If you want to gain an appreciation for how hard it is to learn to write, try learning another alphabet. I’ve always thought that the English alphabet is fairly simple. But that is because I was raised with it. I’ve been using it for years.

When I started tutoring kindergartners, I realized that are a lot of letters that look alike. Lower case “p” and “b” and “d” and q” look a lot alike. A lower case “n” is just a “u” upside down. In one way this is useful. It is a great way to see if a child has a learning disability. If she can’t ever “see” these differences, then perhaps her brain isn’t processing them.

Part of learning to write an alphabet is learning at what point a letter isn’t that letter anymore. This comes into play when you are handwriting the letters. At what point is an “n” an “n”, and at what point is it an “h”? If you put just a little too much tail on the “n” it changes into an “h”. If you put the tail on the right it is wrong. If you put the lines in the wrong place then it isn’t a letter at all. It is just a squiggle.

Writing is just an agreed-upon set of squiggles. Teaching letters to a child is just teaching these symbols, these agreed-upon squiggles. They are symbols because they have meaning. They have meaning because we agree that they do. In and of themselves they mean nothing.

I’ve come to appreciate how hard it is for anybody to learn the English alphabet because I’m learning Hebrew these days. I’m learning to write, read, and speak it. Well, maybe not the whole language. Just now, I’m learning the prayers. I bought a siddur, a Jewish prayer book, but it didn’t show the pronunciations. It showed the Hebrew words and the translation. I want the middle bit – the how-to-pronounce-it bit. I have a book by Blu Greenberg called “How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household” and it has a lot of what I want. There is also a website called “Hebrew 4 Christians” that is very helpful. But none of this is portable. So I’m making my own prayer book. And this involves handwriting the prayers.

Sure, I could literally copy-and-paste, but that would make my little book not so little. Pasting paper onto paper makes the book too thick. Ideally, I’d find some way of assembling this online and then printing out my own little prayer book, but I’ve not found a way to do this. Other alphabets aren’t always supported. And, ultimately, I do want to learn this alphabet. I like learning alphabets. So the best way is to write the words onto the pages myself.

I’m learning a lot of the letters look the same. Some look like just slight variations on other ones. I don’t quite know what makes one letter different from another. What must be included to make sure this letter is this letter? What is too far? What isn’t enough? It is the same as with the “n” and the “h” – what is the line that makes this one different from this one?

I want it to be perfect, but it isn’t going to be perfect without practice. I’m sure that if a reader of Hebrew looks at this, she might be able to figure out what I’ve written. Sure, I could practice on my own, away from this book. I could try to write the prayers and the letters out by hand and then copy them over to this book when I feel that I’ve gotten it – or I can just do it. I think there is something honest about that. I think God likes us to just try, to open ourselves up to being able to make mistakes.

You’ll never learn to walk unless you let go of the table you are holding on to. You have to try to take a few steps on your own. And when you do, your parent is overjoyed. Your first few baby steps are beautiful to her. They are awkward, and wobbly, but they are beautiful. They are beautiful because you are doing it. And with every step, you are walking closer to your parent’s open arms.

I think God thinks the same about my little prayer book. The letters are awkward and wobbly, but they are beautiful. I’m trying. And with every stroke I’m getting better. And with every stroke I’m walking closer to God.

Tutoring – and the desk

Many of you may be wondering why I’ve not written about tutoring recently. We are shorthanded at work right now, so I’ve not been able to go like I normally have been. I’ve really appreciated the ability to tutor on work time. This is something that the Mayor of Nashville has made available to Metro employees. Metro schools need help, and there are a lot of Metro employees. He made it possible that if you wanted to, and if it wouldn’t adversely affect your workplace, you could go volunteer in a Metro school for an hour a week. It isn’t much, but everything counts.

We’ve been without a fifth person in my department for months. While we can get by on four, it isn’t even that sometimes. Plenty of people have been out sick so that makes it three. Sometimes one of those three is a temp, so it is more like two and a half. The new branch manager was concerned about how things were backing up on Wednesdays when I go to tutor, so she asked me to put it on pause.

