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September, 2013

Early APE Sessions

by Larry

I thought I would like to do volunteer work with children. It took me a few tries with different non-profits before I found one, Austin Partners in Education, that is well organized and actually does a lot of good for the kids. Before I learned there is another official acronym, I had already begun calling it my APE work.

Back in 2010, we volunteers went for "meet the teacher" sessions and were asked what reading level youngsters we wanted for the roughly one hour a week of lessons we would be teaching and if we were OK with kids who might have a few problems. I did not know enough to specify, just hoped my little charges would not be into hard drugs, kidnapping, or serial murder.

The classroom teacher, though a lady in her seventies, had complete control and respect in her class. She eyed me a bit skeptically and wondered rhetorically if I could handle the three young men she had in mind for me. I guess she chose well for it worked out, but at the outset of that first semester I was rather nervous and feared a different outcome. That anxiety continued through the early sessions with my students.

At one point following a particularly frustrating lesson period, I told her it felt like I was neither cut out for this nor helping my trio of seven-year-old boys. She is an unflappable lady who has seen and done it all in terms of elementary school level education. She was reassuring, saying all of my boys were really bonding well with me, that I was doing fine. I kept at it. I made mistakes, finding I must climb the proverbial steep learning curve, but overall did alright.

One of my lads was Hispanic and had trouble with English which made him seem to the other two as if he were not that bright. Despite wearing an auditory aid in each ear, another had a severe hearing problem. His difficulty understanding was increased by the fact his devices were probably not of that good quality and provided inconsistent enhancement of sound. He was the tallest and reasonably smart, so he might naturally have been looked to by his peers for leadership, yet he was also defensive or aggressive by turns about his limitations.

The third fellow was really sharp and creative. However, his parents were recently divorced and the idiotic custody settlement mandated that he must go home with a different parent every night. He struggled to deal with overwhelmingly negative emotions about the whole situation.

All three thus had vulnerabilities, and yet at any given time each could also be competitive and inclined to scapegoat either of the others. For someone without training in education, my reaching each of them was going to be a challenge. So was inspiring or enforcing a certain level of expectations about their behaviors. The small guy who had to go home one night with his mom and the next with his dad was so shy he would speak only in whispers or even more softly, so he literally could not be heard even by folks with no trouble in English or with ordinary hearing. He could also be so easily depressed or angry that often he spent several minutes per session with his head down on the desk and his arms over his face.

The young man with hearing aids was kind of a bully who insisted he was right, no matter what, and would often take his troubles out on the others. He might, for instance, make fun of the Hispanic student or poke sharpened pencils at the little guy.

Iditarod Sunrise (Wikipedia)

The fellow having trouble with English as a second language was quite concerned with what was or was not fair treatment. If, for example, we played hangman as a reward for having all completed the lesson for that day, he could be inordinately bothered by the other boys' occasionally besting him in what of course was their native tongue. (I learned to deal with this by administering the game in such a way that the three boys must cooperate to beat and "hang" me. They soon came to love this version!)

Happily, we all seem - and certainly this has been true for each of the students with whom I have worked - to have a strong and healthy drive to overcome our weaknesses, maximize our strengths, and adapt well when challenges persist. So all such difficulties more or less resolved themselves before too far into the fall lessons, and by the end of the spring semester these same youngsters were enthusiastically going on their own to libraries and checking out books for entertaining reading over the summer months, all had shown significant improvement in their reading levels, and they were noticeably more joyful during our times together. We had well before then become a team not merely in name but in fact! Of course it was sad that we were disbanding and going our separate ways, yet the four of us were moving on with greater confidence in ourselves and in our capacities for working with others toward worthwhile and common goals.

I have enjoyed interacting with a number of other second-graders since. In early fall, before I find out what the experience will be like in the new term, there is often a bit of uncertainty, of wondering what I have gotten myself into this time! Once there was a girl who could not even read at a kindergarten level and was placed in a high level team. One girl was not that good herself, especially since she often found ways to skip school, yet she loved putting other students down and crowing about her own relative abilities. One young fellow had not gotten along with four other volunteers. He was also suspended for awhile and had his head shaved as punishment after taking a switchblade to school. Fortunately, he was eager to buckle down in my team, and we never had any difficulties. Go figure.

The students' best liked times are when we read aloud to them, and all they have to do is answer or ask questions about what is going on in the story. The volunteer teachers were allowed to take books from home and get them pre-approved by our coordinators. I had an edge in this regard because I also volunteered for awhile at a bargain bookstore run for the Austin Public Library system and for only 50 cents each could get exceptional children's books from the large collection.

Not too surprisingly, the students' favorite so far from the books I have taken to read has been a tome called Granite. This is a well written and illustrated true tale about a runt of a puppy, badly injured by a moose to boot, the odds clearly stacked against him, who through his owner/trainer's patient care, love, and encouragement and his own amazing determination, went on with her to lead a team of dogs to win the Iditarod trail sled dog race, about 1000 miles in Alaska through snow and mountains and over frozen rivers and an ice-covered bay, to win for the musher, Susan Butcher. Granite later helped her win the Iditarod race three times more! One can see the wheels turning in each of the young pupils' minds-eyes: "If Granite can do it, so can I!"

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