Observations from the classroom

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Last fall, The Sun embarked on a five-year literacy project designed to boost the reading proficiency of young children. A key part of this effort has been the 130 Sun employees who have volunteered as reading tutors in area public schools.

The project, Reading by 9, was started in part as a response to the dismal performance of students on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests - less than one-third of third-graders in metropolitan Baltimore achieved a "satisfactory" or better reading score on the statewide exam.

Sun employees went into classrooms not as reading experts but as adults eager to help children. In return, many of the tutors have been buoyed by the common experience of volunteers: Extending a hand helps the giver as well as the recipient.

As the school year draws to a close, here's a progress report from a sampling of the employees who have volunteered.

Working with the children made me slow down. I actually read more slowly now, taking time to absorb what I read. Our goal was to help the children with their reading skills, but I've benefited, too.

-- Ruth Hakulin, secretary

The first week, reading around the table was, in some cases, labored. I found the open classroom distracting. But, over the months, the six students in my reading club have made remarkable progress. It has been extremely rewarding to watch them conquer their fears and reservations. Each week, I ask them, "Who's the best reading club at Federal Hill?" They respond: "We are!" I believe they are. To Anthony, Daniel, India, Justin, Lydia and Walter - thank you.

-- Lisa LoVullo, director, Electronic News and Information Services

It was easy to bond with Chris. He enjoys the attention of working one-on-one with an adult. He likes to read and has improved in recent weeks partly by re-reading the same books. His main problem is staying on task because he is easily distracted. No doubt he benefits from my role as drill sergeant. I allow him brief breaks and then help him return to the job at hand.

-- Nancy Hauswald, educational services manager

When the reading group began, some of the children were very self-conscious about reading aloud because they were poor readers. But after the first few sessions, there was an incredible difference in their confidence. Suddenly, they were eager to read.

-- Kelly Swift, creative manager

The level of cooperation I received in the reading group often depended upon the children's mood. So, to gauge their attitudes at the start of each tutoring session, I would ask them to show me how they felt on a scale of 1 to 10 using their fingers. At first, few of the children responded. But, gradually, more responded. By the fourth week, 60 fingers were in the air, with jubilant smiles all around. I was floating the rest of the day.

-- Amy Davis, photographer

I like to think of myself more as a book buddy than a tutor.

When I meet with my four friends at McCormick Elementary School in Baltimore County, we first talk about books and stories. Then, we read - as much as we can in the 15 or 20 minutes allotted for each child.

It's altogether enjoyable, at least for this big buddy. The little buddies are noncommittal, though they always seem eager to see me, ready to read and discriminating in the books they choose.

What they'll take away from these encounters, or if they'll even remember them, is one of the great mysteries that teachers - and parents - face every day. More than the long "o" or the silent "e" we've talked about, I hope they'll take away at least a liking for books and words, and the fact that they, too, can be your buddies.

-- Mary Maushard, reporter

I began tutoring a half-dozen students at Carter G. Woodson Elementary in January. That was too many students for a quality tutoring session, a sentiment that might amuse a teacher in a class of 20 or more. I questioned the necessity of the effort, but enjoyed getting out to visit the school anyway.

Opening Day, however, brought a revelation. A colleague, also a tutor at Woodson, asked me if I could work with his students that day because he had to photograph the ballgame.

I introduced myself to his students, two timid but very cooperative boys. I told them we would take turns reading aloud. The boys struggled. One had trouble sounding out even single-syllable words.

By the time we finished a sentence, it was hard to recall how it had begun. For these boys, a story was a minefield of letters that kept changing sounds.

Both pupils persevered mightily, as unpleasant and embarrassing as it must be for beginning readers to reveal their lack of skill. Beyond the window, the ballpark lights shimmered across South Baltimore, but I don't imagine that there was any more determination on the field at Camden Yards that day than was in that classroom.

Some media coverage of Reading by 9, including in the Wall Street Journal, has questioned whether The Sun's community initiative strays beyond objective reporting. To the contrary, shedding light on and understanding the plight of these children honors the business of journalism. If it does indeed "cross the line," we should do it with both feet.

