For the past two summers I’ve worked as a clinician at a national tutoring center which targets reading issues from basic phonetics to high-level comprehension. Under my confidentiality contract, I can’t say much about the program itself, but the long and short of it is that the program takes a unique approach to teaching people of all ages the rules of the English language and the strategies we use to read and comprehend it.
This explanation confuses plenty of people; they plead ignorance of any such rules or strategies for their language. Of course, everyone learned “I before E, except after C” and “the silent final E.” But the majority of the English-speaking population wouldn’t be able to predict when a C will make a [k] sound and when it will make a [s] sound, or explain the role of the “schwa” in multi-syllable words.
Although I worked with kids of all ages and reading levels, I quickly realized that neither age nor reading level defined my experience with them as much as their particular quirks and personalities did.
One of my more memorable students was an autistic girl, who I’ll call Maria. Our sessions together were characterized by her randomly shouting catchphrases, grabbing the objects around us — including the book, my Sharpie and, once, my chest — and most peculiarly, reciting lines and songs from Disney movies. This last trait developed late in the summer, but soon became the most disruptive part of her personality.
In no time at all, I knew every word of the scenes she repeated, and I eventually realized that if I played along and said the lines with her, playing the Beast to her Belle, or Dory to her Marlin, she would proceed with whatever story I was trying to read with her, satisfied that she was in the company of a fellow Disney fangirl.
I had my most enjoyable sessions with Danielle, a more advanced student of about 14 who ended her time at the center by reading college-level material and usually understanding more of it than I did. Well, not really, but you get the point. We covered everything from how lasers are made to the architectural history of the skyscraper to the various literary techniques used in poetry, including oxymoron, metonymy and synecdoche. We read The Catcher in the Rye together as part of her program, and her reluctance to read aloud Salinger’s numerous expletives endeared her to me. Her enthusiasm for the material made me feel like my efforts were paying off, tangible proof that I wasn’t earning an empty paycheck.
Sessions with Danielle were always a welcome reprieve, particularly on days when she was preceded by the most challenging student I ever taught, whom I’ll call Christopher. He was my first classically autistic student, a kid you could recognize as such in passing because he made fantastic sounds and had a definite fixation: copy machines.
My first week with him was less a test of my teaching abilities, and more an exercise in babysitting skills. Due to understandably strict rules about touching students, I had no means of keeping him physically in session if he chose to get up and run away, which he did, frequently. And usually to visit the copy machine. I followed him, mostly to ensure that he didn’t hurt himself, but usually couldn’t convince him to do any actual work.
As the summer progressed and my colleagues and I gained a better understanding of Christopher, our strategy improved. By week two, I usually managed to keep him in session 80 percent of the time. It didn’t take long for us to figure out how to use his copy machine fixation as a reward system, a system that required almost constant tweaking because what worked one day was never guaranteed to work the next day. For me, a successful session with Christopher involved getting through maybe 70 percent of the lesson plan. Under other circumstances, never getting through the full lesson plan would be exceedingly frustrating, but I found it impossible to feel any spite towards him.
In the last few weeks of summer, his parents explained to us that the best ways to “deal” with Christopher involved getting a little physical — holding him by the shoulders to get him into session, for example.
Yet, this late-in-the-game modification of the rules led to a very different revelation between Christopher and me. I quickly became aware of how much he responded to physical contact. He loved giving “double high-fives” and would often ask if he could give me a hug, usually when he was excited about one of his accomplishments. By the final week of session, I learned that I could easily break through whatever stonewall he put up simply by asking for a double high-five or a hug. Immediately distracted from his obstinacy, he would comply with my request and we could continue with our work.
I don’t really know that my efforts made any substantial difference for these kids in terms of reading — I never see the results of their evaluations — but during this summer in particular I harbored doubts about the universal efficacy of the program. It’s not in my nature to put my faith in a program like that blindly, especially when I began to feel that some of my students simply were not progressing. At first, I was afraid that these doubts would affect my teaching and impede my ability to help. I needn’t have worried, though: As it turns out, my fondness for my students carried me through my hesitation and forced me to cling tighter to the processes of the program. In the end, it was the only thing I knew how to teach them.