Kindergarten 12-4-13

There was no school last Wednesday. It was Thanksgiving break.

Today there was a substitute teacher. Fortunately the regular teacher had left the supplies I needed and instructions. I’d managed to get there a little earlier so I had time to figure out what the game plan was before rather than during the session. Sometimes I get there and I have to figure it out as I go. Sometimes it doesn’t matter even if I get there early and study the plan, because the students have their own agendas.

Today I had S, V, and J on the list, in that order. I’ve asked the teacher to put them in the order I need to work with them, and usually I go with that. I still don’t know why she puts S on my list because he does fabulously. Today was no exception.

I had the old standbys and some new items today. I had the foam alphabet board, the letter tracing cards, and some books. I also had these colorful laminated folders with old fashioned library check out envelopes inside. I had quickly flipped through them but not really studied what was inside. I figured that I’d learn it along with them.

S chose the foam alphabet board and quickly was able to find every letter that I asked for. It is so amazing to watch them grow! He did well the last time I worked with him but this was remarkable. I realized we could move on and quickly switched to the stack of folders and had him pick one. He chose the red one. I looked inside and it looked a little hard.

There were the standard library book card pockets, but instead of letters inside them there were pictures of items. The student needed to name the item ( works on vocabulary) and then figure out what letter the word started with and match it to the letter on the library pocket. That is a huge step. That is going from a sound to a letter. Last time we were working with matching capital letters to lower case letters. Even that was hard. This seemed impossible.

Never say never. S did fabulously. This is even more amazing since he was tired. He told me that he had stayed up late playing with toys. We read two books together afterwards.

When I say “books” I mean these little paperbacks that have maybe eight pages at most, and each page has less than ten words. They are the very essence of a quick read. They are easy and they give the children a sense of accomplishment and keep their attention.

I sent him back and went to get V. She too did very well with the foam alphabet board so we switched to the red folder.

J was sent by the teacher to take a note to another teacher, so he passed V and I in the hall as we were working on the red folder. He stopped, looked at what we were doing, and said “Her doesn’t know how to do that so good.”

I wasn’t sure what to respond to first. A) it is grammatically incorrect. B) it is rude. C) it isn’t true.

She was doing very well, and I said so. I wanted to make sure I defended her and set the record straight. I decided that was the most important thing. I didn’t say what I was thinking. I bet that she could do that exercise far better than he could.

He asked me if he was on my list and I said yes, but it depended on whether I had time or not. He looked at V and said “Hurry up!” There is no hurrying this – I’ll keep them as long as they will work with me. Well, or until the class goes out to recess. I didn’t get to work with J today because we ran out of time. In a way I’m glad. I don’t like to reward rude behavior.

I try to space them out and make sure that I can get to all of them, but I’m also interested in quality over quantity. I find it amazing when I remember that when I started tutoring three years ago I’d have five or six on my list. I was there for the same amount of time. I don’t know how I did it. Perhaps these really need more work and attention. I do know that there is another tutor so the teacher can spread out the students. I also know I get the lowest performers.

There are two little girls who look at me with longing eyes every time on Wednesdays. They ask me if I’m going to work with them. They will most likely never be on my list – they don’t need me. I try to get across the idea that I don’t make the list, but I don’t want to get across the fact that they should be grateful they aren’t on my list. The ones on my list are the ones who are the lowest of the low when it comes to performance. The teacher hypes up the fact that the ones on the list are lucky that they get to work with me, so these girls want to get in on this. The teacher hypes it up because she wants the kids I work with to get excited rather than think it is a remedial action.

It is exciting to learn, and I am grateful that I somehow have the ability to get inside their heads and help them get the missing parts. I’m grateful I get to see them grow and develop. While I wish that I’d get to work with a larger variety of students like I have done in years past, I also realize that I’d probably get frustrated going from one who works at a second grade level back to one who works at a pre-K level.

Kindergarten 11-20-13. Authority figure and progress.

I pray before I tutor. I pray because I think it is a holy obligation to teach children. It is important to raise them well and be a good influence on them. It is important to model good behavior. They need to be shaped. Everything I say and everything I do is being watched by them and it is important to set a good example. I pray that God is able to work through me to help them.

