Saturday, February 6, 2016

Tutor Time

My apologies for the huge gap in blog posts between this and my last one, which was in December (yikes!). I left on Christmas Day for Minnesota and spent two lovely weeks at home with my family before returning to Chicago at the beginning of January. And for the last few weeks, I really haven’t had much to blog about. The centers where I teach English were on winter break like I was—except their breaks ended up being a bit prolonged due to lack of student attendance. It seems that when it’s freezing cold, people are less likely to leave their houses.. especially people whose home countries are much warmer than Chicago, Illinois.

For this reason, most of my time lately has been spent tutoring elementary school kids. I tutor with two different programs: one, at Providencia Family Services with Sister Virginia, one of the sisters from this community, and two, at the Indo American Center where I usually teach English in the mornings. At Providencia I tutor mostly 5th and 6th graders (all Hispanic background) that attend the adjacent Catholic elementary school. At the Indo American Center, I tutor kids between the ages of 5 and 9 who are mostly of Indian and Ethiopian background.

My first day as a tutor at the Indo American Center can best be described as utter chaos. I found myself the lone adult in a roomful of kids all clamoring for my attention.. as well as screaming, running around, walking on the tables, and spinning around at high speeds in a swivel chair. As soon as I would lean over to help someone, three or four hands would be tapping me on the back, needing help with their homework. But as soon as I tried to help the next person, the first person would be mad that I had abandoned them mid-math problem. And then a third person would wail that I had promised to read them a book ten whole minutes ago. But by the time I started in on the story, the room was so loud that nobody could hear me read.  I don’t know how classroom teachers do it, I really don’t.

By the end of the first day, I had struck a sort of compromise where I was sitting at a table with children on either side of me and one in front. I would read one page of a book to the child on the left, then help a child on the right with one page of homework, all the while holding out all ten fingers for the third child to count on (I don’t know why, but when the kids are doing their math homework, they like to count on my fingers more than on their own), and then, of course, periodically yelling at the trouble makers who were wreaking havoc when left to their own devices.

Now that I’ve been tutoring a few months, though, I’ve gotten better at channeling the kids’ energies right off the bat instead of letting things get out of control and then frantically trying to reign in the chaos (which is about as easy as putting out a forest fire). Everyone gets helped with homework on a first-come, first-served basis (the order of which I write on the blackboard to prevent squabbling). After finishing their homework, everyone is required to read for 15 minutes. The kids that are too young to read themselves listen to me read a book out loud. There is always a lot of fuss and consternation over who gets to pick the book, who gets to turn the pages, who gets to sit in the middle, etc.

Reading to the kids is actually one of my favorite parts. Growing up, I had two parents who spent hours upon hours reading to me from a very young age. They read me everything from Curious George (really? You want to hear this one again?) to all seven of the Harry Potter books. I credit my love of reading and later, writing, to the hours I spent listening to my parents. Many of the kids in this program have parents who can’t read to them in English, which is why I feel that one of the most important things I can do for the kids is read with them.

After reading time there is an hour or more left over, which is when the kids usually want to play restaurant. Restaurant is a very complex and intricate game played the exact same way every time. The kids divide themselves into different roles: chef, waiter/waitress, manager, customer, etc. One particularly creative boy once styled himself as the restaurant inspector and wrote up elaborate (mostly scathing) reviews in his self-published “newspaper.” I’m usually responsible for drawing all the different food items on paper, which are then colored by the chefs and served by the waiters. The most coveted position of all, though, is the menu writer. The menu writers don’t have a great sense of how much food actually costs, so many of our luxury items are often priced at over $100,000, which the “customers” pay for with their platinum mastercards (made out of paper, of course).

I've noticed the diversity of the kids really comes out in this game too. An average menu at the “Indo Resty” includes chicken biryani, samosas and paratha as well as traditional American foods like pizza and smoothies. The kids always make sure that there will be non-pepperoni pizza options on the menu (Muslims don’t eat pork) while the Hindu children insist on chicken burgers alongside hamburgers. A lot of these kids really end up growing up together, which is so important in a community that is traditionally split along religious and racial lines. The after-school program cultivates tolerance and openness between kids whose parents might normally not allow them to play with each other because of their race or religion. 

                My ESL classes at the Holy Spirit Life Learning Center start up again on February 15, so expect a new post soon!

Two sisters (in white) working on their superhero project

Everyone simultaneously breaking my  most important rule (no screaming)

Superheros the kids designed and decorated, including creations such as "Butterfly Woman" and "Ice Girl"

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