I started tutoring back when our daughter was in second grade. She’s in graduate school, going for a PhD now, and I’m still tutoring.
Through my own years of school I always felt math-impaired, and even failed an algebra class at Phillips Exeter (which I attended for my final two years of high school.) So, when I started tutoring a motley group from my daughter’s elementary school, my ploy was to get another parent to come and cover the math questions at our tutoring table. Honestly, this didn’t work, because most of the time all the other parents were too busy, so the most gifted of the kids ended up being our de facto math expert– and since that individual later became a Kumon tutor as soon as she was of legal age, you may be assured that none of the kids at our table missed a thing.
But I learned by watching her, that something had happened over the years in my brain. Maybe missed or laggardly connections finally spliced together with age? I discovered that I understood algebra far better than I ever had during those exhausting panicky hours of doing and re-doing my homework problems in my late teens. At last I could see it. So when our gifted friend and our daughter went on to other schools, and I transferred to tutoring friends’ children at the elementary through high school levels on a volunteer basis, I took over even the dreaded algebra.
I’m not great at it, but I can do it, and I think my awareness of my faults makes me better able to explain how. I’ve gone down so many wrong ways in my mind, dealing with algebra, that I think I have a feeling for how the errors work and how to avoid them.
So, if you have a younger child and can accommodate an afternoon a week of a homework club, I cheer you on. Make sure that the kids who come are of both sexes. Get a sense that each one really wants to be there to improve their work for school– parents are not reliable on this issue. You need kids who are different from each other. Different backgrounds, different socio-economic situations, best of all, different languages and cultures. Stretch, take risks. Not just your own child’s favorites! And like Fight Club– no one should talk about Homework Club outside of Homework Club, because you don’t want parents begging you to babysit their kids for long afternoons when the kids don’t want to be there, and you don’t want them to be there. Consult with the teachers about whom to invite, and don’t take it personally if kids drop out when they discover that you really mean them to sit at a table and do homework!
Sweeten the deal with home-made snacks– not too healthy, though. Consider cookies– made of fresh butter, respect and affection, hot from the oven. Or hot yeasty rolls served with butter. When you do this, you are making magic. No stabilizers, no fillers, none of that funny preservative taste that comes with most commercial baked goods. Give a good welcome, and a warm one. You will be a cheerleader in part, chivvying, encouraging, being a parent in short– but to all equally. In fact, neglect your own child a bit during the sessions– they’ll value you the more for that! It’s a great chance to coach your own kid in manners towards guests— take the last seat, pick up after your guests, speak softly, don’t correct others in public, take your first cookie after others are served.
Chat at the table is fine, as long as work is being done. Comparing notes on science projects can be extremely helpful and bypass or ameliorate the nightmare of parent-produced science projects. Brainstorming, planning, helping each other, crossing difficult divides. If things are stiff, talk about the news of the day and make it exciting, important, challenging. Show that you care, and that’s a civics lesson.
You will find you have a far better idea of what the school expects and when. You’ll know why your child didn’t do well on a project. You will gain a reflection of what school is really like, from this crowd. You will be incensed by some of the misinformation that is being given to our children in our schools because many instructional materials are too simplified and condescending. Remember that kids can be engaged by detail, by stories, by the energy of the particular. In history, you can make it personal. Ask what they think their mothers would say, if Dad picked up his pitchfork and announced he thought he should go fight for freedom– leaving her to take care of all the livestock and the failing well, and the crops….
And here I do caution– don’t own the products of these children. You can guide, suggest, tutor in techniques, tell stories to enliven understanding, but you do not fix anyone’s homework. You cannot give the answers, only suggest how to find them. If they forget their work on the table when they go, do not bring it to school for them. It’s such a difficult thing, but so necessary, to allow failure. The pain caused now by habits of carelessness, helps kids avoid greater pain in times to come.
Now, I am tutoring a mother with her son. For her, English is the second language. I tutor the son in English also, along with science and math/algebra. We cook together as an illustration of principles ranging from handling fractions to understanding chemistry, while practicing conversation. Multiplying amounts to increase the number of cookies produced, adds incentive to get the formula right. Taking a taste of baking soda makes the point that quantities and proportions are important. But my best idea so far? Having mother instruct son in her language using a marvelous book by Tomi Ungerer– Ningun Beso Para Mama(No Kiss for Mama,) about a really bad little cat with an attitude, and his mother with hers. It’s funny, snarky, and while a kid’s book, it condescends to no one.
I assigned the son to read and translate the book with his mother, so mother became his instructor in Spanish. His translation of the text into English, increased her mastery of English. While familial respect is already strong in the family, this arrangement helps to reverse roles while both sides learn. Balance.
They laughed together telling me about it– told me how this young man’s elder brother and brother’s friend got curious and involved, and then the father wanted to know what was amusing them so much and listened too. Made me feel I’d done something right.
What a wonderful gift, Tomi Ungerer!