During this past school year, I worked part-time as a family childcare preschool tutor with Reading Corps. It was one of the most challenging, joyful experiences of my life. My service ended a few weeks ago, but I don’t want to let it go quite yet. So let me tell you about it!
I was in a small pilot program working with licensed childcare providers. We tutors were preschool teachers on wheels, lugging our red Reading Corps totes with us wherever we went. We each had three providers and made two 90-minute visits every morning. During each visit, we held a daily meeting and also worked with kids individually or in small groups. That’s the gist. (For more info, see the sidebar.)
I can't begin to condense my year of service into a single blog post, but here are some of the highlights:
Do you like my shirt?
One of my groups was usually at the table, finishing breakfast, when I arrived. They would exclaim, “Miss Nancy’s here!” and then, without fail, one child or another would ask, “Do you like my shirt?” So we’d have short conversations about princesses or motorcycles or dinosaurs…sparkles or stripes or polka dots…colors that matched plates that matched cups...and so on. And why not? That’s one of the joys of working with very young children: virtually anything can be turned into a learning experience. Keep that vocabulary coming!
Those first few minutes of every visit were precious. I don’t know that there’s a better feeling in the world than to see a bunch of kids light up when you come through the door.
Reading Corps is part of AmeriCorps, a national service organization often referred to as the “domestic Peace Corps.” The overall goal of the program is to get kids reading at grade level by the end of 3rd grade. (The idea is that before 3rd grade, kids are learning to read; after that, they are reading to learn.) Reading Corps began in 2003 and serves 30,000 kids in Minnesota’s elementary schools and preschools.
I worked in a pilot program in which tutors go not to schools, but to licensed family childcare providers. This was the program’s fourth year, and we had nine tutors visiting 27 providers. (The numbers changed a bit throughout the year.)
A tribute to childcare providers
Three dogs and a bunny
All three of my providers had small white dogs: Harley, Scooby, and Coconut. When I first started visiting Harley’s house, he would often sit beside me—occasionally even on my lap—during morning meeting. But as we all got used to each other and to our routine, Harley stayed out of the circle. I like to think this was intentional: he showed the kids what to do and then stood back and let them do it by themselves.
Scooby was a barker. He barked not just at me, but at parents who were dropping off their kids. There was no such thing as a quiet entrance into the house. But he quickly got it out of his system, and when he stopped, the whole house seemed a tad quieter than it would have otherwise. Which, in a house full of preschoolers and toddlers, was not a bad thing.
Coconut didn’t come inside the house, but sometimes wandered up to me when I arrived. Seeing him was a treat. (Just saying “Hi Coconut!” made me think of Russell Stover Easter eggs…or Almond Joys…mmmm…..)
At Coconut’s house was another pet, an incredibly soft bunny named Yasha. Yasha had a big cage on the porch, but he also had free rein of the house and often decided to attend morning meeting. (A few of my vocabulary cards have the slightest trace of a nibble.) The kids were very sweet and gentle with him—and protective, too, informing me that I could only use two fingers when I petted him. I adored Yasha. There is still some gleeful, pet-loving child in me who even now grins at the thought of a real live bunny running around in the house. I mean, how cool is that?!
What is it? What is it? What is it, do you know?
I think I liked the What Is It Bag almost as much as the kids did. This was a red bag that we used as a transition. Every visit, we put something in the bag—usually an ordinary household item—that had some connection with the book we were reading that week. We’d sing the little song that went with the What Is It Bag and then very dramatically pull out the item. Depending on what was in there, sometimes the kids got to feel the bag and try to guess what it was.
Usually it wasn’t too difficult to find something for the bag, but once in a while a little more effort was required. I made a mad dash to Home Depot just before closing on a Sunday night to get wood scraps and paint samples to go with our construction unit. I ducked into LeeAnn Chin and bought some frozen yogurt, then helped myself to a few sets of chopsticks. (The chopsticks not only went with our book, but could be used to make all the letters that had straight lines! Neat!) If I wanted to include something edible—snap peas, asparagus, and “Dinky Dipper” cones come to mind—I’d plan my grocery trips around my What Is It Bag schedule.
Singing, chanting, and Alphabet Yoga
At every visit, we sang our souped-up version of the Alphabet Song. This song was an incredibly efficient tool. It taught kids letter names, letter sounds, words that started with each letter, and motions to get kids up and moving. As the year went on, we developed some variations. We went around in a circle or mixed up the order of the letters. On Fridays, as a special treat, one group begged to do the song “upside down.” They lay on the floor and I held the cards upside down. (The “rain” for R went up!) Another provider would stand behind the kids like a puppeteer and move their arms and hands to make the motions—which cracked everyone up.
After the Alphabet Song, we got into the habit of doing Alphabet Yoga, in which we used our arms and bodies as “magic pens” and made the strokes of a letter we’d talked about earlier in our meeting. A few of the girls really got into these imaginary letters:
“I made a pink and purple and rainbow S!”
“My T has a black bow tie!”
“My m is green with lots of sparkles!”
