Saturday, July 4, 2009

We create the magic of learning.

These are magic stones. They are plastic and shiny and cheap, and kids covet them. We use them at work to buy students' cooperation.

I'm working for the summer at a tutoring center. I work with eight students a day for one hour each. My youngest kid has been 8; my oldest thus far has been 17.

Most of the students are used to failure and have self-esteem problems. Part of my job is to keep that frustration away by using "positive error handling technique," which is a cross between improv's "Yes, And" principle and the Socratic method. Basically, when a kid gives a wrong answer, I'm supposed to affirm something about her response. Then, instead of telling her the answer, I'm supposed to help her figure it out for herself, then shower her with praise (in the form of stones) when she gets the answer right.

That works 80%, and it keeps morale up. But a few times a day, this error handling technique leads to one of the following sorts of conversations.

"George" is 14 years old. He has Autism, which means that he can read and remember words but can't necessarily picture what they mean.

Me: "The girl ran through the tall grass." What do those words make you picture?

George: The girl ran through the tall grass.

Me: Great! Those were the words. Now tell me what that made you picture in your head.

George: The girl ran through the tall grass.

Me: Yes, she did. What do you picture for the girl?

George: Ran through the tall grass.

Me: Yes, that's what she's doing. What does she look like?

George: The girl ran through the tall grass.

Me: Is the girl tall or short?

George: Tall grass.

Me: The grass is tall. You're right. What about the girl?

George: The girl ran through the tall grass.

More often, though, George just doesn't answer me, and I find myself wondering if I've turned mute or invisible, or maybe have just asked such an idiotic question that I'm not worth answering. After all, I'm repeating myself over and over, too, and we could be stuck in this perfect echolalial circle forever.

"John" is 12, athletic, and goofy. He spent pre-school through first grade in and out of the hospital for multiple heart surgeries, so he never caught on to phonics, much less reading.

I hold up an "oi" flashcard.>

Me: What do these letters say?

John: "Aw."

Me: Oh, good, I did see vowels. When you say "aw," what's the first letter you picture?

John: W.

Me: Great! I did see a W in "aw." Did you see anything before the W?

John: O.

Me: You're right that there was another vowel before the W. What would O-W say?

John: "oi."

Me: Yeah, I definitely pictured an O in "oi." What's the second letter you picture in "oi"?

John: H.

Me: H is a letter, you're right. Let's look at the card again.

John: Ee.

Me: I would hear a little "ee" sound in there at the end. How would you say the whole thing?

John: I!

Me: Oh! I did see an I in there. Did you see it coming first or last?

John: In the middle.

Me: Um, ok. This actually says oi.

John: That's what I said!

Me: You did say parts of it, you're right. Touch the card and say it again.

John: Oi.

Me: GREAT! Give me a high five! You got it! Let's see how fast we can do the next ones, ok?

<I hold up F, Qu, Ee, Ll, and Oi, to see if he can remember Oi when he's not thinking so hard.>

John: Fff! Qua! Ee! Lll! Ooo!

Me: You got those first several perfectly! Let's look at this last one. What's that second letter?

John: I.

Me: Awesome! So what do O and I say when they're together?

John: Aw.

He is so insistent that I wonder if I need my glasses prescription updated, or if I actually remember what O and I say together. That particular curriculum is called Seeing Stars, which is what I do after an hour of desperately blurting out anything positive I can say.

Those are my two most severe kids so far. The others correct themselves pretty easily, they respond to questions, they read Frog and Toad Are Friends with me, and, best of all, they are easily bribed with magic stones. As a temporary job, it definitely beats data entry. At the end of the summer, though, the kids will head back to regular school, and I could be unemployed again.

I may attach baggies of magic stones to my application cover letters from now on.


slaggetyslagg said...

I knew there would be essays from this job!

All of our friends in Portland now hold you up as the ultimate post-collegiate job search success story, by the way. At least among English majors.

Martyn Wendell said...

I really enjoy pretty much everything you write. Your essay on liturgy and Acting II Shakes is something I'm having my folks read right now, in fact.

slaggetyslagg said...

Haha! Little did you know, Martyn's parents accidentally read my essay on homosexuality at Wheaton instead!!!

Apparently Marty and his dad had a whole five minutes of coherent conversation before realizing they were discussing two different articles. WE ARE INTERCHANGEABLE!

Martyn Wendell said...

Lolz, please do not allow Steve to totally distort the facts. We were having a very general conversation that I wanted to move in a more specific direction, and only then did I realize that he had been reading Steve's article rather than yours. He and I still have to have the conversation about liturgy that I wanted, because that night instead we ended up just talking about homosexuality for a long time.
I'm glad you liked the Szymborska poem! I think she is wonderful. A philosopher in the guise of a poet, who writes things I can get my arms around without needing to use a commentary. I hate to say it, but I loaned the Dillard book out to a friend here until next Sunday. I am really enjoying her too - I remembered that she's one of your favorite writers, from a conversation we had when I mentioned that I was reading 'For the Time Being' over Good Friday. Back when you were still a student at Wheaton, remember?
I hope you're well, and that you keep turning out these great essays. I look forward to the days that you will spend in our living room - I only pray we'll have furniture, so it won't be a year-long floor party at the Scottage.