunteer as a tutor in the first place.
Connor and I started meeting regularly. Each week we would spend an hour reading together before recess. But I could see he was bored with the books and we weren’t going to make much progress if we stuck to the assigned reading. However, he showed a real interest in the Civil War. He would tell me about visits he made to museums and about movies he saw, specific pictures he remembered. This was a subject that inspired him and he wanted to read books about it! The teachers had thought he was shy, but he wasn't at all. He was an extrovert. After a few months of reading about the Civil War together he really opened up.
Of course, it started slow and there was a lot of memorization at first. I started working with him in this way: When a word would pop up that I myself didn’t know, I would loudly say, "OH, I DONT KNOW THIS WORD! DO YOU?" and then I would look it up in the dictionary or on Google. I would do this for every word I didn’t know and, again, I'm not a native English speaker, so there were plenty. We kept a list that we'd look over at the end of hour.
After a while he started to share with me the words that he didn't understand. I’d ask him, "Do you know all the words?" and he would point out the ones he didn't. And we'd even use the computer to play back the words, so that we could both hear what they were supposed to sound like. By the end of the year, he didn’t need any prompting to point out the words he wanted to learn. He was no longer shy about them at all.
At the same time I started to read in an exaggerated, theatrical style – like every book was Shakespeare. I'd make a fool of myself in this loud voice, throwing in a bunch of funny noises. At first he laughed at me, but then he wanted to do it, too. Soon he was more and more vocal. By the end of the year he was a budding public speaker, reading proudly and eloquently in front of the class.
His teachers tell me that his reading is now on par with his classmates. The only sad part is that he doesn't need a tutor anymore. But I know we'll stay friends. Being with the Jewish Coalition for Literacy has been extraordinary and so rewarding. It's a volunteer experience that I would truly recommend to anyone.