In one group, the lowercase letters were treated as "baby" letters—we used our fingers to draw letters on our palms, and we spoke in falsetto. Let me tell you, it's pretty amusing to hear young kids speak in falsetto.
Some of the transition songs were actually chants. (“Letters. Letters. Letters have names. What is the name of thi-i-s letter?”) I enjoyed those as well. There is something very satisfying about speaking in predictable rhythms. And clapping, too! I think we’d all be better off if, a few times every day, we’d take a break from all our super-important business to sing a little, chant a little, clap a little, stretch a little.
About halfway through the year, my coach recorded me singing the Alphabet Song with one of my groups. Normally I don't care to see recordings of myself; my tendency is to be very self-critical. But what struck me when I saw that video is this: I looked happy. I looked like I was having fun. Seeing that video marked a turning point for me. I began to trust that in spite of my own doubts and limitations, my best self was coming through.
No such thing as perfect
If I’m doing the math right, I visited each group of kids somewhere around 100 times. No two visits were the same. And while some visits went better than others, I quickly learned not to expect every single aspect of a visit to go well. There were just too many variables. Tired kids, excited kids, sick kids, fidgety kids, frustrated kids, sad kids, late kids…my own mood, energy, and organization…the content of the lessons…the weather…the presence of other adults...the day of the week…holidays and birthdays. I did my best to be prepared, to have a game plan going in, but I still ended up changing things on the fly—or realizing after the fact that I should have changed things on the fly. But what gave me heart is the immutable fact of those 100 visits. I showed up and did my best, day after day. So did the providers, and so did the kids. And every one of us learned a whole lot during the course of the year.
One of the greatest privileges of being a Reading Corps tutor was to observe, up close, each child’s growth. It was immensely gratifying to see their benchmarking scores go from red to yellow to green. But my favorite moments were the breakthroughs that happened during sign-in. After weeks or months of making unrecognizable scribbles on the white board, a child would make a real letter—and I was thrilled beyond all reason. You made an H! Look at that fantastic R! I couldn’t help but clap and cheer. It reminded me of when my own kids were little, and how exciting it was when they rolled over or took a few steps without holding onto anything. The milestones were normal and expected, but still, when it’s YOUR kid, you’re so proud you just about burst at the seams.
Much of the growth wasn’t as obvious, though. It was only when I stopped to reflect that I could see it. Younger kids who were hardly talking in the fall were saying the vocabulary words in May. Journal pages went from simple drawings to elaborate stories over the course of the year. This kind of growth is like the changing seasons. There’s not much difference between one day and the next, but there is always a steady, invisible pull that takes us to the next stage. You wake up one morning and it’s spring.
At our initial training last August, we tutors were asked what we were looking forward to the most. We all said, “getting to know the kids.” At the end of our service, if we’d been asked what we would miss the most, the answer for all of us would be, “the kids.”
Oh, the kids.
The girl who wore a bear costume during sign-in and called the two t’s in her name Iowa and Niowa (later changing them to Skyah and Chase).
The toddler who was a ringer for Mr. Clean.
The boy who shouted, with movie-star grace, “I love you! I love you!” from the yard as I got into my car at the end of my visit.
The smart-as-a-whip girl who rallied her peers like a plucky character in a Disney movie when it was time to say the vocab words as fast as they could. (“Come on, guys! We can beat her. Let’s do it!”)
The identical twin boys whose beautiful Russian accent turned ordinary words into soul-stirring poems.
The three-year-old boy who made a dashing late entrance in sunglasses and a Spiderman outfit, improbably managing to look both comical and suave.
The sweet, sweet girl who wore frilly skirts every single day and filled her journal pages with tiny circles.
The always-active boy who felt my arm during a tutoring session and announced, as if it were a good thing, “It’s squishy!”
The girl who wrote my name on the whiteboard…followed by an equals sign…followed by a heart.
The boy who always tapped at the window as I was leaving, so I would wave goodbye.
You understand, what I’ve written here just now is the barest of impressions. Altogether I worked with two dozen kids, and every one of them made their way into my heart. I had a unique vantage point: I wasn’t responsible for them in the way the providers were, and I wasn’t with them all day or every day. I had the luxury and the privilege of simply…noticing them. Witnessing them.
Shortly before my last week in Reading Corps, I talked to a high school classmate who is an administrator in a large ECFE (Early Childhood and Family Education) program. I asked her if she had any tips for dealing with the emotions of saying goodbye to kids, knowing you may never see them again. She said no. “You want to be attached,” she said. “And if you’re attached, there’s no way around it.”
A part of me wants to keep writing, keep writing…to linger over this experience as long as I possibly can. It’s like when the kids wanted to keep our greeting song going. After we’d gone through all the names (including a whispered greeting for any babies sleeping in another room), we’d sing for the pets, for the provider, for any other adults who were around, and then at the end we’d finally wrap things up by singing, “Our friends are here today. Our friends are here today. Y-a-y, friends!”
So I think that’s how I will end this. I am picturing all of the wonderful people I’ve met this year—kids, providers, coaches, fellow tutors, parents, helpers—and I am lifting my arms up.