There have been pauses before, and we’ve gotten through them. I’m sure it was a surprise to the students. I wasn’t able to warn them, because it was a sudden decision at work. Time is different when you are five. Patterns are just developing. I remember when I’ve had to pause before and come back I get really amazing hugs from the kids. These are different kids and they are a little standoffish. We’ll see.

I could go tutor on my time off. I’ve thought about it. I’ve done it before. While that is a good idea for the kids, it isn’t a great idea for me. Forty hours a week is a LONG time at work. It just doesn’t leave much time for doing anything else. So while they need me, and while I’d like to go, I don’t think I’ll be going on my own time.

I thought I’d share this with you. It is my “desk” when I tutor.


This is in the hallway just a few steps away from the classroom. There are always two chairs, one big one and one small one. I put them this way – with the big one in the center for the student, and the small one to the side for me. I know this is backwards from how it is normally done. I do it so that when we sit, we are both the same height, so we work on the projects together.

This is really important to me. This is very subtle and psychological. I don’t want them to see me as above them or better than them. I’m a tutor. I’m here to help them help themselves. I’m a guide and a cheerleader. I’m not teaching them anything. I’m showing them the assignments that we have to work on and we are figuring them out. I provide feedback and direction. But all along, they are doing the work.

Librarian super powers

I’m starting to use my librarian super powers and I’m not even a librarian.

There is a little girl who I taught to read last year. She is a lovely Hispanic girl, and her Mom brings her into the library weekly. I was blessed to be there the moment she “got” reading. She put her sounds together and her letters together and was able to read an unfamiliar word. She lit up. I gave her another word, and another. She nailed each one.

There is a problem now, a year later. Now she is getting only DVDs. I noticed this a few weeks ago and I said to her – “Get books. No more DVDs”. It didn’t work. I saw her last week getting the maximum number of DVDs – 10, and no books. She was standing on a step stool, looking through all the movies. She was at my height at this point.

I looked straight at her and said “Don’t let me think that I wasted my time teaching you how to read and all you are getting is DVDs. Go get books.” I pointed towards the books and away from the DVDs. She looked a little freaked out.

I’ll see how this plays out. If it comes to it I’ll have to learn how to say in Spanish to her Mom that she must get books. Mom doesn’t speak English at all. Her children have to do all the talking for her when they are out because they learned English in public school.

Part of the problem is that this girl is used to having her way. She is very cute and very pigheaded. I can tell she has her parents wrapped around her finger. Perhaps Mom and Dad understand the value of a good education, but they don’t quite get how important it is for parents to get involved in that education.

In order to be an actual librarian you have to have a Master’s degree in Library Science. I don’t. I just work in a library. I have a Bachelor’s in English. But everybody thinks that because I work in a library, I’m a librarian.

Working in a library is a lot like working retail, but with better public opinion. People think we are like teachers. They grant us more respect than in retail work. We are somewhat authority figures. I’m not sure why, but I’m using it anyway. As long as I use my powers for good, why not?

Kindergarten 1-29-14

Today I was working on J’s superpowers. But first I had to get him to work.

I skipped last week. We were behind at the library. Too many bins to check in and not enough people. It is a privilege to get to tutor. The only way I get to keep this privilege is to make sure things are covered at work.

Work was the last thing on the minds of V and J today. I asked V if she wanted to work and she said no. That is fine with me. I’m extra. I’m not ever going to insist on them working with me. It is all optional. If one doesn’t want to work, then that leaves more time for another who does. That’s simple enough.

However, I am going to insist that if they are with me, they are going to work. I had to spell that out to J today. We did fine for a little while, but then he started to get wild. I can adapt a little. Adapting is part of tutoring kids at different levels. But at some point there isn’t a way to make whatever the child has decided to do with the assignment into actually learning. At some point it is more noise than signal. At some point I have to redirect.

Sometimes I have to redirect at several points.