-- Andrew Ratner, director of suburban editorials

What came through loud and clear in my hourlong weekly visits to a second-grade classroom at Arundel Elementary School in Cherry Hill was the eagerness and aching desire of these children to read to an adult.

They competed to be first. They complained when the hour was over and they hadn't had a turn yet. They asked why I had to leave.

Repeated practice with the basics of phonics does make difference. As the weeks passed, you could see the progress. It may not have been enough to satisfy the experts, but these kids were learning.

-- Barry Rascovar, deputy editorial page editor

I just completed my third year of tutoring first-graders at Carter G. Woodson Elementary School. Sadly, there are some students who don't know the basics, including the alphabet. When asked to read a sentence they've copied, they often can pick out letters but don't know many of the words. The toughest job for the tutor is figuring out how to help these children.

-- Algerina Perna, photographer

I got a chance to see four children improve their reading skills and their self-esteem, simultaneously. The two things that stand out for me from my time in the classroom were the child who said I was her friend and the smiles on all of their faces when they mastered another skill.

Spending time with the children made me feel like the luckiest person on earth.

-- Michele Griesbauer, classified advertising representative

I asked seven third-graders with whom I read at Federal Hill Elementary School to write how they feel about reading. Our group often combines reading and writing.

A boy who reads well wrote "books are fun." He said his mother read to him at home. "She tells me all the time to read a lot."

One girl bubbled over. She likes to write. "I like reading because it is good," she wrote. "It helps you get a job. It helps you learn. Tells you about things. Teaches you. And people help you to read. I love to read books." She said her family read at home and reading was fun at school.

Another boy wrote, "I like you for a friend. Can you bring something for the good people who read? Please." He said he liked to figure out words. His mother and teachers helped him read.

One pupil wrote, "I don't like reading." I asked why. Do people read at home? "No." Two other students hinted at much the same. They also found it hard to sit still while others read.

What happens or doesn't happen, at home as well as at school, makes a difference.

-- Ernest F. Imhoff, reporter

I enter the fourth-grade class and heads turn. I hear excited whispers. Voices call out, "Mr. Thompson!"

So begins another morning at Carter G. Woodson Elementary School. For nearly four years I have tried to squeeze an hour out of each week to visit this Cherry Hill school, to sit with the children and help them learn. Some of them I have known since they were in first grade.

In that time, they have probably taught me more than I have taught them. I help them with their compositions, sentence structure, spelling, the world of ideas and the imagination. They teach me about life and commitment.

When I first visited the school, I felt like I had been dropped onto another planet. Water faucets were knee-high, chairs were quarter-size and the bathrooms were built to a scale I'd outgrown decades ago. Now, the halls are familiar. I'm treated like family. Anthony, who isn't even in my class this year, still greets me like I'm his long-lost favorite uncle. It feels good to be at Woodson.

Early on, though, I questioned the value of tutoring an hour a week. Volunteerism is in vogue these days, extolled by everyone from the president to the local PTA. Companies proudly point to the number of hours their employees donate. But what about the children, I wondered. Do our "do-gooder" efforts mean anything to them? I got my answer during my year with second-graders.

I had always worn a suit when I went to Woodson, even if I was on vacation. I felt it was good for these children to see a professional black man. This particular morning was hot, the kind of day when a necktie can feel like a noose. I opted for jeans and jTC a casual shirt. I figured the children didn't care one way or the other.

They gasped as soon as I hit the classroom door. Concerned murmurs went from row to row. I felt embarrassed, like someone who shows up at a formal dinner party in a T-shirt and khakis. "Where's your suit?" they asked. "You're not dressed right," they said. I fumbled for an excuse.

"I didn't feel like it," didn't seem a worthy explanation. I had told them time and again that sometimes you have to do things you don't feel like doing: You have to study when you'd rather be playing.

Little Vynae set me straight when I stopped by her desk. The disappointment in her eyes was enough to make me wish I could run to the bathroom, change into a suit and make the world right. I asked her if I should wear a suit. She nodded her head. She said she liked me in a suit. From then on, I knew the children were watching me, not just learning from me.

-- M. Dion Thompson, reporter

Pub Date: 6/05/98

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