518. Alex in Numberland

I’m tutoring a nine year old boy named Alex. He doesn’t have all the skills and knowledge other children his age have, and his parents hope that he’ll catch up with them a little by working with me. I spoke with his mother and two of his teachers to find out what to focus on this summer. We decided that Alex and I should focus on reading, writing, and times tables.
So we’re creating a book called “Alex in Numberland.” Sometimes Alex sits at my computer and types while I help him spell words he doesn’t know. I miss no opportunity to let him know I enjoy the ideas he comes up with. Some of his ideas don’t work as well as others, and I have his permission to make changes in the story, as long as I explain my changes to his satisfaction. So we are co- authors.
In the story, Alex starts out by getting sucked into his mirror (his idea – he must know about Through the Looking Glass). He finds himself in a place where all people have numbers instead of names. For example, Alex is #5, and I am #7 (He put me in the story, too). About an hour after our first session, I decided that Alex could learn the times tables through the story. For example, a man named 99 is giving away Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, which Alex doesn’t like, and Alex, too shy to turn down the man’s offer, has to decide whether to accept 3 x 3, 3 x 4, or 3 x 5 peanut butter cups. He chooses 3 x 3, which, he assures me, is nine. He also figures out and tells me that he has turned down 12 and 15.
Alex and I are having fun. Because he evaluates (and usually accepts) my editing, he’s learning about the writing process. As far as spelling, I sneak in attempts to get him to sound out words. He reads what he writes, and with his permission, I add my own ideas to the story, which he also reads. We’ll keep putting math problems into the story, which he thinks was his idea, and I think was mine. But let’s say it was his.
I consider the fun and my voiced appreciation of his thinking and learning the most important part of what’s going on. The actual reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic are incidental. In school, those subjects are often emphasized in a way that isn’t fun, and is detrimental to children’s self-esteem. Teachers tend to judge themselves and children using the “three R’s” as criteria. Children do, too. And incidentally, I think children have more difficulty with the “three R’s” when those “basics” are treated with that kind of obsession.
Tutoring, in some ways, is teaching at its best. Alex and I are two friends creating a book together. We laugh a lot, and though I may use a few tricks to keep him on task and get him to be more ready for the challenges of fourth grade, that’s not what our sessions are mainly about. School offers some things I don’t offer, such as other children and a wider variety of exciting materials. But I think these tutoring sessions are more like education than some of what happens in school.

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