Christmas Short Story

This is the second installment of one of twelve short stories from “Christmas on Pleasant Hill”, available from Amazon.  Half of all the profits from this book are donated to 3Cs Nursery School. To read the story from the beginning, click here, then come back to this post to continue….

The last time Charise had seen her cousin, Tanya had been running barefoot through Grandma’s garden into the night, none too steady on her feet. Charise had been in college, Tanya was a junior in high school and Charise had taken her to a party in Clifton.

Charise, in a calculation she would never have made sober, had decided to bring Tanya back to Grandma’s, where she had been living since her parents kicked her out. She wanted to introduce Tanya to cocaine in a safe place, and had figured that Grandma and Grandpa would be asleep on the second floor, too far away to hear anything. They had tiptoed giggling through the house, more loudly than they realized, and gone through the French doors in the dining room onto the back patio. On a glass table under the porch light, Charise made two wobbly lines of powder.

They were poised over it with straws in hand when a shadow fell across them. Grandma stood there in the doorway in a white robe and turban, silent and flint-eyed as the angel of death.

Finally, with no visible movement, she hissed at Charise. “How dare you bring that filth into my house! How dare you drag this girl into the same evil you’ve fallen into!” Her voice rose to a shriek and her trembling became visible – “How dare you!”

Tanya leapt out of her chair, grabbed her stiletto heels and took off barefoot through the yard, apparently preferring to risk the wrath at home rather than stay for Grandma’s. Grandma, still screaming, “How dare you!” swiped the table with her arm and the cocaine disappeared into terrycloth and thin air. She finished the swipe with a shove that nearly knocked Charise over. She was too stunned to react. Grandma had never even given her a mild spanking.

While Charise was still in shock, Grandma grabbed her purse and took off through the dining room. Charise sprang after her like a tiger – there was $200 and more cocaine in the purse.

“No more!” Grandma was crying, as she wove around the dining room table – “No more. This ends tonight.”

She picked up a phone and dialed three numbers. Charise grabbed at the purse. Grandma dropped the phone to hang onto the purse, and the two of them struggled there by the kitchen door. The women picking cotton smiled down on them, until Charise, wrenching the bag away from her grandmother, scraped the purse’s buckle right into the picture, dragging it across the face of one woman and the upper body of another, piercing through a smile and a heart and a bag of fluffy cotton. Grandma sank to the ground, sobbing. Charise ran up to her room, grabbed her stash of weed, a bigger bag, threw in some clothes and shoes and ran out of the house, beating Grandpa, who was now running toward her from the dining room, to the front door. She ran south all the way downtown to the bus station, and took a bus to Nashville just after dawn.

The whole scene played again, as she stared at Tanya’s note, and the guilt washed over her in waves that made her clench her teeth. She had never seen Grandpa again – he had died two months later. She had been so wasted at the funeral she could barely remember it. Damon had driven her up, steered her through it and driven her back to Nashville all in the same day.

How had she let another year go by with no contact with her Grandma? Grandma had written and invited her to Easter and to Thanksgiving and to Christmas, but she had been too ashamed and afraid to go home. Now it was too late.

She wanted a drink. Screw recovery. She looked in every cabinet but there was nothing on the property. She grabbed her keys and headed north toward the Kroger. On her way, just before the intersection where Grandma’s church was, she saw a lit-up old house at the front of a hospital property. She could see people through the window. She remembered hearing it was used for twelve step meetings.

She passed it, but when she got to Grandma’s church she pulled into the parking lot. She sat in the empty lot, breathing heavily. Then she looked at the church entrance and saw Grandma, in a ray of light, walking through one of the doors, wearing a hat, like she used to at Easter. Grandma looked over her shoulder at Charise and lifted her eyebrows. “OK,” said Charise, to no one but the dark night. “I’ll go back to the meeting.”

***

The meeting had, as they say, restored her to sanity. The next day was Sunday. She went to church. It was the closest she could come to being with her grandma. She was not, however, ready to face up to Grandma’s friends, so she sat in the back row and planned to slip out during the final song.