J was drawing “fireballs” before we went to the tutoring area today. I asked him about them and found out that the fireballs are not from a dragon, they are from him. He is a very active child. Active is a nice way of saying violent. This child throws, pushes and hits everything. Half the time I’m with him I’m trying to get him to calm down long enough to work on the lesson. Five year olds have a lot of energy but he has more than most. I worry about him.

He told me today that reading isn’t fun. I told him that is just because he doesn’t know how to do it yet. I told him that reading is an awesome superpower, trying to tie into the fireballs he was working on earlier. I’m trying to get him to see reading as a real superpower, one that is even better than throwing imaginary fireballs. I pulled out the instruction sheet I got from the teacher today and pointed out that because of reading I know what the teacher wants me to work on today. I pointed out it is like having a super secret spy language.

He isn’t buying it, but I’ll try again. I feel this might work.

Kindergarten 1-15-14

Sometimes I feel like I’m Annie Sullivan with Helen Keller when I tutor. This is especially true these days when I work with V. Sometimes it isn’t about the assignment. It is about just getting through it.

I remember the story of how Annie Sullivan, on her first day as Helen Keller’s tutor didn’t manage to get anything done except make her sit still long enough to eat her meal at the table. It took hours, but it got done. Somehow she had taught her how to be human, just a little bit, and not a wild animal.

All V wants to do is play, and paint, and draw. For that matter, that is all I want to do too, but that isn’t the purpose of school. I’d love to spend all day making jewelry and writing, but that doesn’t get the bills paid. I have to go to work. “Work” for a five year old is kindergarten, and she’s not doing very well.

She is cheery, at least. Seeing her still in school is a plus too. But darn if she will focus.

I was disheartened when I saw my assignment and the supplies today. Not only was there nothing new, but something we should have been long past was there. It isn’t that I don’t want to work with the “Insta-learn” board. It is a perfectly fine way of learning letters and sounds and words. But the words are just three letters, and they are getting used to it. They pick out the words they want to do. It shouldn’t be hard for them by this point. We shouldn’t need it.

But then I realize I’m putting “should” in there. It is what it is. We aren’t in a race, right?

Well, in a way, we are. How long until first grade? If they don’t have their letters and sounds down by then it is going to be really hard for them. First grade isn’t about playtime and painting at all.

I used to really worry about the students when they were slow to get it. I worry a little now, but I also realize that it isn’t me. It’s them. They have to do the work.

Work is the last thing V wants to do right now. She wants nothing to do with the letters. Today the only thing that we accomplished was getting her to complete an assignment The class had been working on short i and long i today. They had a sheet with pictures on it, and they had to cut out the pictures and glue them to a sheet of paper. One side was for words like pie and kite, and the other was for words like mitt and pig.

V’s sheet was very colorful and very messy and very wrong. And not finished. We had to finish that before we could do anything else. I soon realized that there was no way we could fix what she had already done because of how well she had glued down the pieces. We had to start over from scratch.

She wanted to color the pieces again. I said no, because I knew that for the dead end that it is.

It was painful, and it was an uphill struggle. She didn’t get the point of the assignment. She also kept trying to distract me, and thus delay doing the work. She would point out other things in the hallway. She pointed out her teeth (the front two are missing now). She noticed my new glasses. She noticed everything except what the assignment was. I’ve started to recognize the look she has when she knows that she is trying to divert attention. It is intentional. She isn’t ADD. She’s clever. But, she’s five, and I’m 45, and half of my job is trying to get her to understand that she has to learn how to read, and that reading is amazing and fun.

It is really hard sometimes. I don’t remember being five. I’ve never had children. I don’t know all their tricks, or remember how they think. I tutor, in part, to learn this. I like that I get to borrow them for a few hours a month.

After we finished the assignment she took it to the teacher and she exclaimed how wonderful it was that it was finished. I tried to use that as a springboard to encourage her to finish other assignments. We’ll see if this seed produces anything useful.

