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Project Tutor Helps Boise Students Stay on Target in Reading and Math


"The Project Tutor program is very dear to my heart for a couple of different reasons, explains Ruth Calnon.

First of all, it helps to connect students who don't need a lot of additional help with resources to strengthen their skills in reading and math. That allows teachers to focus on students who really need the teacher's expertise.

Secondly, both our reading and math kits are designed around dialogue. We ask that our tutors make the learning meaningful to the students; that they try their best to connect the lessons to students' lives.

An inventory of current practices in the Boise (Idaho) School District revealed that many of its schools were deficient in the area of training for school volunteers. Project Tutor was created in 2006 to prepare community volunteers to work in the neediest schools and support reading and math skills.

Tutoring Tips

It takes a committee of interested and dedicated educators to keep Project Tutor running. Ruth Calnon believes that finding the right people and a funding source is only the beginning, and she offers the following tips.

Target a specific grade level, subject, and population to tutor. To be most effective, materials need to be geared toward certain students with specific needs.

Develop a specific, simple-to-follow lesson plan and easy-to-use materials. Most tutors are not educators, so lessons and kits need to be complete and easy to use.

Start small. Invite just a few schools to participate the first year. Finding tutors for large numbers is very difficult.

Be sure teachers and the principal know what type of student you are targeting and why. Provide them with a "profile" of the type of student the program is designed to help. Remember, volunteers are not trained to work with students who are far below grade level or who need the knowledge and expertise of a specialist.

Train all tutors before sending them out into the schools.

Have a liaison or key contact person at each school who the tutor can contact with any questions or concerns. It is important to have a point of contact at each building where tutoring takes place, such as a reading specialist, a Title I teacher, or a classroom teacher.

Keep in touch. Tutors appreciate the occasional check-in through email, a phone call, or a visit while they are tutoring.

Acknowledge the tutors. Hold a celebration at the end of the school year or honor their work through other recognition events.

While the district had a large number of volunteers, Calnon, who is the federal programs family and community involvement consultant, and Alice Cottle, the district's community relations facilitator, discovered that those volunteers were clustered at a few schools. Schools with the highest needs often had very few volunteers. So the two educators formed a partnership to address the problem: Cottle would recruit volunteers, and Calnon would train them.

Project Tutor has three goals -- to reinforce instruction, to encourage academic improvement, and to increase self-esteem. The focus is to help students dialogue about learning. Tutors are instructed in "thinking aloud" strategies, talking-through processes, and breaking down learning into a step-by-step process. There are no tests, timed readings, timed math fact sheets, or worksheets. Kits are provided with a standard lesson plan for two tutoring sessions per week, with 30 weeks of activities. The material is sequential, but each week's lessons stand alone. Students do not "make up" sessions that they may miss.

"Since we knew only a few of our tutors would be educators by profession, we decided to create a very simple template for a lesson plan that showed tutors how to structure their tutoring time," recalled Calnon. "Dr. Lora Keidel, a former reading specialist for the district, created a simple two-day lesson plan for the reading tutors to follow that incorporated the basic elements we wanted to include in each day's lesson. Andrew Rath, a Title I teacher in the district, created a day one and day two lesson plan template for the math tutors."

Day one for math begins with a fun activity based on the fourth grade math state standards, such as a graphing game. The second activity includes solving a series of math review problems, each with a different focus. Topics like place value, numeration, and money are addressed. Math tutors use whiteboards to model the steps used to solve the problems. Day two incorporates a story and scenario of problem-solving activities. Students use their whiteboards to break down the problems into a step-by-step process.

In the tutoring sessions for reading, day one starts with the reading of a story or chapter from a book. The lesson includes previewing the book, assessing the student's background knowledge of the subject and, if appropriate, setting a reading goal for the students. Reading goals can be as simple as "read the book to find out how the mystery was solved" or "read the book to see how the main character is like you." Sample questions to ask before, during, and after the reading are included in the lesson plan. The tutor's focus is to help the student enjoy and relate to the book, to talk about it, and to expand vocabulary and knowledge.

During the second lesson of reading instruction, students move on to the next chapter of the book, reread their favorite part of the story, or discuss the story previously read. Then they play a game that is based on a specific reading or language skill from the third grade language arts state standards. The games provide practice and reinforcement in understanding synonyms and antonyms, recount and recall, identifying the main idea, drawing conclusions, understanding cause and effect, and more. A new component to both reading and math lessons this year is journal writing. Math students record new "tricks" to solving problems and reading students write in response to what they have read or respond to thought-provoking questions.

"We never send a tutor into a school unprepared," observed Calnon. "We require tutors to attend our two-hour training in which we share information about the program, and provide hands-on experience in how to use the reading and math kits. We also provide additional training two more times throughout the school year, and we observe, phone, and email our tutors periodically."

Now in its fourth year, Project Tutor currently serves ten schools. Over 100 community volunteers have received training through the program, and 600 students have received their services. The volunteers work with two students at a time in two 30-minute periods and visit the school twice each week. A few additional minutes of preparation and clean-up are also required. Teachers select appropriate candidates for the program -- students who are on grade level but who are struggling to keep up. Calnon specifically asks for students who need extra time to reinforce skills and those who would benefit from the attention of an adult mentor.

"One thing that has surprised me about Project Tutor is the amazing dedication of the community volunteers we have recruited," she reports. "We had almost no volunteers in many of our neediest schools, yet our Project Tutor volunteers have been more than willing to go wherever needed. Many have even asked that we place them where they are most needed."

Project Tutor runs from October until May, so the commitment of its tutors is substantial. Many of the volunteers return year after year to offer their time. At the program's last end-of-the-year celebration, Calnon recognized ten volunteers who had been involved with Project Tutor for three years. One tutor who worked with students in math was invited by a classroom teacher to see one of her students receive a "Most Improved in Math" award at an assembly. It was a moment for all to treasure.

Additional Resource

Schools Recruit, Recognize Contributions of Volunteers
Is your school crawling with volunteers? Or are you looking for ways to increase opportunities for students by involving more volunteers? If one of those situations describes your school, you're sure to gain some valuable insight from this article. Included: The benefits of volunteers, plus tips for recruiting them and recognizing their efforts.

"The fact that these tutors show up week after week and are there to consistently provide support and encouragement says a lot to these students about how important they are," Calnon shared. "We feel like the personal touch that we as well as our tutors give to our students is the It factor that makes the students' attitudes and test scores improve."

The designers of Project Tutor were careful to construct a program that would be self-sufficient and not add to the workload of participating classroom teachers. A designated liaison at each school -- a teacher or specialist -- handles any questions from tutors and fosters communication between the program's directors and the volunteers.

Supplemental training in December introduces tutors to a packet of holiday books, games, and learning activities. The tutors learn to play the games and teach the children so that they can keep their skills sharp over the upcoming break. Calnon knows that students are more likely to use the materials they are given if they have first encountered the items with their tutors. In May, the volunteers obtain training and packets for use over the summer. These include a calendar with daily reading, math, or writing activities for students to do each day of summer break, a reading or math workbook which helps to reinforce skills, and games and activities.

"One year we asked all of the tutees to write a letter to their tutor thanking them for the work they did together over the year," Calnon recalled. "The letters were so heartfelt and personal that many of our tutors became teary as they read."

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