She was surprised when an older man who had been sitting near her came out after her, and called to her. “Excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you but I thought I might have recognized you from a picture and I wondered if you might be a relative of Olivia Anderson.”

That got her attention. She watched him approach, hoping he wasn’t a pastor. He might be. He was an older white man, kind and well spoken, with friendly blue eyes and a smile.

“I’m sorry. My name is Bill Grant, and I’m a friend of Olivia’s.” He offered his hand. “I’m Charise Anderson, her granddaughter.” “Ah! I’m so glad to meet you. I was out of town the day of the funeral so I haven’t had a chance to meet her family. I’m so sorry for your loss. She was such a good person. I would even say a great person.”

“Yes.” She wondered how well he knew Grandma. Well enough to know what a screw up her grandaughter was?

“I don’t want to intrude,” he said, more tentative in her silence. “But here’s the thing – I knew your grandma from the Historical Society as well as church here, and I helped her find out as much as possible about her house. I thought that whoever lived here next – maybe they would like to hear what I know, and I could show you some files I gave her…”

“That’s very kind of you,” she mustered, relaxing a little. “I would like that.”

He smiled. “That house is a treasure. It was built in the 1850s by a Quaker named Zachary Strang. He was an abolitionist. But I’m sure you know the house was a stop on the Underground Railroad?”

Her eyes widened. “I had no idea.”

“Oh yes. I thought your Grandma would have told you. It has quite a heritage. Strang used to pick up runaway slaves in a wagon that had a false bottom. He’d hide them in the wagon and put crops on top and bring them up the road to the house. Then after they’d eaten and rested, he’d smuggle them up to the next safe house. You may be wondering why they were still running in a free state, but the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it legal for owners to pursue people into free states and recapture them, so they couldn’t really be free till they got to Canada…”

He talked on, swept up in his own narrative. Charise already knew about the Fugitive Slave Act. She’d written a paper on it before she’d dropped out of college. But she had no idea the house had been an actual hiding place. Grandma must have only found out recently…

“ …I guess you don’t know about the little room they found, then?”

“What?”

“Yes – a few months ago. We’re pretty sure it was one of the places people hid when strangers were seen coming up Hamilton Pike. You see, there was a warning system. Homeowners further down the road, and students from the Ladies’ College and the Farmers’ College, would keep a lookout and send messages to the safe houses. Then they’d hide slaves in basements or attics or sheds when the owners came looking. Your Granma was sorting things in the attic and she uncovered a false wall that could be slid sideways in the attic, and there was a little room back there with blankets and books…it was so exciting!” His enthusiasm was hard to resist. Charise asked, “You wouldn’t have time to show me now, would you?
***

Mr Grant shifted the wall panel, enough for them to squeeze into the dormer space. There was an ancient curtain on the window, its small flowers almost faded out. Covered in plastic, there were old brown wool blankets, a Bible, a book of fairy tales and two history volumes. Grandma, always orderly, had laminated a page of writing and placed it on top of the blankets.

It read, “These things were discovered in September of 2014 by Olivia Anderson, along with Mr Bill Grant, a fellow member of the Pleasant Hill Historical Society. He has heard a second hand account of a letter written during the Civil War. The writer said that Pleasant Hill had become too well known to be a safe stop for runaways, so the little room in the Strang attic had been retired. We have not been able to find the letter. But we have found these blankets, this Bible dated 1846, and these other old books. It is my prayer that this house will always be a refuge for those in need of safety, comfort and beauty.”

Charise read the note over and over, unmoving. Mr. Grant shifted awkwardly.

Finally he said, “She asked me, the last time I saw her, to make sure her grandchildren kept all our files, everything we gathered about the house. Can I ask you on her behalf to keep these things, and all the papers downstairs? They were very important to her.”

“I can promise that much.”
***

After he left, she sat on the small back stairs of the house, the ones servants used to use. It was where she went to be alone as a child. Now, her mind was pierced with images of those runaways, hurriedly being smuggled up these stairs – ragged, wide-eyed people smelling of sweat and fear. She followed the images up the stairs, back to the little room. She sat on the floor facing the dormer window, which looked down on the garden. She re-read Grandma’s note.

