Unexpected Role Reversal

As a tutor on the job for many years, I encounter all kinds of students. This makes for a lot of variety and the element of surprise. They come from different ethnic backgrounds and cultures, have a unique family life, and exhibit very individual tendencies. Their goals in life are across the board from law, medicine, teaching, construction, engineering, to sports, entertainment, and social work. I am pleased to see how committed they are to their futures, even when they are not excelling in school at the moment. I have a role to fulfill in preparing them for their chosen calling. Each tutoring session is a chance to find out more about the world of young people and their aspirations.

Given the reality of this cross section of students, I have to adapt my lessons to their interests. It can be challenging if they are quite different from mine. I like to tell stories and make analogies that are meaningful and convey the basic points of my instruction. If someone likes to cook, I tie mathematics back to weights and measures. If they sew, I can talk about fractions of a yard of fabric. I never know where a lesson will take me, hence it has been an extremely enjoyable activity that rivals my graduate school classes in personal value.

A was teaching a student gymnast recently and it was not difficult to ty things back to this endeavor as it is one of my favorite sports. I watch the finals and preparations for the Olympics with glee. I was happy to have her in my midst to share my passion for the horse, vault, rings, and exercise floor. We discuss the best gymnasts in history as well as the world today.  During a recent school competition, we delayed our session to accommodate our need to attend. Interestingly enough, the student gymnast specializes in the trampoline, a subject of new interest in that the device is appearing in more and more school gyms. Kids are taking their childhood obsession with bouncing up and down to a new level. Advanced “tricks” are as difficult as any other type of gymnastics and merit serious consideration. This is no mere pastime akin to miniature golf. It is a long way from a backyard mini trampoline for tots to a regulation version for professionals.

To tie my lessons to gymnastics with a focus on the trampoline, I had to do my homework and found a great web site on the topic here. There are issues of weight and height involved when determining the reliability of a unit. Physics come into play when looking at the dynamics of the jumps, flips, and somersaults. Geometry is relevant when we trace the arc of movement. Meanwhile, I have spent so much time online and talking with the student that I feel that I have perhaps learned more about her interests than she has learned about mine. The time spent preparing has been well worth it as her comprehension of the tutoring subject has grown immensely.

Magnetic Session Today

I love working with teens as each one is unique and responds in his or her own way, causing me to become more creative in my approach. Tutoring high school kids can be challenging depending upon the subject. They can tune out in a second and never return. They are off in some kind of personal fantasyland most of the time.  It is a trick to capture their attention and keep it. I sometimes wonder what is on their minds. I don’t think it is school! Hence there need for me so I am not complaining. As a grad student, they keep me in text books and supplies. I just have to wrack my brain sometimes. Recently I had to explain electromagnetic fields and the student was not getting it at all. I thought that show and tell would work better than droning on and on. I borrowed a metal detector from a friend so that she would have a visual aid of how a magnetic field works in real life. It was pretty effective if I don’t say so myself.

The science of electromagnetism can be easily explained with this device. While there are various types of metal detectors, I kept it simple and talked about the basic design: a wire coil (the transmitter) wrapped around the head. A magnetic field is created when electricity flows through it. She heard me but still hand blank eyes, especially when I explained that the metal detection process alters the movement of the tiny electrons that move around the atoms inside the metal. I could visualize it, but I had to make a drawing. I said, “picture yourself hold the device over a metal object.” I went on to talk about electric currents. In short, the detector creates electrical activity (induction) in the metal at hand. This creates magnetism as well or a “magnetic field.” The detector picks it up due to the coil of wire (receiver) and a part called a loudspeaker, a circuit to which it is connected, is triggered. Eureka! Finding something is what it is all about. People often use these gadgets just for fun such as in a park or along the sand at the beach.

I find it fascinating how electricity flows through a magnetic field. I am sure my student wasn’t that taken with it. I had hoped to pique her interest and create some curiosity about physics. I made sounds like a loudspeaker click or beep to make my point since there wasn’t any metal in the tutoring room. She did laugh at that. I told her that the closer the detector is moved to the metal object, the louder the sound. I finally got through to her and we could move on to other topics she was having trouble with. It gladdens my heart when I can make a connection to a student like the process of electricity. I want to create a flash in her brain.