I pray that I’m able to reach them. I pray that somehow I’m able to get in their heads and find the key that unlocks the door. I’ll try anything. It doesn’t matter how they learn, just that they learn.

Today I worked exclusively with V. S and J were on my list but I didn’t get to them. S really doesn’t need me and J took most of the hour last week, so I decided to take him last. It isn’t fair to V if I can’t work with her as well. I’d also heard from the teacher that she was failing her performance tests so it was really important to focus on her.

When I came back to the class with V and they were lining up to go outside, J saw me and had a very sour expression. He really wanted to work with me and it just didn’t happen. There’s only so much I can do in an hour, and since she was doing well, I decided to stay with her. After my time there, he ended up getting to work with Liz, who is another tutor and a friend from yoga class. He was a little dismayed that he didn’t get me, but he still got a tutor. I think he really wants individual attention. What he really needs is for his parents to step up to the game and work with him at home. That may not happen.

V did very well with matching small letters with their capitals. She was also able to quickly tell me what the letters were for most of them. This is a huge improvement over last week. But then we hit a snag. We went to the “insta-learn” board, the one with the orange tiles and the interchangeable letters. I didn’t expect her to match the sound of the letters with the name of the letter, but I did expect her to find the letter after doing so well with the first game.

Roadblock. Full stop. She started trying to find the letter the way J does, by singing the alphabet song until she came to the letter. Except unlike J, she didn’t even start with her finger on the letter a. She would start with a random letter like k. Like J she still couldn’t find it with this method.

Then we switched to the foam board with the letters that push out. It was as if she was back doing the first game. She did it very well. I’ll never know why one version of the alphabet works one day and another doesn’t, but I’ll take it.

The note that the teacher gave me said that she needed to work on numbers. The teacher had a special bin just for her. There was a box of plastic penguins, frogs, and fish inside. They were small and in different colors. Just because we are learning doesn’t mean we can’t have fun with it. Learning is easier if it looks like a game. She did OK with this but she got distracted a lot. She was telling me a lot of stories about her home that I don’t think were true. They sounded a lot grander than the stories the teacher is telling me. I think it is important to listen to her, but also important to get her to stay focused on the task at hand.

Since she was getting distracted, I asked her several times if she wanted to work on something else or go back to class. The kids will sometimes wear out before I think they have, and it is good to ask. When I first started tutoring I didn’t know this. After about 20 minutes of really intense one on one work their eyes start to glaze over and they get fidgety. They are ready to go back to class but they don’t know it yet. Or they don’t know they can ask. There are certainly rules that they have learned about how to interact with adults and other authority figures. Asking for what you need isn’t usually on that list.

I don’t want to be seen as an authority figure. I put the higher chair in front of the table for them and the lower one to the side for me. This way I’m at the same height. I don’t want to be above them because I think that gives a wrong signal. It sets up a hierarchy, and that is certainly something I don’t want to do.

Something that is very important to me is that the children I work with have a sense of control. I’ll ask them what they want to work with first. I’ll ask them if they want to continue or go back to class. I’ll ask them if they want a book at the end of the session. Then if they do want a book, I’ll ask them to pick the one for us to read. Now, sure, I’m in charge. If they start not paying attention I’ll try to get them back. If they want to work on something that is really for another student (as in it is beneath their ability) I’ll dissuade them.

The most important thing for me to remember is that I’m there for them. They aren’t there for me. Sure, I get a lot out of it. Sure, I enjoy teaching them and watching them learn. I feel really blessed that I was there when a girl “got” how to read last year. But they are the ones who need me. I’m there to help them, and helping them isn’t just about learning letters and numbers. It is also about helping them be happy human beings.

I’ll go back in two weeks. Next week school is out because of Thanksgiving. I look forward to how much they have changed. Tutoring is like watching plants grow. Every week there are new signs of growth to appreciate and celebrate.

Kindergarten 11-13-13. Baby steps and baby birds.

I’m behind on my tutoring stories. Turns out if I don’t write about it that day, I don’t really make time to write about it because there are other things going on.

Last week I had the same three children. I took them in a different order than on the list and I need to remember to not do that again. I need to take V first and J last. If J had his way he’d monopolize my time and I wouldn’t get to the other two.