“A refuge,” she whispered. Then louder, to the empty space, to the whole precious house and garden and all the people who had sheltered there, she admitted, “I need a refuge. I’ve been a slave and I need a refuge.”
***

This story will be continued in the next post…

Christmas Short Story

This is the beginning of one  of twelve short stories from my book, “Christmas on Pleasant Hill”, available from Amazon.  Half of all the profits from this book are donated to 3Cs Nursery School. It’s set in College Hill, a Cincinnati neighborhood, so it has an added appeal to locals. This redemptive story, “The Refuge” draws on our neighborhood’s fascinating history as a stop on the Underground Railroad: 

     No one had told Charise that her grandmother had died. The funeral was over by the time she heard. A lawyer had sent her a letter requesting that she contact him concerning the estate of the deceased Olivia Anderson. She had stared at the paper until her hand began to shake. Then she drank a bottle of her boyfriend’s Red Stag and slept
hard.

final cover That had been a relapse; she had actually been sober for over two months when the letter arrived. When she emerged from her stupor, it was to her boyfriend, Damon,
grinning down at her. He picked up the almost empty whiskey bottle, took the last swig and said, “I knew pretty soon you’d be giving up on that sobriety crap.”

Two days later, Charise stood in the front yard of her grandmother’s Cincinnati property, shivering in her leather jacket, wishing she had brought up a winter coat from Nashville. She had packed in a hurry, while Damon was out so he could not talk her into taking him with her.

She had wanted to be alone, but now she wondered. Standing in front of the glorious old house in the quiet and the cold, she wondered if the loneliness might do her in. It was a grand Victorian frame house, built in the 1850s, recently painted a bright yellow with white trim and green shutters.

That had been Grandpa’s last big job before his stroke. He had painted first floor trim while the grandkids got on tall ladders to paint the rest. Why, Charise wondered, why hadn’t they inherited the house instead of her – those cousins who were always there, always helping?

She was reluctant to call her family until she met with the lawyer. She would just have to wait, for three days. That was the earliest the lawyer could schedule her to go over the will. She hoped anxiously that there might be a note for her, something personal from her grandmother. In the meantime, she would go through the house, plan what to do with its contents and find a realtor to put up the place for sale.

She zipped her jacket, cold but reluctant to go into the house. She had bare feet in high-heeled sandals, skin tight crop pants, a silk shirt and the inadequate jacket. Her bracelets and necklaces were like ice on her skin. She never thought of being comfortable any more, only of looking hot. It was the uniform of the life she had chosen. Damon liked a good looking woman. That was the first thing he’d told her. He walked into the club where she was sitting with some friends, surveyed the room, saw her, walked straight to her and said, “You are by far the best looking woman in this place. You might be the best looking woman I’ve ever seen, and I keep my eyes open.”

He’d bought drinks for her and her large group of friends and took them all back to his place, dazzling them with his black swimming pool, his collection of African art and his limitless supply of Cinderella weed. A week later she’d moved in with him.

She walked a winding path to the center of the garden. Even in December it was beautiful, with the pond and the statue of a little girl holding a basket, smiling bravely into the wind. Dead leaves whisked across the path in front of her, stirring up memories. She saw Grandpa on the porch, rocking back and forth in the white chair, staring into the woods as he sucked on the pipe his wife would not let him smoke in the house. She saw her cousin leaning on a carved porch pillar, wiping his face on his shirt, drinking a pop after mowing. She saw Grandma on the other side of the pond, gathering an armload of lavender to dry and make into sachets for the drawers.

A strange little cry escaped her throat. It was out before she knew it was coming – despair at how memory brought the past alive, then left you bereft. This empty yard was what seemed surreal. Grandma and Grandpa both gone, and Charise estranged from the whole family…. This was a bad idea, coming up here early and alone. How did she think she could stay in this place, alone?

