Thursday, June 28, 2012

A lovely essay from my son's tutor

To those of you who have read my blogs recently, you may remember that I wrote about the wonderful neighbour who tutors my son each week. She is a former teacher, now retired, with no specific special education qualifications. But that doesn't stand in the way of her being a fabulous and rich addition to Michael's life. Each Saturday afternoon at a quarter to four, he rushes out the door, hops on his bike and rides over to Ann Lacey's house for his one hour tutoring session.

I'd like to share with you a short piece that Ann wrote about her experiences with Michael.
                                           *     *    *

Michael slips quietly in the door, holding a cellophane wrapped piece of carrot cake and a cold can of  Coke. He is early, as usual, by 10 minutes. There is a moment of confusion at the door as the musicians (who have been playing jazz tunes with my partner Dwight all afternoon) gather all their boots and clothes and instruments, and squeeze past him out the front door.
”Hi, Mike!”  they all say.

I catch Michael’s  eye and smile. We are glad to see each other, we like each other.

I am keenly aware that the mild chaos at the front door  is just the kind of confusion and overstimulation that I am not supposed to be providing for Michael when I tutor him. He needs quiet, predictable routine, clear goals; Michael has FASD (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder, brain damage caused by the alcohol his mother drank while pregnant with him). Michael is now 25.
My friend Linda has asked me to tutor her son Michael, who dropped out of school in Grade 9. Michael has told her he’s  interested in passing his GED, and maybe even obtaining a high school diploma. I know little of his school history, but know it has been fraught, and that his learning disabilities are complicated. While I have taught a wide range of children, I have no special education qualifications and no understanding of FASD. But I am interested and willing to give it a try. I tell Linda yes, I will tutor Michael.

Within minutes of the confusion at the door, Michael and I have slipped into my tiny teaching room and are immersed in our book, The Hunger Games. It is a dark story set in a not-very-friendly future, but Michael likes it, and I follow his interests as best I can. I take notice of whatever attracts him, because it gives me clues as I try to understand what makes him tick. There is a great deal going on inside this young man. But expressing it is difficult for him.

We take turns reading out loud, a few pages at a time, trying to finish one chapter each week. We pass the book back and forth when we feel ready. His reading has improved in all ways, and in the most important of ways: he expects the text to make sense.This is an important transition for a reader, and serves as an anchor for further reading development. He used to read through the punctuation, and then get into a muddle of misunderstanding. Now he reads until he understands, sometimes going back over it  more carefully, finding the meaning.

We have read happily through a number of books, including a long and text heavy (not many illustrations) book of Native myths, the Story of Erik the Viking and numerous newspaper articles I have picked out for him. When we finish reading our chapter, we talk and make a quick list of a few words to remind ourselves what is happening, so we can dive in again next week. Sometimes we talk about the chapter or new words or things we didn’t understand, or I give him a short writing assignment that involves going back into the text or making inferences or dictionary work.

When he began with me Michael said he wouldn’t write, that I wouldn’t be able to read it. But I just said, “Well, you can read it to me”, and that was that. His very first writing was done after the tragic death of his dog, Bear. I knew Bear meant a lot to him, and I found an old children’s book, The Tenth Good Thing About Barney (a boy who loses his cat). When I finished I asked him to write 10 things about Bear. Here is what he wrote:

Bear was cute playful was always happy to se me funny loud excited soft cudely beutaful and stubern.

I was moved to tears, it was poetic! The way he listed all those positive attributes, then artfully chose the simple word ‘and’ to set apart the last, most troublesome descriptor of Bear -stubborn!

And what I learned through his simple response is that Michael has a great deal going on inside his head, but that it is difficult to express. When I ask him a question, there is  a space, a waiting, and then, maybe, nothing, or, a one word answer that is actually a profound observation. My first and clearest job was to help unlock the stalled place , to help develop some fluency of expression, some release of his knowledge and observations. This means starting every session with conversation.

Michael is away with his family this weekend, so our weekly session is cancelled. I miss him, I miss the stimulation of our sessions, where I am forced/urged as a teacher to really watch the learner for clues. What does he need next? Maybe I’ll try that game with him! My mind is ever churning with ideas. And, as MIchael continues to develop, new clues will emerge, and his needs will change. No teacher /student relationship should ever be static, but ever changing and responding to the world and others.

One teacher, one learner, facing each other.

Our teacher/student relationship is very much enriched by my collaboration and dialogue with his mother. If I were not able to report many of my experiences with and observations of MIchael with Linda, there would not be so much meat!! Together we ponder the meaning of developments, how we could help each other, and where to go next.

I don’t always know where to go next. Sometimes I try things with Michael, and they go nowhere. He lets me know when he isn’t interested. For instance, when I introduced practical word problems using math operations that we had been practicing (How many can I afford to buy? How much money was made at the sale?) Michael completed them, but was completely uninspired, and I dropped the activity. Many times I get discouraged and feel I don’t really know where I am going with him. And, what seems like progress can disappear the next week. Sometimes his reading seems markedly improved (reading with expression and for meaning), and then he may struggle some the following week.

I try to work with him where he is that day. What keeps me going is the simple fact that I like Michael, I enjoy his humour and interest, and that I  know that the story isn’t over yet.


  1. Absolutely Awesome!

  2. Bernadette FuhrmannJune 30, 2012 at 9:44 AM

    I think the biggest teaching in this story for all those that support people with FASD is "I try to work with him where he is that day". This couldn't be further from the truth as these individuals really do live one day at a time :) Nice story. Thanks for sharing Linda. You truly are a ray of light in our struggle to understand.

    1. thanks to both Anonymous and Bernadette. I don't know where our family would be without the special support people we've run into over the years. They haven't all been great though. That's what makes the good ones so remarkable. And yes, the struggle to understand is key. We're still working at it!

  3. I don't know what awes me more: The inspiring way that Ann works with Michael, or the lovely, loving, articulate way she writes about the joys and difficulties of working with him.

    Reading this makes me proud to be a teacher.

    1. Yes, teachers should be very proud of the work they do. I've shared your comment with Ann. I'm sure she'll be thrilled to hear such nice words.