I’m only there for an hour. It is all the time I’m allowed. There is a great cut off at the end of my time. They all line up for recess. This is useful because it isn’t as if I’m just leaving, or cutting them off. They are going outside and that is important to them.

It makes me think that we adults need to have recess scheduled into our workdays.

J still uses the alphabet list as a crutch. It is like he uses it as a cheat sheet. If the alphabet is in front of him and I ask him where the N is for example, he starts at the beginning and goes all the way through to the end, missing the requested letter every time. This time he was at least aware that he missed it. This is becoming very frustrating for me. There is no way he can get any further if he does not learn his letters soon. Having to start at the beginning every time is going to take forever. I wouldn’t mind it so much if it worked, but it doesn’t.

I decided to try something different. I have letter flash cards to use, and randomly pulled out a card. I asked him to name a letter. He nailed it. I tried another one. Again, success. So in the context of all the letters in order, he is lost. Perhaps it is overwhelming. Perhaps it is too much choice.

It is kind of like teaching colors to a child who is colorblind but doesn’t know it. He can’t tell me what is wrong because he doesn’t have a sense of what is right.

We played the Dora alphabet game and he also could find the letters when they were randomly in the box, but could not tell me what letter he had landed on the board. It was a little tricky to even get him to play the game because he decided it is girl’s game. It may be, but it is a great game to teach the alphabet, colors, numbers, and how to play a game, and these are all things he needs desperately.

At some point he mentioned that he had a bath last night but not today. Five year olds are masters of random statements. I thought about it. His hair is always a little wild. I thought it was just his style, but then realized that five year olds don’t have style. Things are done to them and for them, and I’m getting the impression that he’s not getting enough care at home, like he is an afterthought.

I worked with S and he was a delight at usual. He is very easy going and is doing well on his letters. I don’t think he needs my help, but the teacher keeps putting him on my list. She seems to have really concentrated my job this year. In the past I would work with a random assortment of up to eight different kids. This year I’m getting the same three.

Then I worked with V. Life is hard for her at home. We didn’t work on much for school. What I worked on was building up her spirit. She is so sad and reserved these days. Her work, which was already behind the average, has gotten worse. So I played the Dora game with her and exclaimed about how much I look forward to playing this game with her, and that I really appreciate that she plays it with me. I mean every bit of it. I am desperate for her to stay in school, because school is the only way out of a terrible home life.

Being able to read makes the difference between depression and delight. It makes the difference between poverty and prosperity. It turns ignorance into intelligence.

Reading is the way out.

If I can encourage her to stay in school and learn how to read, she has a chance. But she has to do the work. That’s always the way. I remember my reaction with my first group of students from three years ago. One just was having the hardest time with everything, and he just didn’t seem to care. A blasé kindergartner isn’t the greatest. It is pretty sad, even. But it wasn’t up to me. I brought my energy and my enthusiasm and my skills, and he had to do the rest. If he wanted to just drift through, barely making it, that was his choice.

It is like they are all baby birds. I want them all to fly high, but there will always be some that never have the confidence or strength to leave the nest on their own.

On tutoring ESL (and other) kindergartners.

Some of you may be wondering what I do when I tutor ESL kindergartners. I was wondering that myself when I started three years ago. I thought that I would just be reading to them. Boy was I wrong. Reading is the last thing I do.

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At first I was concerned how was I going to communicate with them. I’m not fluent in other languages. I know a smattering of several languages but not enough to really I interact for a long time. Plus, some of the kids start with languages that use different alphabets. I finally realized that I don’t have to know their language or alphabet. I have to know mine. And I know mine pretty well. I have clear handwriting, a clear voice, and a degree in English. I’ve tutored students with learning disabilities. This all helps. But mostly what helps is a desire to help them learn, and a willingness to try anything to get this information in. Half of my job is just showing up and trying whatever works.

There are children from the Congo, Uzbekistan, Ethiopia, and Mexico. I was amazed when I first started how many people from all around the world make my little section of Nashville home. I’ve come to realize that is part of what makes Nashville so amazing.