In the meantime, she waded through the rest, and tried to distract me more, and didn’t want to focus. I have two other students to work with, so I decided to cut it short. I don’t have time to play around, and it isn’t fair to the others to skip them. She wasn’t interested in going back to class either, and tried to “stick” to her chair. I’ve had three years now of similar encounters, so I know the answer is just to keep repeating my request until the student knows that I’m not kidding.

The other two were equally iffy about working. Maybe it was because of the long break. They’d had Christmas and New Year’s off, and then a little extra because the really cold weather we had meant a water pipe burst in the school the week earlier.

We’ll try again next week.

Kindergarten 12-18-13 – Holiday

The order today that I was given was J, S, and V. I chose V first because I didn’t get to work with her last week.

She is missing her front two teeth now. This seems early. Doesn’t that normally happen between first and second grade? I’ve heard that children are physically maturing sooner these days. The theory is that it has to do with all the hormones they feed cows and chickens. We eat that meat, we get those chemicals.

V was a superstar today. She was very quick at finding the letters. She wanted to work with the Insta-Learn board that we had worked with for the past month but it wasn’t in my basket today. In fact, there was nothing I recognized in my basket today. I’ve been tutoring kindergartners for three years, so it is a big deal to say there was nothing I recognized. Half the time I have to figure out the goal of the supplies in the basket. Having familiar supplies makes this easier.

There is always a goal. There is always a purpose to the different bags and boards in the basket that the teacher prepares for me. If I can figure out the goal, then I can figure out how to get there. It is kind of like writing a sestina. If you know the ending words to the poem, the poem virtually writes itself.

V did amazingly well, and I told her so. She beamed. I love seeing her smile, and I feel that she doesn’t smile that much at home. I didn’t even ask her about her Christmas plans because I’m just not ready to hear the stories she was going to tell me. She makes up stories about her home life all the time, because the reality is just too much. Or, rather, it is not enough.

If the average everyday home life is hard, Christmas is going to be impossible. I can’t help this. I can’t fix it. So I didn’t ask. I didn’t want to remind her of the train wreck that was coming in a week.

It is like when I was taking care of my Mom when she was terminally ill. I was in college and I didn’t want anybody asking me how she was doing because it meant I had to stop and be real for a bit. It meant that I had to take off my “everything’s fine” mask and show how much pain was underneath. Sometimes the kindest thing was for people to not ask and just pretend along with me that all was normal.

Interestingly, she did talk about a holiday – but it wasn’t Christmas. She was telling me about her Halloween costume. (a pumpkin) J later told me about his Halloween costume as well. (Robin, and his Dad will be Batman). So they know something’s coming, but they’ve got it mixed up. Or maybe they have it better figured out than we adults do. Christmas done with costumes and lots of candy might be a lot better.

We played with the supplies, V and I, working with letters and colors and numbers. We had a few moments of normal, and it was nice. Even I forgot about how different and potentially awkward Christmas is going to be for me this year. Somehow we created a little oasis for both of us.

We went back to the room and J caught my eye and waved his arm to work with me. Sure – why not? Now, this means I’m going to make sure I work with S first next time. They all seem to want to work longer with me this year, so I’m not getting to as many students as in the past. I feel they are trying to monopolize my time, and that isn’t fair to the others on the list. I try to redirect but there is only so much you can get a 5 year old to stay on target sometimes.

Half of my time with J was spent trying to get him to be gentle and calm. He threw the letter dice rather than rolled them. He jumbled all the letter cards and tossed them like leaves. A lot of time was wasted with him having to pick items up off the floor that he had dropped by being so exuberant. Or is it manic? He was also a bit loud, and I had to remind him that there were other tutors just down the hall. The teacher tells me he hasn’t made any friends, so I’m trying to work on the most socially off-putting behaviors as well as teaching him how to read.

Not having ever had children, I’m sometimes at a loss on how to work with them. But, I’m learning, and the biggest thing I’m learning is that each one is different. So even if I figure it out, the next student will surprise me.