How I Spend My Summers

As a grad student, I have to find a summer job to make ends meet and keep my tutoring program going. It must be a position that is at odd hours and not full time. I know of others who are grocery clerks, busboys, call center reps, freelance writers and web designers, babysitters, and more. It isn’t always easy to find the perfect circumstances so I have resorted to working as a maid in a local hotel to save for school and provide my immediate necessities. It suits me perfectly.

I am not much of a rabble-rouser but somehow, I got entangled in hotel politics recently, which brought out my aggressive side. The other maids were complaining about the old vacuums and their lack of power. I knew for a fact that they were right. The old-fashioned bagged appliance was a mess to empty and it also lacked oomph like my bagless one at home. I decided to lead a strike. The hotel manager was aghast, afraid of the retaliation of the patrons. He didn’t give in right away and we stood in our little maid outfits in the lobby with a huge sign. We had an artist friend paint a large vacuum so people would know what it was all about.

We then did our research at https://www.thevacuumchallenge.com/bag-vs-bagless-vacuum-cleaner-better/ and found a web site that sold discount bagless vacuums. We printed a list of sizes and prices and how long it would take to be delivered. We did all the homework for the hapless manager. If you thought he was aghast before, it was twice as bad. It took him some time to absorb the information. A strike in his venue had never happened before. He said he would get back to us and disappeared into his office to peruse the document. We tried to read his face to anticipate his reaction, but he was a stone wall.

The next day he summoned the striking crew and pronounced it successful. He would order ten bagless appliances to be shipped immediately. He begged us to resume our work, and as the leader of the gang, I agreed. We would use the old vacuums for as long as it would take for the shipment to arrive. We would no longer complain privately or in public. He wasn’t really angry at me as he realized the value of my leadership and that the new devices would improve cleaning time and save him money.

Thus, I left my mark on this job and hoped I would be able to continue part time. The other maids were highly appreciative and threw me a little party in the hotel basement employee lounge. We had champagne and cake but this is not the end of the story. They had a custom cake made for the occasion in the shape of a bagless vacuum. It was hysterical and we ate it all.

Think Around a Problem

When you tutor high school students, you encounter various requests. I am often asked to skip the usual subject, be it math, science, history, or literature, and cover something that is on their minds. I wish I knew in advance as I could prepare material for the tutoring session. Nevertheless, where there is a will, there is a way. Th good old Internet solves any problem. We can look up the information together and decide on the best explanation or answer.

I had a student for a time who would never ask questions. He listened to me and took notes, but really was out in limbo somewhere. I tried to stimulate him with different techniques I have used over the years, but he remained mute. Then one day, he finally opened his mouth. Oddly enough, he wanted to know how reverse osmosis works. What? I was surprised. He explained that his parents had put in a new water filtration system and they didn’t understand it well enough to let him in on the secret of its success. They had bad-tasting water which was no doubt polluted and listened to a neighbor who had just installed a system. The water was completely transformed and everyone was fascinated with the technology. I was too. We looked it up online and found rather lengthy explanations from sites like this one: https://www.homewaterhealth.com/best-reverse-osmosis-system-reviews/. Some were highly technical and we had to sort them out. This was a good lesson in research skill building. I didn’t regret the time taken away from our usual subject. I love tutoring, especially if I can teach a child something new and valuable.

We discussed the importance of water as the fluid of life and got off on a tangent about how it operates in hydrating the body. This was physiology pure and simple. We then honed in on the membrane action used in reverse osmosis to eliminate chemicals, toxins, pollutants, dirt, or germs of most any type. Iron and manganese are culprits, not to mention lead in some households. We looked up lead pipes and were shocked at the fact that people still have them. It is a major red flag like living with asbestos in your ceiling. Most lead piping is gone, replaced by copper. Galvanized pipe was used for a time and rejected. Wow, from physiology to plumbing.

Finally, we hit the nail on the head with a simple definition. The technology of reverse osmosis used in modern filtration is used to rid water of contaminants by pushing the liquid through a semi-permeable membrane by means of pressure. My student wrote this out all on his own. Out of dozens of descriptions of the process, he found this the best. I think a great lesson was learned on both our parts. He couldn’t stop talking about his research and how it would help his parents and the neighbor understand what they had installed. He was proud as a peacock. Thereafter, it would speak throughout our sessions like a regular magpie.