She thought about the bar down the street that had live music on the weekends. She would go down there, just for dinner. Just for company. Tears spilled over her cheeks, running mascara. When Grandma was done in the garden, she used to call Charise and say, “Come in with me, baby. Keep me company in the kitchen.” Charise could see her on the steps right now, scooping a loose, strong arm toward her. “Now Baby. It’s time.”
I’ve done too many drugs, Charise thought. Her brain had floated in and out of delusion too many times, so now memories turned into ghosts that seemed real. With a great effort of will, tears still flowing, she got her suitcase out of her car and went into the house. Once inside she expected more hauntings that would tear her heart with remorse. She deserved that. But being back in the entry, seeing the hallstand draped with familiar hats, and the grand curving staircase, she felt welcomed, she felt home. Her courage rose. She would not go to the bar. She would get groceries, come back here and face the music, let all the memories whack her in undulled sobriety.

She put down the suitcase and ran her fingers over the floral picture carved into the newel post of the stair railing; she had etched it on paper as a little girl, rubbing with the side of a brown crayon. She looked into the first room on the right, the office where Grandma did her paperwork and needlework. She had liked to look out the front window on her garden as she worked.

Charise looked into the work basket, remembering knitting lessons. There was a half- finished scarf still on two needles. It was not like Grandma to stop in the middle of a row. Maybe she was knitting when she had the heart attack… Charise dug her fingers into the scarf, tears now running down her neck. She found a tissue, blew her nose, and walked into the dining room. She stood in the big room, always light-filled, looking at the rich scarlet walls hung with quilts, local art and historical scenes of Pleasant Hill. What a legacy. The thought crept up on her – this is mine. She said it out loud, low, to the empty table and chairs, ‘This is mine.’ She smiled at the sweet fantasy of it – of keeping this heavenly house.

But not for long. Damon had crunched the numbers. She had no income. Even though the house was paid for, it was still far too much for her to keep up with taxes, utility bills and maintenance costs. She knew that even with a good job it was too much for one person.

“It’s a money pit, babe,” Damon had said, emphatically. “Don’t you be letting family talk you into trying to hang on. You call me if you start to feel the squeeze. I’ll straighten them out…”

Charise shuddered. Something had kept her from even giving him the address. She forced her eyes to the largest painting in the room, the one Grandpa said would never let them forget where they came from. It was a romanticized picture of black people working in a cotton field. Women in bright dresses and turbans smiled as they bent over the plants, a few in the foreground laughed as they balanced full baskets on their heads. Grandpa had said to Charise, “They might look happy, but those baskets are heavy and that sun burns. You do not want to spend your days doing that kind of work. That’s why our families came up here.”

Now she looked at the bottom right of the picture, expecting a gash, or at least an ugly line. It looked fine. She had to squint from inches away to see the slightest line showing that the canvas had been repaired. She realized that she had been holding her breath, and released it in a big relieved sigh. She went into the adjoining kitchen. If the heart of her childhood could be located in one place, this would be it, right here helping Grandma chop food, reading her recipes, listening to her stories. Charise had lived in an apartment nearby with her mom and dad, but here with Grandma and Grandpa was where she always wanted to be.

Back then, Grandma had been the cook for the house’s owner, a remarkably kind woman who welcomed Olivia’s grandchildren any time. Grandpa had worked first shift at a factory, then done a few chores at the house in the evenings and all day Saturday. The owner had no children, and when she had died, she had preferred to leave the house to this faithful couple who had lived with her for years, than to some distant relative. Charise’s grandparents had been stunned. Their parents had been poor farmers in Alabama, and suddenly they found themselves owning a mansion on six acres, along with all its contents.Even years after it happened, Grandma would pause at her work of chopping or mixing or scrubbing, look around and say, “I still can’t believe it’s ours. It’s like I got to go to heaven early.”

Charise noticed a note on the counter. It was in her cousin Tanya’s round, loopy hand. “Welcome back to Cincinnati. Your mom said you were coming up sometime this week. I left you some soup in the freezer and cornbread like Grandma used to make.” Charise shook her head, astounded at this kindness. After how she had treated the family, she was afraid that no one would want to speak to her, let alone Tanya.

