Mother Tutor

09 Dec

Several evenings a week now I help my three teens with their homework. I get to see how smart and thoughtful and hardworking they are, and they get to have me help them focus, plan, lay out, think through and support their ideas, or recall and get their mind around science and math concepts. I’m thankful that my evening schedule is unencumbered and I can let the dirty dishes wait so I can be available. I love being involved, making myself useful, and enjoying a new sense of being respected for my experience and knowledge.

My fifteen-year-old daughter had spent a day at home sick and was stressing about a creative English assignment and an essay on Lord of the Flies that were due the next day. Instead of hitting the books and family computer, she was distracting herself by listening to music, texting, checking friends’ social media posts, and periodically panicking at how much work she had to do. I literally had to take her smart phone away (she had not yet developed cyborgian links with it, but oh, what squeals!), send the younger ones to their rooms, sit her down and have her show me the assignments. We worked out a plan for the first one that she was satisfied with, though I was inwardly shaking my head at what more could have been attempted had she started it the week before. She sprang into action and had it ready for completion in study class within an hour. She had reinserted her earbuds, but her older brother backed me up on the no music approach, which surprised me, as he’d balked on that in the past, despite my assuring him my views were research-based. He now told her in no uncertain terms that it was bad for concentration. He also went on to offer help with writing her essay, and sympathized with her plight as a mere high school student plodding through the generic and shallow world of 10th grade English. He offered her a hopeful vision of deep and meaningful English studies next year at community college (through Washington State’s Running Start program). He’d learned so much about writing, he said, and could help her. But she said Mom’s help was enough, so we went to the computer and I had her read aloud her chosen essay prompt. After getting some help sketching out ideas on paper, she got started writing. I slipped out to clean up the kitchen and do a load of laundry, but she kept calling me back,wanting me to sit by her the whole time so she wouldn’t get distracted–a mood she was in, she said. I read over what she had written, suggested some rearrangements, asked some questions, and showed her how to keep moving but make working notes about missing elements along the way. I told her more about the Cold War, discussed aspects of human nature, reminded her to keep connecting with the book’s content, even presented her with some phrases and ideas which she couldn’t articulate on her own, but understood and agreed with. Fortunately the essay prompt was interesting, well thought out, and flexible. And on she went, gaining momentum, and even coming to see the value of this analytical process–the beginning of digging deeper into literature. This is a daughter who had been reacting a bit to all the lively philosophical, theological, political and other conversations overheard at home and when we were out with friends. She decided it was pleasanter to focus on simpler things, I think, and avoid too much stating and discussing of viewpoints. Now she’s moving into that realm, and I can see the development of good values she can own. This sort of writing facilitates that process.

Too much helping? I don’t think so any more. Andrew Pudewa helped me see the light on that. He’s a writing teacher and teacher trainer, and insists that if a student needs help expressing something or with spelling or grammar, offer as much help is needed, and they will eventually say, okay, that’s enough help–I can do this. I see that’s true. The tutoring process is about helping the student get the work done, but with the proper help in the beginning, modelling the process, supplying ideas and so on, the student will be able to become independent. I’m just glad they are asking–that’s smart learning strategy.

Helping my daughter write under pressure was good for me too. I had hated language arts and English classes in school, but loved to write and read, so somehow muddled through essays and report writing without internalizing the formal process of brainstorming, outlining, paragraph layout and structure, and the series of drafts. I never had anyone review and comment on my work, either, besides the teacher-grader. I would just write, and rewrite, and eventually the finished piece would emerge, but because I had such a roundabout approach, sometimes I ran out of time and a good finished piece eluded me. I often procrastinated, waiting for the feeling, the sense of urgency. Then I’d hand it in to the system and later read the grade and comments, then it was on to the next paper. Helping my daughter and son with the process has taught me the value of these steps of the writing process in a way I did not, or would not, see though writing my school essays. Not that I’m using it, still. Here I am just writing sentence after sentence, hoping some sort of meaning will emerge. Hence the Forster quote on the sidebar. A reaction against my four years of immersion in the scientific method, where the format was prescribed?

The other aspect of the evening was hearing that my oldest son is finding his groove at community college. He’s the same busy, tired young man as he was in high school his first two years, struggling to fit everything in and do his best, but he’s got the basics down and is now excited about developing his mind in new ways, exploring interests, seeing how they connect, working out a long term plan. The informal way he was homeschooled, with plenty of reading and discussion but little formal curriculum, then his being immersed in Hebrew in middle school (and therefore going easy on the actual content) left gaps in the scope and sequence, to be sure, but it’s turning out to have been a good grounding for his future, I think. As other homeschool parents have assured us, he’ll fill in any truly essential learning on a need-to-know basis, using his independent thinking, relational and study skills, and the values we instilled in him along the way. He’s happy about what he’s doing, and that’s so much of what we as parents want for him. And being happy makes you smarter.

My youngest daughter is in middle school, and though she occasionally pushes back at me being involved in her affairs or even too physically near her when among peers, she loves to have me sit beside her as she does math in case she gets stuck, or read through her science and social studies notebooks (and sign off–part of the prescribed parent engagement initiated by the school, a nudge some young teens need to share their work with family). I’m impressed at how she’s taken to the organization schemes of several of her teachers. Also refreshing that her social studies teacher is helping them learn about Islam and universal cultural themes, instead of the usual American history overemphasis. She’s making connections with her experiences from living in Israel and putting lots of thought into her assignments, not just breezing through. Still, some of her classes, she says, would be better done independently at home, and she’s discussing the possibility of homeschooling part time next year. She loves to write, but her language arts teacher, she says, is really nice, but overteaches and moves too slow.

My older daughter is thinking homeschooling part time, too, even as early as second semester–says her high school English teacher overemphasizes dark lit, and is too lazy to do much meaningful work with the class (he actually admitted to us parents at open house night that he is lazy–been at it too long?). She’s only written one essay so far, and it’s already almost Christmas break. She actually wishes she was in the tougher but better teacher’s class. I’m proud of her for that.

When these three first started formal school (at various ages), I sort of lost touch with them for a while. From managing all their subject learning I went to lunch maker and paper signer. It’s taken a year in each case for us to get a good groove going, a balance between their being independent and getting extra help from me for greater success. It looks a bit different for each kid, not just in the type of content they’re dealing with, but also in the kind of help they need. Eventually, I suppose, once the college application and travel plans are arranged and finances figured out, I’ll mainly just be cheering them on and praying for them from afar, and taking on a more mentoring and friendship role. I look forward to that, too.


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2 responses to “Mother Tutor

  1. jdawgsrunningblog

    December 10, 2013 at 5:27 am

    Solid piece—about many things—from education to parenting to the evolving journey and autonomy expressed by our children. You cover lots of ground–blending the personal with the attempt to form a narrative. At the end, I felt like you’d come to a kind of resolution regarding something that had been lingering within you—and yet we know there is no static resolution of such matters–so I, for one, will look forward to your continuing, or at least referencing us back and forward, touching base, a further monitoring and interrogating of this journey.

  2. toesinthedirt

    December 11, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    Yeah, I guess the question lingering is, “Are my kids going to be okay, despite all the mistakes we’ve made, and our inadequacy?” Have we given the what tools we could, what freedom they needed, what guidance and training we should have?” To save the world, you know.


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