I also tutor kids whose first language is English. I tutor whoever needs me. Often the English-speakers need me because they have other issues going on. Some are possibly dyslexic. Some get no attention at home because their parents are not really ready or able to be parents.

The teacher gives me lists of who to work with and what to work on. I use this as a guideline. Sometimes the child will see something else in my basket of “tools” and want to use that. Sometimes they will not want anything hard at all and they just want to have me read books to them or go over their ABCs. I have to be flexible, yet also aware when they are just trying to play and not work at all.

Here are some examples of the lists. WordPress might have turned these around. The uploader isn’t doing what I want today, but something, even turned sideways, is better than nothing.

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We have different games we use to teach them. I don’t invent these games. The teacher provides them to me on the day I arrive and I use them with the kids. I’m glad that she has all this figured out. Sometimes it takes a while for me to understand what I’m supposed to do with these games, but eventually it makes sense.

I started tutoring for one basic reason. I realized I was saying “How come they don’t learn our language?” way too much. I turned it around and said “How come I’m not teaching them our language?” There are a lot of immigrants here, and a lot of them don’t know English. They can’t speak it or read it. Sometimes they can’t read at all, even in their own language. It is common for people to expect government offices to accommodate them with their different languages. Rather than expecting each employee to have to learn each different language, it makes more sense for us to take the time to teach them English. Work on one language rather than thirty. It seemed easiest to start with children. I can’t teach everybody, but I’ll do what I can.

We use all sorts of tools, and they look like toys.
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Here’s something that helps with vocabulary. The items are in a brown paper bag.

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A child will put her hand in and I’ll ask her to find a specific item without looking. In this particular bag are a bat, a pig, and an egg.

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When she pulls out an item, we then match it up with the card and we use plastic letters to spell the word. They learn vocabulary, and that these letters represent this thing. They also get to practice fine motor skills.

We have a sight word slap game.

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There are words they should recognize by a certain part of the year, and this is a fun way to practice. They get a bug swatter and words on a sheet, in ladybugs. I call out a word and the child has to find it and swat it. It can get really exciting when there are two kids playing this together.

There is a neat plastic board with removable letters.

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The letters have little teeth on them that fit with the orange pieces. The orange pieces have pictures on them. We figure out what the word is and then try to match the sound of the word to the letters. The teeth in the orange piece fit the teeth in the letters, so it is self-correcting.

We always read books at the end. They are very simple books. I’m delighted when they get to the point that they can actually read the book to me and not just figure out the story from the pictures.

Towards the end of our time together I can tell they are getting tired. There is only so much one-on-one intense work they can handle. I’ll ask them if they want to go back to class or do something else like read another book. I always make sure they know that they have control. I am there for them, not the other way around.

After each child is through for the day I say “Thank you for working with me.” I realize that it is hard work for them. I’m grateful that they try so hard.

Here are some of them from the first year. They made “glasses” and were wearing them. I love the fact that I see some of them in the hallway when classes are changing and they still recognize me.

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A note on spelling –
Here’s the funny bit. Nobody seems to know what is the standard spelling for what to call kids in kindergarten. Sometimes the spelling is “kindergartener” and sometimes it is “kindergartner”. One spell-checker will challenge me on one, and another will challenge me on another. Whatever. So if I mix it up, it isn’t me.

Kindergarten 11-6-13 Tattoos, and being “in”

One of my students was out sick today. I had V and J. It is a beautiful fall day and they were more interested in going outside to play than working. To be honest, so was I. Sometimes the playground is a better place to learn the real lessons.

The teacher left me a note that V had told her Mom that she didn’t want to come to school anymore because it is too hard. The teacher is traumatized by this. What do you do to engage a child who wants to be anywhere but there?

And then I looked around at the classroom. The two girls who had cried the first week that they didn’t want to be there, that they missed their Mom, they were still there. May be they had forgotten their anxiety. May be they had gotten distracted. Maybe it had gotten better.

Being a kindergartner is a bit like being a mental patient. You say you want to leave, and sure, you can, but it isn’t easy. It is hard to remember whatever you want to do for very long. Your mind flits around quite a bit.

