This semester, I volunteered for Victory Tutorials through AISD and the Austin Public Library system. I tutored two girls in second and third grade, and they each had different needs. Judy (names altered for privacy), 3rd grade, was an English language learner, and she was very shy and quiet. Maddy, 2nd grade, had more difficulties related to signs of dyslexia, and was more outgoing and silly. I worked with each of them for one hour a week, and we completed homework together, practiced reading, writing, and spelling, and did some math.
When selecting a location, my first concern was geography and schedule. Secondarily, I wanted to find something that is relevant to my future student population. Since I’ll be an English teacher in a general education classroom, the choice to work with ELLs in reading and writing made more sense for me to focus on than working with blindness or other disabilities. In addition, m prior volunteering experiences have given me exposure to a variety of disabilities, so I felt comfortable focusing on something that felt “less SPED” than other options.
I was concerned because I have not worked one-on-one with students in a tutoring scenario before, so it was a little intimidating to sign up. I could have been matched with middle school students in math, which would have been a challenge for me since I’m terrible at math! I was very excited, however, to learn that I had been assigned to two lower-elementary girls for reading and writing help.
In my first few sessions with Judy and Maddy, it took me some time to adjust to their reading level. I have been working at the high school and college English level, and to work with something as basic as phonics was very different for me. Instead of working in content knowledge, it was all about pronunciation, mechanics, spelling and simplistic reading and writing skills. I don’t think I fully adjusted to this aspect of elementary grades in my time at Victory.
The first thing I learned was how to work with a student individually. It is fun to build relationship that way, in a weekly, focused session. With that consistency, I was able to build in some planning ahead for the student (like remembering to bring colored markers for Maddy) that made a big difference in my connection to her. No matter what the disability, I think that spending face-to-face time is crucial to learning, because you get to watch the precise process the student uses to approach a problem, and catch the exact point where the confusion, mistake, or trouble is.
Another lesson I’ve learned is about the mechanics or reading. The difference between Spanish and English pronunciation can really affect spelling mistakes for Judy, and with her limited English vocabulary, it is difficult for her to comprehend everything she reads. In addition, while I don’t know if Maddy has any diagnosed difficulties, I suspect that she has a mild form of dyslexia. Very often, she would reverse letters or merge two words that are next to one another in reading. She definitely needs to slow down with each word that she doesn’t know, and is easily misled by similar-looking words like special and spectacle. As time goes on, the linguistic differences should iron themselves out for Judy, and hopefully Maddy will avoid an official label by slowing her reading and nailing down her tricky sight words.
In our Individual Differences class, we discussed the stigma about things like bilingual education and dyslexia, or even just a learner that isn’t on-pace with the rest of their class. These stigmas are easy to see in students at Victory, especially in Judy. She is quiet and shy, and she doesn’t speak often or loudly. I believe she feels that her native language is not accepted outside of her home, and being surrounded by a language she doesn’t fully comprehend can be intimidating. I tried to encourage her to use some Spanish with me, and I helped translate some vocabulary in Spanish, but her timidity is strong.
My favorite memory was bringing a set of markers for Maddy to help her with spelling words. Breaking up the words into colorful, visual blocks helped her remember the words better, and she had a lot of fun playing with my marker set! I’m glad I was able to adapt spelling practice for her visual mind.
I think this experience has not changed my perspective, but it has reinforced my prior beliefs. It is crucial to focus on strengths, and be creative to find fun, helpful solutions in learning differences. I think that and individual with a disadvantage, whether physical, mental, or economically deserves equality and fair treatment, and I loved seeing all the ways in which our community fights for those people. SPED, however, is a complex, difficult field. It is painful to ask questions like, “Why them and not me?” or, “Is it worth all this extra effort for nominal results?” and I honestly don’t have the answers. For instance, my husband is a home health provider for an elderly man with dementia. The man’s wife has been slowly losing her husband for 10 years, and the richness of her life has faded along with the erosion of his brain. It is considered insensitive, of course, to comment that she is now forced to drag around this dead-weight with her until he eventually dies. It is unfair, both to him and to her. But this is the painful truth of disability: There isn’t fairness in this world. But, there can be equality.
I have had other experiences with disability and differences, and even Elementary ELLs. So, the most valuable part of the course for me was getting to work directly with linguistics, phonics, and language in such an intimate way. Additionally, I felt that the class offered opportunities to see presentations from a variety of different perspectives, which I deeply appreciate. It is easy to read a textbook about a topic, but when a director of a program visits the class and discusses real work they do in the field, it is a much more worthwhile class.
For my students, I definitely saw progress in each of them. They became excited to start each session, they read faster, the wrote better. Notes I had said to them a few weeks prior were remembered and applied. I believe that they have been working hard in school, and my supplemental instruction, they were able to learn much more in this semester. I am glad that I was able to have an effect, even on something as small as their confidence in reading and writing.
In my future middle- or high-school English classroom, I hope that I can implement individual instruction to most, if not all, of my students. This experience has highlighted to me specific, mechanical problems that certain students can face in an English classroom, and has given me an idea of how SPED, IDEA, and 504 programs are implemented within the public school system. At the very least, I now know who to ask if I am given a student with learning needs that I am not fully equipped to handle. I no longer feel alone in handling every student.