Thursday, April 20, 2006

Helping Leslie -- How the Littlest Things Matter

From Ash:

This week, Po and I have been working with portraits of two kids, Eddie and Leslie, as a way to address how parents' educational attainment effects their own children's educations. Eddie is a kid whose parents have more education (college or more); Leslie's parents have less education (completed high school at best). Both Eddie and Leslie are archetypes -- not even stereotypes. Meaning, they are meant to be more illustrative than representative -- highlighting common traits and behaviors sociologists have identified after years of surveys and studies. But we both know that every family has unique traits, issues, challenges. So today, I thought I'd spend a little time with some real Leslies I know.

As a little backstory, in January 1999, I began a free, all-volunteer tutoring program in "Mid City" Los Angeles. Mid City is predominately Hispanic and Black. Most are struggling to make ends meet. Gangs are a constant problem, so are drugs. Most of our Hispanics are immigrants (legal and illegal).

As I mentioned in a previous post, the tutors are very small group -- we all have college-educations (except for the one still in college), and a few of us have professional degrees. Despite my occasional ineptitude, and an annual "budget" of around $1000 (donations tutors and friends chip in), we've somehow managed to work with over 300 kids in 8 years.

Our "Leslies" have parents with some schooling, some with none at all. Their parents are almost all in service jobs, skilled labor, or other blue-collar jobs, if they're lucky enough to have a job. The vast majority of the kids in the tutoring program are Hispanic -- and the parents and the kids are native Spanish speakers. The others are black. Why so few of our kids are black, we've never been able to figure out, or change. Though we've tried. We've never seen a white kid come in for tutoring. (But then, I don't know any living in the area, either.)

Sigh. This is incredibly painful and awkward for me to attempt to explain. I'm only writing this because Po promised it. I love my tutoring kids. Get me in a room, and I can't stop talking about them. But I hate talking about us, the tutors. No matter how I do it, it always feels like I'm bragging - look at me, the educated white girl working with the poor uneducated masses. Ugh. It's so not about me. But it's awfully hard to write a post like this and leave myself out.

I guess I should also say that I don't feel like an outsider to this community, and I don't think anyone there would think otherwise, either. While I live about a mile west, our tutoring program is an offshoot of the church that I've been attending for about 9 years. So many of the children I tutor, I also see at Church or other activities: their parents and I often volunteer together for a church festival or something. Even for the kids I don't know from Church, I often already know one of their cousins or their friends.

You might wonder whether these children are having difficulty translating their Spanish into English, or whether they are struggling with literacy -- regardless of the language. The latter is the case. They speak both Spanish and English, but equally-poorly. They are termed "bilingual" but in many ways they are not-very-lingual. They use a street-speak in both languages.

Their parents -- not very educated themselves -- are not familiar with the importance of getting the best grades possible. They understand that failing is bad, and staying in school is good. But the distinction between C-grades and B-grades and A-grades is not something that usually resonates with them all that much.

But the truth is, if I have anything to offer, it's not how much we do for the tutoring kids -- it's how the little things we do for them make a difference. These are little things that you blog readers probably do for your children instinctively. Yet the same little things amaze our students' parents. Like I came up with this random rule, if we have cookies to give out, a kid can't get one until he's learned how to spell "cookie." It's not rocket science. But first graders struggling with the alphabet suddenly are able to spell not only "cookie," but they usually get a good start on "chocolate," too. One day I realized some of the kids frequently used "I need to go to the bathroom" as a way to get out of studying. I kept taking them to the bathroom, but I would quiz them about what they were working on as we walked there and back, so they didn't get out of working. Now kids pretend to need to go to the bathroom because they want to be quizzed to see how many state capitals they know.

We have a thing we do when a kid is bored. It works especially for the younger kids. If there's a kid who is really getting fidgety, frustrated with his inability to get anywhere with his homework, a tutor will say, "Let's take a walk, Honey."

For a myriad of safety reasons, the walk goes never farther than the opposite edge of the parking lot. But the parking lot is an open classroom.

"Hey, Honey, What kind of a car is that? What's that say?"
"Great! Spell 'Ford.'"
"What does that say on the car's license plate?"
"Great! What's that over there?"
"The water fountain."
"Great! Can you spell 'fountain'?"
"No, Sweetie, let's try that again, together."

We start quietly but soon we're singing it, yelling it out-loud, again and again. A mantra turned cheer. All the way back to the tutoring room, until the kid can do it by himself.

At the end of tutoring, I stop the kid from dashing out the door. I pull Mom over to the side. You can see the fear in her eyes: she knows her kid must have done something wrong.

"Spell 'fountain'!" I not so fiercely command her son.


The kid beams. I beam. The mom gives her child an amazed stare.

We've had other moms who secretly follow us around the parking lot. Listening to every word. Afterwards, a Mom will shake her head, "That thing you did with the cars. That would never occur to me."

To her, all she saw was parked cars. But for me, it's just an outdoor classroom.

When I hear that, then the Mom and I will make our own quick tour, and I show her some of the "textbooks" parked outside. I point out how I make the kids read all the stuff written on the cars, the street signs. License plates can launch you into a geography lesson. The number of seats in a car can be the start of a math word problem.

By now, Mom's usually speechless. Sometimes near tears. But quite often, she just shakes her head, dazed. It's like I ripped the blinders off. All these times she could have been helping her kid learn. And she'd only thought that "helping her kid" meant sitting next to him as he did his schoolwork - which she often couldn't do herself.