This story will be continued in the next post…

 

 

“Toys” to Help Students Read

(Fifth in a Series on Tutoring)

When an occupational therapy student showed up at our tutoring site last year with three drawers full of stuff that looked like toys, and told me they would help students with their reading, I was skeptical.Kidsco Puffer Balls - 6 Pack Assorted Colors, Blue, Green, Orange, Yellow, Pink and Purple, for Kids Sensory Stress Relief, Therapy Toy Favor, Goody Bag Filler.

One drawer was labelled ‘calming’ the other ‘alerting’, and the other one had what looked like a big sock full of rice or beans or something.

The calming drawer was full of stress balls, squishy toys and colorful little things to fidget with. I took one look at it and imagined all that stuff flying through the air, books and reading abandonned to a free-for-all.

The alerting drawer looked even more problematic – gum that could end up stuck under tables, more distracting fidget toys, and a big inflated ‘wiggle seat’ with soft plastic spikes that I figured no self-respecting kid would be caught dead sitting on.Trideer Inflated Stability Wobble Cushion with Pump, Extra Thick Core Balance Disc, Kids Wiggle Seat, Sensory Cushion for Elementary School Chair (Office & Home & Classroom)

Turns out, I was dead wrong to be so cynical! We did have to be strict about not letting kids use the objects to play with, just to hold them while reading, but pretty soon I was hearing stories of how different gadgets were helping kids focus.

Then my nephew came over to my house and saw the wiggle seat, which I hadn’t even taken to the site yet, and said, “Oh those are really cool. We get to sit on them at reading time at school.” Get to – shows how much I don’t know!

The real clincher was the story I heard about a little girl at another site who had been unable to sit still at all. She was so distracted she had never completed a book during tutoring. Then her tutor got her a ‘weighted lap belt’ – the big stuffed sock I had mentally mocked on sight. Apparently the little girl sat calmly through her whole session, finished her book, held up the lap belt and announced joyfully, “This  makes me smart!”

So now I no longer mock the Whiz Kids Sensory Tool Kit. Our site has hyperactive kids squeezing squishy balls as they read, tired kids sucking mints and little kids using colored film strips to underline their words as they read. We even use the spiky cushion.

Last year, these kits were researched and put together by Jillian Cloud, OTD, OTR/L, as part of her doctoral program. Children can have a range of sensory processing issues that interfere with learning – trouble focusing to over-sensitivity to noise or touch.

The handbook that Jillian wrote for tutoring sites not only explains the best use of the tools, it also includes a long list of calming strategies, ideas for taking quick breaks, and suggestions for improving sensory processing.

A helpful chart, called “Zones of Regulation”, gives tutors a way to guide students to identify how they are feeling and what their level of alertness is. In the green zone, they are ready to learn – happy, calm and focued. In the blue zone they are sad, sick, tired or bored. In the yellow zone they are frustrated, worried, wiggly or excited and in the red zone kids are angry, scared, yelling, hitting or elated. Picking a zone helps kids see whether they need to do something to help get themselves under control.

When you only have an hour a week to make an impact on a student’s life, these little toys are making a big difference.

 

 

 

The Gift of Knowing Your Strengths

IMG_20170221_164716924(Fourth in a series on tutoring.)

Focusing on what is right about ourselves and the people we work with is key to both success and joy. This is a truth that runs deep, but cynical people like me think, “Right – I’m trying to work with a kid who’s cussing me out and running away from me and I’m supposed to concentrate on her bravery and zest?

Yes, as a matter of fact. Yes I am. That doesn’t mean I don’t pull a consequence on her for cussing and running, but during and after the incident, I will employ my strengths to stay connected to this child and call out her strengths. This will keep me from quitting kid ministry!

The Mayerson Academy in Cincinnati, which trains and supports learning communities, has employed research findings in the field of positive psychology to give educators character strength curriculum all over the world. They use a 120 question inventory from the VIA Institute on Character to help us discover our character strengths. Click here to link to the survey.