Leaving school is completely the wrong thing for her. Since her home life is so messed up right now with her Mom in rehab, staying home would be impossible. She doesn’t know yet that education is her only way out of that hole. If you can read and you are curious, you can escape the terrible situation you were born into. It doesn’t even matter what you are taught at school – you have access to libraries so you can self-teach.

But, we are here, in this moment, and the teacher and I are trying to get her to just stay with us for now. Just stay, and try. Hopefully we can inspire her to “get” school. Hopefully we can engage her just long enough for her to work up a head of steam to see that school is the cure, not the problem.

We played the Dora alphabet game. It was fun! I love board games, so I’m glad I could play this with her. It teaches colors and counting and the alphabet and vocabulary. She did very well. There was another tutor nearby (a friend of mine) and she was encouraging her student. We could hear her say “I’m so proud of you” to her student and V. whipped her head around towards her words. It is obvious she is hungry for affirmation. I praise her, but is it ever enough?

She had drawings on her arm. I asked if she had done that and she said that her Dad did. She said that he made tattoos. To give a show of solidarity I showed her the tattoos I have in my leg. I knew I wore a skirt for a reason today. Usually I wear pants or a really long skirt so they don’t see my tattoos. Tattoos aren’t as taboo as they were, but they still have some stigma. She saw my tattoos and I was “in.” We are part of the same tribe.

J still doesn’t know the alphabet. Still. There are four different people working with him. I’m starting to think that he can do better but he likes the attention. I’m just not sure what tool is required to get into his head. He has to do better. There are certainly impulse and anger issues. I suspect his parents don’t work with him at home either.

I get so frustrated with how many children are seen as an afterthought. It isn’t their fault that they were conceived. There has to be a better way of getting young people to understand the huge responsibility that is being a parent – before they can become parents. No child should be unwanted or unloved.

Kindergarten 10-30-13 – meltdown

I had the same three children to tutor as usual this week, and it was amazing to see the progress. Tutoring kindergartners is like watching plants grow. They just get more and more interesting and amazing every week. I’m grateful that their parents let me borrow them once a week. They all did really well. They don’t have their letters perfectly down yet, but it is almost there. Another week and they will be up to speed.

I chose J second and he leaped for joy when I called him. He celebrated and hooted. It is pretty heartening to have someone get so excited to work with me. It beats apathy, and he still hasn’t gotten the clue that I work with him because he is lagging behind. I hope he never does. Wanting to get tutored makes it easier. He sees it as a special treat. I’d not worked with him last week and it was heartening to see how eager he was to work.

Learning is work, certainly. We have our tutoring sessions in the hallway, just outside of the classroom. There is a little table there, just big enough for two. There are two chairs – one “adult” chair and one “kid” chair. I have recently started to use the “kid” chair because it is lower and that means I don’t have to bend over to see the kids eye-to-eye. I think it is important to be equal heights with them so there is no sense of hierarchy.

While I was working with the first child, S, there was a disturbance from another classroom (also a kindergarten). There was a shriek and then screaming from a child. “I don’t want to go home!” was clearly heard. The shrieks and screams continued. The teacher said “I’m calling the office.” I could hear through the door that the child was the only one screaming. The teacher was not screaming back. Something very bad had happened and she was being sent home, pronto. She was totally against it.

I looked at my student and we discussed this a little. I wondered out loud if I should go and check on things. I wasn’t sure what I could do. I thought if nothing else I could make sure she wasn’t having a fit or being harmed by the teacher. For the fit, I’m trained in basic first aid. For being harmed – nothing stops abuse like a witness. I didn’t think anything untoward was happening from the sounds, but I wouldn’t know until I looked.

I decided to act. I opened the door. The girl was standing near the door facing the class, screaming. The class was facing her, stunned. One blonde-haired boy was holding his hands over his ears. Everything about the scene was the exact opposite of what you should see if you open a classroom door.

I scanned the room and saw the teacher. For a moment I missed her, and I started to worry. She was standing near her desk, and she was on the phone, calling for backup. I asked if everything was ok. Obviously it wasn’t but it seemed the thing to say. This made the little girl turn around and it was like I had hit the reset button. She slowed down her screams a little. It helped. Her face was the red of a sunburn.

