Arthur Evenchik is a literacy coach for the Summer Literacy Corps in Cleveland, Ohio. This program brings undergraduates together with urban kids at libraries, schools, and arts centers conducting summer enrichment activities. It is run by the Case Western Reserve University’s Center for Civic Engagement and Learning and funded by the Martha Holden Jennings Foundation.

Arthur asked the tutors to share a story from one of their first days, and Jessica Oslund, a senior at Case, offered this:

This was yesterday at Mary B. Martin, in my second grade class. One little boy was sitting slumped over at his desk, looking really mad while the kids were supposed to be copying vocab words in their notebook. His page was blank, except for “June 27, 2007.” The “u” looked like an “a”, the words were traced over as if he’d tried to get it right but was having a hard time; it was practically illegible. I asked what was wrong, and he said something to the effect of “I try to write ’em right, but I just keep messin’ it up!”

At this point, bells of opportunity were going off in my head. He obviously wanted to get better at writing, although he was considered a “problem child” in the class, because he pays more attention to the other kids than to his written work. I wrote the date correctly under his attempt, and told him to try it again. This time, he wrote it perfectly. He was so proud of his attempt that he drew a box around the three copies of the date to section it off from the rest of the potentially disastrous page of handwriting.

We continued this way for the entire lesson. The teacher would write something on the board, I would copy it onto a piece of paper, and then he would write it correctly on his paper. At one point he even asked me how to write a capital “D” so he could write the word in capital letters instead. Eventually, he was copying the words twice (I told him the first looked good and he said “Not good enough!” and practiced again) and then writing them an additional time in cursive. This was at absolutely no prompting from me. Basically all I did was write down words on a piece of paper and sit next to him, answering his questions.

This is a prime example, I think, of what we’ve been talking about. Without one-on-one help, this student gets in trouble and doesn’t do work, so he doesn’t learn anything. But he was so proud of what he did, and recognized that I had helped him. I was passing out freeze-pops later in the day, and he went to get a garbage can and followed me around with it so I could cut the tops off. I said, “Thanks!” and he said, “Well, you helped me, so I help you!”

I’m afraid this student, a particular favorite of mine, has some learning disability that is not being addressed. Maybe he just needs glasses. And summer school ends in a week, so I don’t have much time to work with him. Maybe that’s the specific question wrapped in my anecdote…what to do in a case like this?

Jessica’s moved me. It shows us the power of one-on-one attention, and what a caring and observant tutor can do. It also has policy implications. If we want tutoring and other supplementary services to work, they can’t just perpetuate failing classroom strategies. As Arthur writes,

the “problem child” at Mary B. Martin Elementary School does not need a summer program that has him copying vocabulary words from the blackboard. What he needs is an adult who asks him what he wants to learn, and helps him to do it. Jessica’s gift is that she hears “the bells of opportunity” that most of the world isn’t even listening for.

Unfortunately, Jessica and Arthur are the exceptions. Too often what happens in the name of remediation is more of what has been proven not to work (see here and here).