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An Army Of Fun

An Army Of FunStudent volunteers in the Tufts Literacy Corps are helping local kids grow to love learning.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [10.17.06] On the heels of the White House-led America Reads initiative, launched in 1996 to help kids struggling to learn how to read, Tufts professor Maryanne Wolf of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development decided to apply her literacy research to the development of a new tutoring program called the Tufts Literacy Corps.

The program, directed by reading specialist Dr. Cynthia Krug, began in 1997 with just 16 tutors and three elementary schools in Medford and Somerville. Originally focused on reading, it has evolved to offer tutoring services in writing and mathematics and now operates at six schools and two after-school programs in their host communities. According to Krug, approximately 85 Tufts students are matched up with school children from the community, whom they tutor twice a week.

Two of those students are junior Stan Henkin, a biochemistry and community health major, and senior McCaila Ingold-Smith, a double major in psychology and English. They recently spoke about their involvement with the Tufts Literacy Corps.

Could you describe what the Tufts Literacy Corps is and what you do as mentors?

Henkin: I'm a tutor in reading, so what we do is each person has one or two kids who they tutor...We play games, we read with them, and we teach them easier ways to read. We make reading fun. That's our main goal. It's a huge improvement usually over the year. If a kid is at a third grade level, he usually reads at a second grade level [at the beginning of the year]. We can usually take that kid and make him read at least at a third grade level by the end of the year, maybe even more. It depends on the kid, but they love it. They get time out of class, we play games and it's just really fun... Making a connection with the kid is the main thing.

Ingold-Smith: I have done a little bit of everything. I started out as a poetry tutor. It was a program they did my sophomore year for kids that had trouble writing; it was actually easier for them to write in poetry form. There aren't as many rules to follow and you don't have to think about grammar or sentence structure as much. It's more about getting the images on paper, and kids are pretty good at making creative images and word choices. I started working with this girl, Jamaica, as her poetry tutor, but it sort of evolved and I became a homework helper. Now we're working on writing in general, and she's started to write more formal essays. She was studying for the big standardized tests last year, so [we worked on] how to formulate one of those essays. [I try to] just keep her writing because she hates it so much. I'm trying to make it fun and make her realize that it's really not that bad.

What have gained from your experience as a mentor?

Ingold-Smith: First off, I've formed this really incredible bond with the girl that I work with. This is the third year that I'm working with her now, and I've worked with her over the summers, too, so we've become really close. It's almost like a big sister program. Sometimes I pick her up on the weekends and we do stuff. She likes to go to the Danish Pastry House. Also, I think it's really cool just getting off Tufts' campus because so many people do not get a chance to leave this campus... This is a chance to sort of give back and also explore the community that we live in.

Henkin: The bond is definitely huge. We make friends with the kids really quickly. They really look up to you and it shows because they want to impress you. You just have to be like, "I don't want you to impress. I just want to help you."...Over the past two years, I've had four kids and whenever I see them in school they always run up to me, give me a hug and start chatting with me. It's a really close bond, and it's awesome.

Have you noticed any improvements in the children you have worked with? If so, how have they improved?

Ingold-Smith: Definitely. For the girl that I've worked with, the most noticeable results that we got were when we worked on math. The problem was that they were moving past the multiplication tables and she hadn't learned those yet, so she was having trouble with everything after that. No one had gone back and been like, "Do you really know this?" I had to go back and teach her the multiplication tables and it made all the difference, someone just taking the time to do that. Her grades got so much better. I think she went from a failing grade to a B, so it was pretty awesome. Also, her confidence level has gone so far up. Just having someone give her this personal attention and helping her in school makes a huge difference.

Henkin: The confidence is probably the most important thing that we can help kids with. I start with kids who usually read really quietly when they first meet me and are really unconfident in themselves. They are just like, "Oh, I don't know what this word is. I don't know what this word is." We start with kids who don't even try, really. They see a big word or they see a word they don't know and they just skip over it because they don't think they can do it. What we try to do is, in every subject-math, reading, writing-we tell them, "You can do it. We're going to show you how to do it. We're going to make it easier for you." So, confidence is the number one thing. Grades are the number two thing.

Do you have a favorite memory from the program?

Ingold-Smith: One of my favorite memories was when the girl that I worked with at the end of sophomore year gave me a thank you card. In the thank you card was a picture of her as a baby... It's so cute; I keep it on my bulletin board.

Henkin: I think it's the little things that are important. We don't get anything huge from them... but seeing that their confidence improves, being like, "Thank you so much" and looking forward to every week because they have fun, is huge for us. It's a big thing.

Interviews by Carly Burdick, Class of 2009

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