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.

Tutoring Kids from the Bible

(An introduction to a free series of studies in the Gospel of Mark for kids aged 9-12)Maker:L,Date:2017-9-19,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-ve

Twenty five volunteers from our church tutored at-risk kids from our neighborhood school this year. We are one of many sites, working in partnership with City Gospel Mission to reduce poverty and bring God’s truth and love to people in Cincinnati.

One of the most successful things we’ve done is make the Bible the reading text for our older students during the tutoring hour. Since the program is after-school, there’s no conflict of church and state. We have parents sign their approval to have their child in a faith-based program, we use a simply-worded translation of the Bible, and we train our tutors to  invite but never push their students into a closer relationship with God.

Click here to link to a PDF of all the lessons we used this year. Feel free to use them, but you will have to edit them; they contain site-specific activities and references, especially in the introductory paragraphs and in the box at the bottom of the page which suggests other activities. But I refer you to them as an example of how the Bible can be used to teach fluency and comprehension, as well as introduce children to the life and work of Jesus.

About halfway through this year, I asked a group of sixth grade boys how they were enjoying the program. They said they really liked coming. I assumed the main reason would be the snacks we serve, but the all the answers stated that they enjoyed learning and talking about God. That was confirmation that we were on the right track!

 

 

 

10 Ways for Churches to Love City Kids

(Last in a series of 10 posts on reaching out to city kids.)

I think many urban churches need to cross cultures and classes and ages. I’ve visited a lot of mainline churches in urban areas struggling with aging, declining membership. Often they are predominantly white and middle or upper class. Often they are in neighborhoods where many people are not white and may be poor. The challenge to these churches is to become parish churches for the people who live right around them, and it may be as challenging as going with a mission organization to another continent. So be it. God has put us here for such a time as this.

2247327_orig (2)Most people who become Christians do so when they’re children or teenagers. So kid-focused ministry makes sense. It’s a joy to witness the group that shows up for youth group at our church on Sunday nights. This is our first group that has integrated black and white, rich and poor, for a sustained period of time. These kids are playing games, talking and praying together. Those who have committed to following Christ work together as interns in our summer programs. I would not have been able to imagine this even ten years ago.

There is so much transforming power in Christian community. Even a struggling little church full of people over 60 can change the future for the kids in their neighborhood.5794254_orig (2)

Here are ten ways to start, linked to articles that explain more (click on the orange letters to go to the articles):

  1. Go where the need is. In a post Christian culture we can’t just do things inside our church walls and expect people to come. We need to take our ministries out into the schools, libraries, preschools, community centers, day cares and playgrounds.
  2. Don’t be afraid of differences. Connect with minorities. Wade into poverty. Welcome people who dress funny. Do not fear other languages, multiple piercings, bizarre tattoos, kids who come only for the food, or anyone who does not yet believe in Jesus.
  3. Consider tutoring at a struggling school. In after-school programs, it’s legal to use the Bible as a text.
  4. Consider throwing a free party for the neighborhood, outside in the summer time. Include free food and water, and think of ways for people to meet, have fun, get into conversations, and draw closer to God.
  5. Consider becoming a foster parent, or providing help to other foster parents.
  6. Consider helping a single mom in your community to raise her family. One older man in our congregation did this, and his love transformed an extended family.
  7. Consider hosting a preschool or day care at your church.
  8. Find ways for artistic members to pass on their gifts to children, with free or reduced cost lessons, classes, mentoring relationships, or by leading dance teams, drama groups, bands, or teams of visual and production artists.
  9. Find ways for athletic members to pass on their gifts, by starting teams, coaching existing teams, sponsoring teams or passing on skills in free or reduced cost lessons.
  10. Provide church camp for children of the neighborhood as well children within the church, and sponsor the kids who can’t afford it. If you don’t have camp, partner with a camping ministry to send a few kids there.

There is a big harvest of children longing for love and truth, in every city. Sometimes people doubt whether they are qualified, or  ‘fun’ enough to work with kids. I say, if you can pass a criminal background check and you’ve got a pulse, find at least one kid to help.