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Being a good reader is essential to anything and everything related to learning. At our youngest, we learn to read the faces of the adults around us; in this way we begin our understanding of emotions, relationships, communication, agency, cause and effect, etc. Over the course of our lives, we are constantly reading the world and everything in it.
In school we read all kinds of texts. For example, we need to be able to read and understand the directions in the math text book in order to successfully grasp the concepts and solve the problems within. We read challenging primary documents in history and social studies courses. In English Language Arts we read novels and poetry to learn how to recognize and interpret metaphors, symbols and themes, thus developing the ability to think abstractly. We read literature to understand complex characters and ponder what it means to be a human being living life in society and in relation to one another. In various subjects we will be assigned to write research papers, requiring that we can discover meaningful articles with legitimate and relevant information from a wide variety of sources. On tests, students need to read and comprehend unfamiliar passages, tricky questions, and sometimes subtle multiple choice answers. Being a good reader requires sustained attention. This takes skill and practice.
Differentiation in Reading Work
Reading work with younger students (K-3) involves building vocabulary through language acquisition. Younger students train in reading fluently as well as increasing reading stamina, so that they can read for longer and longer periods of time, with sustained attention. Elementary students practice reading with expression, both aloud and silently, to develop comprehension and meaning.
Reading work with older students also, naturally, depends on where the student is with his or her relationship to reading. Some kids might be continuing to develop beyond the “decoding” phase, learning to read with more fluency and expression. Other children might be pretty good readers, and now are ready to work toward deeper levels of comprehension. Some kids may be advanced readers of fiction but struggle with non-fiction texts, or the other way around. There are many aspects of reading to consider, and they are tangled up together. The most pressing issues will be easily discovered and through working on those, other issues will become clear. We can work on them all! Most important, is to unlock the key to a reluctant reader’s heart. Connecting to the innate desire to read and learn, the natural inner curiosity that we all possess, is the underlying issue to address first.
Like reading, writing permeates every aspect of the school curriculum. Writing is also a crucial skill used in tests and extracurricular life. Everyone must possess excellent writing skills and abilities simply to function in everyday life today, with so much of our personal and professional interaction being text-based (email, twitter, blogs, text messages, yelp reviews, etc!). Writing is a wonderful way to communicate who we are to the world! But writing well takes a lot of training and practice.
In school, students are required to write essays, stories, poems, lab reports, research papers, and more. To be successful, kids must understand how to organize and execute each step of the writing process. Through experience, I know where the pitfalls in the process are, and I have some understanding of how to motivate students to stay committed through the difficult phases.
Differentiation in Writing Work
Writing work is very different depending on the age and developmental stage of the individual student. With younger students, we work on the mechanical aspects, learning how to physically form letters, phrases, sentences. With older students we may be working on very sophisticated issues, such as how to structure and support a critical or literary essay, how to work with various literary devices to create layers of meaning, or how to clearly write a lab report. Whatever the writing issue, I always include work on the deeper issues of voice, style, and mechanics (grammar, punctuation). I enjoy helping each kid find the best way to express his or ideas. Everything is calibrated to the individual!
Think about how you judge people you interact with for work via email when spelling and grammar mistakes run rampant. Cringe! You do not want your child to lack foundational writing skills. You want them to be good spellers, have a natural understanding of grammatical conventions, and a working use of correct punctuation.
This kind of learning is akin to learning to play an instrument: consistent, regular (daily) practice is necessary. Through repetition, students integrate the rules and techniques, so that, eventually, they come naturally. When these issues are at the core of a student’s relationship with me and tutoring, a strong partnership must be formed between me and the parents, in order to work together to cement these skills, because kids must practice daily. It takes time and effort, and willingness to withstand the resistance that we may encounter, but it is worth it in order to acquire these tools. Together, as a team, we can do this.
True, integrated learning requires patience, trust, slowing down, courage to take risks, and the willingness to reflect on one’s experiences. It requires that we know how to direct our attention. It is a process of experimentation combined with refined attention, the engagement of the senses and purposeful application of cognitive abilities.
I have found that the educational system focuses almost exclusively on the content, skills and strategies of learning, without first preparing the instrument of the mind to do any of that work. This is precisely where the work of mindfulness comes into play.
Mindfulness and Thinking
Mindfulness is the art of learning how to learn. A truly independent and confident learner understands how to use his or her own mind in any situation that arises. A student can learn to develop and practice making her own mind a supple instrument through the exercises involved with mindfulness practice. These practices may involve stillness or movement, silence or sound. There are many different ways to develop mindfulness. This is an aspect of tutoring that I apply in various ways with each student in every session. As with everything else, the methods vary depending on my relationship with the individual student as well as the learning style of the given student. The benefits of mindfulness increase rapidly when practiced regularly.
Mindfulness and Emotions
Let’s face it, growing up is stressful. Everything is new, which can be thrilling and disorienting. One’s identity is shape-shifting. Mindfulness practices can help young people to stay grounded in their true experiences and learn to trust their minds, hearts and bodies to guide them in the most positive directions. Mindfulness practices help people identify and manage symptoms and sources of anxiety. Anxiety and stress, if not addressed, have been shown to interfere greatly with the ability to learn.
At it’s best, learning is an artistic and spiritual experience, bringing us ever closer to the meaning of life itself. And then there are standardized tests, which are none of those things.
But standardized tests are an inextricable part of the academic journey, from elementary school all the way through to becoming a doctor or PhD. Therefore, we must address how to maximize--or at least improve--our performance. Individual students have varying issues regarding test taking. For some, it is mostly a matter of acquiring the skills necessary to efficiently read the texts and the questions, understand what the text is asking, and how to satisfy that request correctly. For others, it is more a matter of addressing distracting emotional issues that arise from test-related stress and anxiety.
Without getting into a philosophical or political discussion regarding standardized testing in our school system, the English Language Arts state test is a very important measurement that we must acknowledge and deal with. For many years I administered and graded the state test, as a 7th grade public school teacher, and I have some idea about what students can expect when encountering the test. I understand what graders generally look for and expect of student performance. I maintain very good relationships with former colleagues who remain in the school system, who keep me in the loop about the latest developments they receive about the test. I also make it a point to continue my own professional development in many ways, including keeping up to date with the materials being distributed regarding the state test. I have access to multiple sources of practice materials. I know that since the Common Core Standards were implemented, the test has changed vastly in character, and I have gotten reports about those changes from various peers and students. If you are interested in having your child come to tutoring for test prep, I will offer your kid targeted strategies to approach and work the test.
In addition to the academic preparation, I have had success teaching valuable mindfulness tools, which give kids power to deal with test anxiety and lack of focus often experienced while taking standardized tests.