Teaching Students to Think Creatively

I am trying to incorporate creative thinking throughout the training program I am developing for my tutors. With constant cuts to school budgets, classes in the arts are usually the first to go. And while I think that is another problem in itself, it does leave students without the ability to really brainstorm and problem solve. This presents a problem when you are tutoring someone and the method you are teaching them just isn’t clicking. You have to be able to look at all sides of the problem and come up with alternative ways to get to the same point.

Here’s an example: when I was younger, I tutored a child in math who simply could not get the concept of odd and even numbers. I tried to explain that they never change, that any number that ends in 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 are odd and numbers that end with 0, 2, 4, 6, and 8 were even. For some reason, he just couldn’t grasp the concept no matter which way I explained it.Out of complete desperation, I looked around his room to see if I could find something to explain it better. I found a ball that was half red and half blue. I had him hold the ball in his hands and rotate it halfway as we counted. The blue side was odd numbers and the red side was even. Sure enough, with that simple visual, he caught on a lot faster! It was hard for me at first to try and find a way around his comprehension problem – numbers are either odd or even, there is no deeper concept or tricks involved. But once I saw that ball, I knew I had something.

I know a solution like that won’t work for every kid, and that is the whole point. One size fits all teaching is the way most classrooms have to operate – by necessity, please don’t think I am saying teachers are ineffective or lazy – and their methods tend to be tried and true. While I understand these strategies works for a good majority of students (otherwise they wouldn’t teach in that way), it does leave out some children. If everyone learned the same way, we wouldn’t need tutors!

I want my tutors to be able to relate to the students they are working with and figure out the most effective approach to teach concepts to their peers. It will only be through creative thinking that they will be able to come up with alternative teaching methods that may work, and have the confidence enough to give them a try. It is my job to make sure that my tutors have the ability to identify learning deficits and try to find ways around those issues. Once they’ve done so, they’ll be able to effectively tutor students who need help in the most effective ways possible. I’m trying to come up with different exercises and methods to emphasize these skills. It has definitely been a challenge.

But just like that little boy’s face when he finally understood the concept of odds and evens, it will be so very worth it!

Learning Everywhere

I am currently involved in high school peer tutoring groups which gives me great fulfillment. For those of us in this adjunct to education, we know we are helping change lives of students who are having individual difficulties. The customization of tutoring is what makes it work in the great majority of cases. If it is done in a haphazard and general manner, it may not work as planned. I spend time speaking with others in the field and devising new and effective strategies. For the committed few, we may mean the difference between going to college or having to stall one’s chosen career.

Today I want to talk about something my students are considering: the use of Bluetooth or wired speakers to listen to TED talks, podcasts, and/or audiobooks. They want to access them when they are not at school or home. I always tell them that learning can take place most anywhere and they have taken my words to heart. To show my approval, I researched a bit about the pros and cons of both here. Bluetooth is a wireless system and an excellent choice for most in terms of convenience and practicality. If it is compatible with your various devices, then go for it. It is all about how a wireless speaker communicates with a laptop or tablet for example. If you don’t find compatibility, you will have to use Wi-Fi or a wired speaker. I doubt if it won’t work because Bluetooth was designed to be universal. You simply have to know how to enable the feature on your device.

The only real con I can see with Bluetooth is that the transmissions have a limited range of maybe fifteen feet which might not be enough for the best Outdoor Light and Sound experience. You might have to limit where you use it. It would not cover an entire house. You also must know the hardware and the kind of chips utilized as some are more or less sensitive to interference (which could come from microwaves, cordless phones, baby monitors and the like). There are various versions in any case so you need one that supports the transmission of stereo music if that is your goal. Some types permit streaming of stereo audio and some do not. The quality of the audio sound may or may not be to your standards (called audiophile status). There is a need for data compression in many cases to reduce the bit rate of the audio signal.

I am getting rather technical and hope I have not lost many readers. I just wanted to make a point about digital material used in studying and for entertainment. While Bluetooth is easy to use, you may go for old-fashioned wiring or at least Wi-Fi because of the limited range and restricted sound quality. Other than this basic issue, try out different options and see what serves your needs. I am all for using the vast resources available online and encourage students to learn to research well.