Sometimes, parents will shove a failing report card into our hands and ask us for suggestions on what they should do. A lot of times they tell us at the start of a tutoring session, "He needs help with reading." As if this is our problem to solve. We say, "Sure, we'd love to read with your kids."

But then, when that Mom comes back, we hand the kid and the responsibility right back to her. "You need to read more with your kid. Half-hour, every day. I don't care what you read. English, Spanish, labels on a cereal box but you have to read with them."

Of course, after a few years of doing this, we no longer wait for the Moms to give us an opening like that. We just plow into them. We barrage them with unsolicited suggestions for their kids. Again, it's nothing we ever said we should or shouldn't do. We just all do it.

"Make them read, every day. And turn that t.v. off. Really, no t.v.," we insist. (One family, every time I see their mom -- "No, really, No t.v.")

"Can you find the way to get the closed-caption button to work on your t.v.? Then your kid can see the words everyone's saying." "Really?" "Si."

"Does your family have a dictionary in the house? Here, let me get you one."

"Don't go yet -- Are there any books at home?" "No. Not really." "Yeah, I do -- I have my schoolbook." "Come back here, Honey, and let's find you a couple books. Have you ever heard of Wizard of Oz? No? Try it. It's one of my favorites."

"Did you call the teacher about this report card? You need to talk to him. It's his job to help you, really. Do you want me to go with you?"

"Maria's squinting when she reads." "Really?" "Have you thought about getting her glasses? Here's the number of a clinic."

"Here -- take these flashcards -- do them with him every day." "Really? For how long?" "Half-hour, at least." "Really?"

Yeah. Really.

As I said, it's not rocket science. Honestly, I just thought every parent did the sort of stuff we do in the parking lot, using the world as an open book. I mean, in my mind, what do you talk to a child about, if it isn't about teaching her about the world around her? How do you not see a blue sky and ask the child to spell "sky"?

It wasn't until I met the parents who weren't doing that sort of thing that I realized I was doing something different than they were. That this could actually be an issue.

It's a real issue.

Don't get me wrong. The vast majority of these parents adore their kids -- want the absolute best for them. For a lot of them, they've given up everything they've ever known just so that their kid has a chance of getting an education. That's why it hurts so much to see that they are being disadvantaged. These little things are easily teachable. Every parent should know how to make the parking lot a classroom.

Next up: Po on raising an Eddie of his own.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your stories about tutoring the Leslies. I believe that the parents feel that you listen to them. How many people would listen to them? I get the feeling that you made it clear to the parents that the parents CAN make a difference, regardless of their education background.

The closed captioning is the best part about TV. I believe that it not only applies to deaf people, but it also applies to people who are learning the English language. And it also helps children who are learning how to read.

When I entered the 6th grade, they started to caption TV shows like the Little House on the Praire. At that time, believe it or not, none of the CBS shows were captioned so my family stopped watching 60 Minutes.

There were a few shows on PBS with open captions but that was rare.

Now we take it for granted that all of the TV shows will be captioned.

On another topic, I noticed the part of the story about teaching kids how to spell out the words like Fountain. I was curious about something.

Do they learn how to spell the words phonetically? In speech therapy, I learned that some of the words sound different from the way it is spelled.

For example, the word "cake" is said like this C AE K.

Another curious question....if the kids learned sign language like the finger alphabet, would it make it easier for them to spell the words? I learned how to finger spell at the age of 6 and now can do it effortlessly.

Thanks for reading!

11:46 AM  
Blogger Ashley Merryman said...

Thanks for your post.

We do some phonics work, because some of the kids not only need to read, but they're still working on English speaking as well.

Actually, I sign a little, and we've had a deaf child occasionally attend Tutoring, and another who is hard of hearing, so some of the kids have learned a few signs, and a few letters of the alphabet. But fingerspelling doesn't help them learn to spell -- they still have to know and spell a word before they can use it. The best use I've found for our kids is that I will occasionally fingerspell a new word to my HoH student to make sure he's heard me correctly.

12:16 PM  
Anonymous Jarralynne said...

Hey Po,

Hey Ashley, I enjoyed your Leslie post about tutoring.

I love the concept of turning OFF the tv! I tell my kids that it zaps my brain energy and honestly I think it does.

I run a workforce literacy program. I liked some of your strategies. I will have to see how I can turn cookies into something more adult-worthy of a learning target.

We did use poetry with our service workers at UC Berkeley and they loved being in the poetry class with the Cal students.

Here's a story about it.

I love the Factbook.


7:32 PM  
Blogger Ashley Merryman said...


Actually, you might tell your students something I tell my kids all the time. I read somewhere that tv does literally shut your brain off. In something less than a second, your brain becomes so inactive, that it's actually doing less when you watch television than when you're asleep.

Let me know if you find a grown-up equivalent for my cookie trick -- I'll probably start using it on my kids' parents!

Thanks very much for your kind words about my post and the Factbook! Made my day.

8:27 AM  
OpenID Angela said...

Thanks Ash for your article. My son is dyslexic and I will start doing more out-in-the-world spelling and reading as then he can put a picture to it. Makes sense. And you are right about the TV. Jerry Mander wrote about it in his article "Four Arguments for elimination of TV" and his book In the Absence of the Sacred. Your brain goes into a passive-receptive alpha stage watching. Hypnotic he called it, equating it to states when you are drugged. Interestingly, large screen movies don't do the same thing as your eyes move more and there is more happening in the theatre that you don't zone out.
Thanks for all your insight.

1:38 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home