Just knowing what we’re strong in can help us channel our efforts more successfully. Then we’re equipped also to teach kids their strengths and help them succeed. In a tutoring setting, we can teach character strengths as vocabulary words, we can discuss examples of them that we see in others, we can play games that put them into practice, we can tell our students when we see one in them. Relationships grow stronger in the process.

We also teach kids that they can change, so if a lack of strength is causing them a problem, (say in honesty or perseverance or kindness) they can work on it. The model does not say we are limited – it names twenty four character strengths, stressses that we have them all, and helps us focus on and use what we are already strong in, while knowing that we can grow in the other areas. If you’re operating in a Christian setting, you can also teach that we need God to help us with these changes, and God is always there to help us and work in us.

So, for example,  I call on my creativity, social intelligence and spirituality to hang in with my angry cussing and running little girl; I pray for her, figure out what’s setting her off and imagine what it would be like for her to give me a hug when all this is over.

Just to finish the story – I didn’t get the hug, but she did end up thanking me once, and I did manage to get her to cooperate with us by bribing her with snacks! Success is incremental, but leaning into strength instead of focusing on all that’s wrong is a really important discipline in any kind of helping work.

Love of Reading is Contagious

(Third in a series on tutoring.)

Some people are especially fond of books. I’m told that as a little kid I used to fall asleep with a Little Golden Book on my face many nights. But even people who are not naturally crazy about reading can be taught the value and joy of it through example.

Maker:L,Date:2017-9-19,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-ve

The trick with tutoring is to be strict enough to get to work, but to make it fun enough that students associate reading with a good time.

Ideas for Teaching the Value of Reading:

  • Tell kids how important reading is, how every part of school will be easier once they know a lot of words and can read smoothly. Tell them you want them to become great readers, and learn as many words as possible.
  • Challenge them to make reading progress a goal. We use fluency tests in our lessons, and have kids plot on a graph how many correct words they read in one minute. It can be very encouraging for them to see their graphs go up as they improve in reading that passage from week to week. Progress should never be compared to other kids though – they just compete against their earlier scores. Kids who cannot read much yet can be timed for how many Dolch sight words they can remember – start with a pre-primer list: https://www.grps.org/images/departments/academics/pdfs/ela/dolch_alphabetized_by_grade.pdf
  • Tell kids stories of how much of a difference reading has made for you or someone you know. Tell them all the things you like to read. I like to tell a story of Ben Carson’s, from his book, “Gifted Hands” . The famous neurosurgeon grew up in poverty with a single mom who did not have much education, but she knew the value of reading. She made her boys read two library books a week, and he believes that had a great deal to do with his success in school.

Ideas for Making it Fun:

  • I know this is unenlightened, but we’re shameless about giving out candy rewards. I bring a big bowl of mixed varieties, and tell tutors to use it as incentive in any way they want. We give kids candy for memorizing verses, for hitting fluency goals, for finishing assignments – whatever it takes.
  • We let kids who finish their reading tasks for the session do something fun that is word-related, such as reading a picture book to them that they’re interested in, or doing a crossword puzzle or word search.
  • We give students lots of affirmation for any progress they make. This is really important. Find something to affirm, even if it’s only that the kid listened for a whole page without interrupting, or stayed in his seat for ten minutes. Look for positives and look for improvement and call it out every time. Many kids who struggle in school get more negative feedback than positive, and they need their hope and confidence rebuilt.
  • We invite families to three sessions a year, where we serve dinner, play some fun games, and tell parents and grandparents how well the students are doing. It means a great deal to a child that their tutor cares about and has talked with people in their family.

There is nothing better to see than a kid’s face light up when they have successfully read a book. It makes it all worthwhile!

The Lost Art of Reading Aloud

Maker:L,Date:2017-9-19,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-ve(Second in a series on tutoring.)

I was one of those really anxious kids who experienced the school day as a social and emotional cage fight. Relief did not come till the very end of the day, when my teacher read aloud to us.

For twenty glorious minutes, I escaped the noise, insults, girl drama, numbing repetition and ruthless competition, to slide into other glorious worlds, where chocolate factories were given to deserving orphans, and little girls slept in covered wagons on the open prairie, miles from any school.