Sometimes I dread going into the school to tutor. I never know what I’m going to be doing and how it is going to go. Usually I remember to pray beforehand, and that helps. It reminds me that God is always in charge, and whatever happens is whatever is meant to happen. It also reminds me that God is always with me, even when I feel lost and alone.

Kindergarten 12-11-13

What a difference a little time makes. My order this week was J, S, and V, but V was out because she had to go to the doctor’s office. That is too bad because I wore the necklace that she inadvertently designed.


It is all stars and hearts. They are sparkly, too.


Not my style, but I think I need to get back in touch with my inner kindergartner. Maybe I’ll wear it again next week. I am a little concerned that she will want it. If I give a present to one, the others will get jealous. It is bad enough that some of the kids are upset that I don’t work with them. Today S asked me if I would buy him a Christmas present and I had to explain the concept of being fair to the other kids.

Plus, it is rude to ask for presents. But then, if you don’t ask, you won’t receive.

I had J first and boy was he excited. Maybe his enthusiasm is part of why other students ask me if I’m going to work with them. He pumps his arms and whoops when I call him to go to the tutoring desk. He acts like he just won a huge prize. Maybe he did. Who doesn’t like a little personal attention? Sometimes the teacher will assign a student to me who doesn’t need help with schoolwork. Sometimes all they need is a little one on one time with a person who cares.

It is too bad that J’s enthusiasm didn’t last long. He did very well for a while but then wanted to go back to class soon because they were working on math. Now that I think about it, numbers have been his favorite since the beginning. It is good findings something that can build up his confidence, but he has to nail reading too.

There are workarounds for not being able to read at all, but he doesn’t show signs of needing them. He does show signs of neglect, however. I get the impression that his parents don’t spend time with him. His hair always looks dirty and unbrushed, and he is a little wild. He seems to have a hard time controlling his reactions – they are a little over dramatic and agitated. He also is noticeably behind on his speech. It is very hard to understand him. He has been going to a speech therapist but I’m not seeing improvement. At times it seems like it is getting worse. I wonder if he acts like he needs specialized help because he just wants attention – since he isn’t getting it at home.

I worked with S for a while too. It is amazing to see a child who is being raised in a non English speaking home do better than one whose parents speak English. He does well with vocabulary and his letters, and it is heartening to see how confident he is getting. His speech reminds me of another Hispanic child from last year. It isn’t quite English and it isn’t quite Spanish, but he is very enthusiastic about it.

I finished early because V wasn’t there so I stayed to help with the math centers. They had a bunch of fun ways of learning about numbers and shapes. If math had been that fun when I was in school I might have liked math more. The students had to work with partners and one of the girls asked me to work with her. She has asked me to work with her every week, and remembers that I was there helping her the first week of school. That is pretty amazing for a kindergartner. Usually they don’t remember very well.

It is part of what makes the books hard for them. They can’t get the pattern. Page one. “See the bear. The bear can climb.” Page two. “See the squirrel. The squirrel can climb.” After we have gone through all the other animals that can climb I’d think they would get that the only word that changes is the animal, and there is a picture of it on the page. Nope. It is all a surprise every time. Books for five year olds are very short on purpose. I wonder how much of that is to keep the reader from pulling out her hair because they are so simple.

There was a bit of a wrestling match over who would get to have me as a partner. J wanted me, but I pointed out to him that we had already worked together so I needed to work with someone else. He was having none of that. Now, I’m not going to be monopolized, and I actually do want to see how the other kids are doing. I’d like a sense of perspective.

The teacher came up with a good plan. I could go around and check their work, instead of pairing up with them. She’s very good at plans like this. I think part of what I go there for is to learn these lessons. I think I might have missed some life lessons when I was five. It is a good idea to fill in the gaps.

Soon it was time for them to get ready to go out to play. It was a little cold but sunny, so they put on their costs. I put on my coat as well because it was time to leave. S saw me with my coat on and asked if I was going outside to play with them. I said I was going to lunch and he looked sad. I’m a little sad too. Why don’t adults get a regularly scheduled playtime?

I think that and a nap would do us all a world of good.