After School Tutoring Programs

The last thing most kids want to do after a long day at school is sit through more instruction. When they are struggling with a subject, it can feel like absolute torture to sit through yet another lecture about something they don’t understand.That’s why I think it is important to make an afterschool program that kids will be willing to actively participate in. The extra instruction is only worth it if students are getting something out of it.Some schools have an extra period or other study sessions where groups of students sit with instructors to work on problem areas. While that can be effective with some kids, it strains school resources and doesn’t always help all of the students – if they aren’t understanding the teacher during class, what would spending even more time with the same teacher do?

We have to change up the classroom dynamic in order to engage students who are struggling. I decided to make a better tutoring program, and I’ve learned a few things so far:

The first thing I discovered is that students comprehend things better when they’re one on one rather than a group setting. Curriculum can go at an individual pace and the student can get help immediately on anything they don’t understand.

Another idea was that children learn better in familiar surroundings. So, I decided that my afterschool tutoring would take place in the students’ homes (or other non-school area, such as an aftercare program, if possible).

My best idea, though, was to use other students as the tutors to help those who are struggling. Kids are more likely to ask a peer a question about something they don’t understand rather than go to an adult. Why not give them access to another student who knows the correct answer? Working with a peer tutor helps students feel more at ease, which allows them to work better.

Another great thing about using peer to peer tutoring is the cost. Professionals get paid overtime for tutoring (or at least, they should be). Depending on their level of experience, it can be quite costly to hire one, especially for one to one instruction. The price can be out of reach for some families. But students can’t command those kinds of fees. Others can work for college credit, as a volunteer position that will look outstanding on college applications, or as part of a service requirement for an honor society. Now the cost (or lack thereof) is accessible to many more families.

An additional benefit of using peer tutors is that they can set an example for those they are tutoring. When kids see someone else working hard and earning good grades, they might be inspired to do so themselves. When they talk to someone in college about what they’re studying and how they’re paying tuition, they might decide it is something they are capable of as well.

I think that peer tutoring is something that is worthwhile for just about every grade level, and I hope to bring my ideas to more schools as time goes on.

How Effective is Online Tutoring?

I’ve been looking into online tutoring in order to get more students the help they need. I think that it can be a great help for kids who live in rural areas or in locations that don’t have enough peers who can (or are willing) to tutor their fellow students. It has been a daunting process, trying to figure out apps and programs, but it will all be worth it in the end.

There will always be geographical limitations – too many students needing help here, too many tutors without kids there – in a physical setting. But online? That’s a whole different thing! It is a simple idea, really. Have tutors available online, then have students log in and request help in a specific subject. The student is connected with the appropriate tutor, and tada—let the learning begin! The best part about this concept is that the students and tutors can be just about anywhere. I can have a college student in California on a break in between classes working with a student somewhere in Tennessee who needs to learn the quadratic formula. We can reach a lot more students by going online than we can in a traditional setting, even if the program is successful.

I think online tutoring can be very effective if I can get the logistics handled. The two real issues I have found are that in some lower income areas, where tutors are often an integral part of over-tasked schools, students don’t always have widespread internet access. Sometimes the only place students can access online tutoring is at their public library, which means the hours we can provide them with help are limited. However, some help is better than no help, and I plan to work with schools and libraries in these kinds of areas as the business model for my tutoring program evolves and improves.

The other problem is that without a tutor being directly next to you, there is the potential for distraction. I’ve been talking to a few programmers to see if there are ways to mitigate this issue. From making a simple, clean user interface, to possibly having a sort of ‘guided access’ lock where things like the internet can’t be opened while tutoring is in session, I’ve been tossing around just about every idea I can think of. One obvious way to combat this problem would be through the use of webcams, but webcams do require more bandwidth than a simple chat/file exchange type program. Also, we are dealing with minors and there is also the question of what is going to make students and parents feel the most comfortable using our services.

As long as there is a need for students to reach quality tutors, I will keep trying to figure out ways to make that happen!

Why Peer Tutoring?