As I was meeting with Tim Walker, the administrator at the school where we volunteer, to set up our tutoring program this year, he said, “Whatever else you do, just read aloud to them. They need to hear books read well. They need reading to be fun. Even if you don’t do anything else, just read to them.”

I didn’t know when I was listening, entranced, to James and the Giant Peach, that my vocabulary was being built, that grammar structures were being embedded in my brain, that my mind’s capacity to create visual images was growing and that I was developing increased capacity to focus and calm myself, but it was all happening nevertheless.  (For a research summary go to http://www.readingrockets.org/research/read-aloud.) Being read to by my mother and my early teachers made it easy for me to learn to read – I was devouring “Little Women” and heavy tomes about dinosaurs by the time I was seven.

So, for these and many other reasons, we start our tutoring time by reading aloud to children. We read as smoothly, thoughtfully and with as much expression as we can. We give them permission to interrupt us and ask us what words mean. We let them hold the books, turn the pages, and follow along the words with their fingers as we read, so their attention stays on the text and they effortlessly learn to spell.

With little children, we read most of the text to them, but stop every few sentences at a word they already know to let them read it out loud.

Reading out loud serves as a good way to start the session, modelling the process and giving the child an overview of the material. It is also a great incentive to hold over kids who may be tired or unfocused – promise to read them something they are interested in if they finish their work before the end of the session.

A recent survey (http://www.scholastic.com/readingreport/reading-aloud.htm) revealed that while 62% of parents of three to five year-olds read to them often, that number has dropped to 38% for six to eight year-olds, and to only 17% for nine to eleven year-olds. But older kids still love to be read to! It is one of the most pleasant and helpful things we can do for a child, and we get to enjoy the story too!

How to be a Great Tutor

This series on how to tutor is written for people involved in City Gospel Mission’s Whiz Kids program in Cincinnati, but the principles apply in many different situations, especially where people are being taught to read. In this first post, we’ll look at the importance of establishing a relationship before diving into teaching:

Most people need to be listened to, especially children and youth. They may not want to read, or to learn at all, but if we listen to them well, and are prepared to tell them about ourselves too, that begins a relationship. And once we’re in a relationship with a child, they will often work with us even if they’re not all that motivated, simply because they trust us and know we care about them.

So relationship is always the place to start. When our tutoring site begins a new school year, we start with a handout full of non-threatening questions, such as:

What do you like to do when you get home from school?

What are your favorite games?

What are your favorite TV shows?

Where would you like to travel?

What reward do you like best for good work?

If you had $50 what would you buy?

irst, the tutor interviews the student, and writes down their answers in spaces after the questions. Then students are guided to ask tutors the questions and write their answers. This gives you an idea of the new student’s reading and writing level, as well as helping you get to know them. With kids under third grade, and even with some older kids, you’ll have to help them a lot when it’s their turn for reading the questions and writing the answers.

If your child comes from a tough or complicated family background or has experienced a recent trauma, they may not want to answer questions about family. Be sensitive about that and don’t push. Also avoid questions that assume a nuclear family, like, “Do you live with your mom and dad?” or “Do you have contact with your dad?” or “Why do you live with your grandma?” Keep questions open ended, like “Who do you live with?” As you get to know children better, they may want to disclose more about their families, but often they need time to build trust first.

It’s also important to do fun things with kids. Some kids would rather do stuff than talk at all, in which case you don’t try for too much discussion, you find things to do. After we have the question time in our first session, we give the children bags to hold their tutoring supplies, and let them decorate them with permanent markers and stick-on decorations.

Only after connecting in these two different ways do tutors begin to talk about what sessions will be like, and what the rules and expectations are for the time.

Sessions after that are focused on reading, but tutors always begin by asking kids how their weeks have been and how they are doing in school. A quick fun game precedes the tutoring session, and tutors finish by praying with kids about their needs and concerns.

Sandwiching tutoring with a focus on relationships makes the whole experience better for everyone and improves outcomes. Tutors and kids look forward to seeing each other and there’s great potential for tutors to become role models and mentors as well as reading coaches.