The teacher had things under as much control as could be expected at the time and I couldn’t see what else there was for me to do, so I went back to my student. We worked together for a little bit. The teacher then opened the door and had the little girl sit just outside the room while they waited for the office assistant. She propped open the door so she was still connected to the room. The teacher had pointed out to her that we were working in the hallway. The girl sat quietly, completely opposite how she was minutes before.

S and I kept working and I kept an eye on the girl. The assistant from the office came and got her and talked to her about how her behavior was inappropriate. She was headed home.

When I returned my first student I talked to my teacher about what had happened. She knew who I was talking about. She told me that if I met the family I would understand it all. It wasn’t a surprise to her. There are emotion-control issues here. There is some deep disturbance.

I saw my tutoring partner near the end of the scene and she said that she often tutored this girl. She said that she didn’t know her numbers yet. Numbers are usually learned before letters. The concept is easier to grasp. So there is a lot more to this story. When I saw the girl’s teacher later I asked what had happened. The girl had gotten angry and had taken her scissors and cut her own hair.

At least she had cut her own hair, and not someone else’s. At least the scissors are safety ones, so she couldn’t do a lot of harm to someone. Her anger appears to be self-directed, but that is a bad sign.

There is never a dull moment in the life of a kindergarten tutor. I always learn something. Rarely is it this dramatic, thankfully.

I’m grateful that my student was fine, and I’ve never had to deal with this kind of meltdown personally. I’m grateful that the teacher was able to call for backup. I’m grateful that my interrupting the scene seemed to defuse it. The teacher thanked me for looking in. I almost didn’t, because I felt I didn’t know what to do. Turns out, I did exactly what I was supposed to do, even though I didn’t know it.

I’m trying to learn to trust that feeling. It is scary every time. And every time it turns out exactly the way it is supposed to. I’m grateful to God for that lesson.

Kindergarten 10-23-13

Today I was supposed to work with the same three that I’ve had the past few weeks, but I only had two. I didn’t have enough time to work with three, and I decided to skip one of them.

The list had V, the girl with the recovering mom, J, the boy who is severely delayed, most likely from dyslexia and/or a hearing problem, and S, the ever-smiling Hispanic boy. The list was in that order. I normally go in order but today I just felt differently.

Sometimes when we work with kids the goal is to build up their confidence. They need to work with easy things to get the confidence to do harder things. Perhaps that is what I was doing with myself. I just could not face the disappointment of seeing how far one of them had slipped over the fall break. He had just not been doing well before, and I didn’t know how to handle it if he had gotten worse.

These kids had just over two weeks off. I had a horrible feeling that they did not practice their letters or numbers over this time. I was honestly afraid. Sadly these feelings were borne out with V. She can recite her numbers to 20, but still can correctly identify maybe 5 letters. This will not work.

I’m sorry for her situation. I really want things to be better for her. I have no control over her home life, but I will do my best to teach her the letters and how to read. Reading is the way out of that hole. If you come from a terrible beginning, reading is the key out. Reading is the difference between poverty and success.

Then I worked with S. He did much better than V.

I skipped J. He did so badly the last time that I just didn’t have the heart to work with him. Perhaps this isn’t fair. By definition he needs me more. But I can’t do all the work. He has to do some of it. His parents have to do some of it.

Children require an immense amount of work. They can’t be ignored until they go to school, and expect the teachers to do all the work. Perhaps parents do this because they were treated the same way.

I don’t care. Don’t have children if you aren’t willing to raise them. Raising them means a lot more than feeding and clothing them. Raising them means teaching them values and morals. Raising them means teaching them how to be independent.

His parents are young and not together. It shows. He is very scattered and controlling. It isn’t his fault that his parents weren’t ready to be parents. He is the one who is paying for it.

As I was leaving, all the kids were lining up to go outside for recess. They were putting their coats on. I helped one with the zipper on his coat (always tricky at any age) and noticed V needed help with hers. I asked her if she would like me to help and she said no. She tried to work it but it was being difficult. I asked her again, and again no. She wanted to do it herself, and I respect that. But by the time everybody was filing out of the classroom, it still wasn’t together. It was too cold to not be zipped up. She said she would just hold it together.

There is something to be said for helping yourself, and there is something to be said for being OK with asking for help.