When my grad professor asked me “Why peer tutoring?” My first thought was, “Why NOT peer tutoring?” But I know that’s not the best of answers. So, I decided to write a post explaining myself and then I’ll know what to say to him tomorrow when I walk into his office!

First, I think that teachers are overworked and underpaid. They teach to large class sizes and can’t focus on the kids who are really struggling. When they do tutoring work, it is either free (or at an expense to them) or costly for the families receiving the services. And that’s assuming you can even find a teacher willing to tutor – let’s face it, most people just want to go home at the end of the day and see their families before they start on all the work that they had to take home! Lots of teachers work for summer programs as a way to make extra money, which is great for the teachers but again, expensive for the families. Some of the children who could use the most help are simply out of luck in these cases.

But peers tutor for a variety of reasons. I did look at some other peer tutoring programs where the tutors are paid. Compared to the cost of professional instructions, the prices are much more reasonable. Other programs offer college students course credits or clinic hours in an education program. Both of these things can be pretty motivating to higher education students! Some high school students also tutor to get a bullet for their college applications or for community service. All of these are good reasons, and they all can keep costs down. Lower costs means more students can afford the help they need!

Another great reason to use peers is a role model system. Some kids who are struggling in school need to see someone who works hard and is succeeding. They may need to see effective study tips in action, or maybe learn more in-depth note taking. Not to say that teachers can’t provide these things, but kids are more willing to take advice or suggestions from someone other than an adult. They especially don’t want to hear it from their parents or teachers!

Using peers is also helpful with Common Core. Many parents feel completely out of their depth with it, especially the math. Parents don’t know what those crazy boxes are or the way kids are doing long division now. Kids ask for help and their parents have no idea where to start, so they’re looking online at youtube videos and hating this “new math.” But peers have actually been taught these things, and they understand. Not only that, but they can offer tips and tricks on how they picked it up and help others catch on, too.

Technology can be a problem, too. Kids who graduated even fifteen years ago didn’t use the slide rule that my grandparents did. Nowadays, I can use my phone to do all kinds of math that my parents needed a scientific calculator for. But peer tutors already know these things – because they’re actively using it themselves!

Peer tutors can approach those who need help as a friend and as an educational resource, which I think can be really valuable to those who are struggling.

Whew, I wish I’d said all that earlier in my instructor’s office! He’s going to get an earful from me tomorrow, let me tell you!!

Needed a Tutor of My Own Today!

It’s a little embarrassing to admit when we don’t understand something, isn’t it? Today was one of those days for me. I was sitting in one of my education classes and I just could not understand what the professor was talking about. She might as well have been talking about rocket science for all I was able to understand. It was so bad that I actually checked to make sure I was in the right class.

I was that lost.

I went to the TA afterward and asked for help. He gave me some websites to look at that would “clarify the material,” he said. I checked them out at the computer lab while I waited for my next class to start and all I got out of that was even more gibberish. I didn’t feel like I was being taught the information. I felt like I was being talked to like I was already supposed to know it all. And if I knew it already, why would I be taking a class in it? Seems like a waste of time, right?

After my next class, I just happened to see the TA again. I cornered him and told him that those sites didn’t clarify anything and that I’d actually need to be taught the information. Of course told me he didn’t have time for that and tried to make me feel bad for not understanding the material. I pointed out that the T in TA is for teacher, and if he isn’t actually teaching, what was he doing? He didn’t really like that, but did tell me that there is a study group that meets once a week. Maybe one of those students could explain it to me, since he’d already “tried so hard” to get me to understand it.

Lucky for me, the study group was meeting in only a couple of hours, so I hung around school for a bit and then met up with them. There ended up being seven of us, which I was told was fairly large for the group. Turns out that only two people understood what was going on in class! That made me feel a lot better. And of the two who understood the material, one has been a teacher for a long time and is doing coursework to get a second master’s degree. She agreed to sit down with me one on one for an hour and get me up to speed while the other student ran through everything with the others.

Want to know how I got my own private tutor and the rest were in a small group? Simple: I asked. I explained what I didn’t understand and asked if she had time over coffee to go over it with me. She did, so I got to pick her brain for an entire hour! I walked away feeling more confident in the material and more sure than ever that peer to peer tutoring works. It made me feel so much better after doubting myself for not understanding the lecture material and then being talked down to by that TA!