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December 14, 2011 2:03 PM   Subscribe

How do I effectively tutor someone in high school English and History?

Hey, MeFi. By some miracle, I landed a job as an English tutor for a big test company, though I've never taught professionally before. (I graduated from college last year.) I'll be teaching high-school AP English Lit/Language, History, and some SAT Critical Reading prep.

The question is: um, how do I do this?

The company doesn't provide their own materials or much training at all; I'm basically a contractor through them, and I'm given free reign within the two hours of tutoring I do each session. This scares the ever-living shit out of me. English-related subjects were pretty easy for me in high school--I was a big reader on my own time, I did well on essays, etc. How do I "teach" this to someone when it's somewhat intuitive to me now?

My first session is coming up soon. The student I'm assigned to will be bringing in his history/literature materials (I guess he's studying literature in historical context in class) and I'm freaking out about how not to screw him over.

Any former/current humanities tutors out there have any advice? Thanks!
posted by themaskedwonder to Education (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Ok. Contact the student, and make sure them bring the class's syllabus, and/or any handouts they got on the first day of class. Try and figure out what the teacher wants these kids to get out of the class.

The next step is to get the kid to care. There's no one-size-fits-all trick to this. Sometimes it just means sitting and watching the kid to make sure they read the material. Sometimes it means having a discussion about what they read, and why it's important.
posted by Jon_Evil at 2:30 PM on December 14, 2011

It's AP, so the kid's likely not dumb, but if it's one-on-one time and the material's short enough to be read and discussed in that period of time, just read everything together, line by line or paragraph by paragraph and explain/discuss/answer his questions as you go. After a while, he'll pick up on what you're doing and be able to do it himself with some success.

(This is how I taught English IV to a whole classroom of students in 1.5 hour blocks.)
posted by resurrexit at 2:39 PM on December 14, 2011

Ask the student what they think their strengths and weaknesses are. Ask for some writing samples, to verify that their strengths are really their strengths, and their weaknesses are really their weaknesses. Always focus on correcting errors as a learning opportunity, not as an eyeroll "gosh that's so obvious" situation.

Also, it might help for you to undergo a refresher on the rules of grammar, punctuation, and essay-writing. What's intuitive isn't always correct, and just because you did well, doesn't mean you did everything correctly. Once you're being paid to pass on your knowledge, it's vital that you pass on correct knowledge, not just what you believe to be correct. As a BA in English and former writing tutor, I know that it's difficult to accept that you might not know everything there is to know about writing or literature, but have the humility to do your own homework to make sure you don't pass on any bad habits or misinformation.

Just to clarify, I am not at all implying that you might think you know everything--it's just a preemptive suggestion.
posted by litnerd at 2:44 PM on December 14, 2011

Well, the point is to make it 'non-intuitive' for yourself first and foremost; if you can't understand something step-by-step, you can't explain it step-by-step. One of the experiences I've had as an English tutor (in college) is that sometimes you get a student who intuitively gets you, and you can fudge your understanding and make broad strokes and he'll know what you mean, but this isn't something you can count on. Some people don't intuitive get anything to do with literature, and those are the people more likely to seek tutoring in the first place.

On the bright side, you probably won't screw him over if 9+ years of schooling in the American system hasn't done it already. So, in many ways, you can do this by following his/her lead, asking him questions on his reading, and allowing the student to tell you what their concerns and questions are. The more you can get the student to use you for whatever they need, the less 'teaching' you have to do, the more effective the session will be. In fact, take the idea of 'teaching' the material entirely out of your mind; that's not what effective tutoring in literature/writing looks like.

Note, simply not 'being dumb' doesn't make someone grasp abstract verbal concepts; there are lots of types of intelligence, lots of ways people learn. Your task is more to facilitate the learning he's in the process of, and help him (or her) take the next step in the context of where they are. Ask lots of questions like 'so why do you think that is', and 'how do you work with this?' and 'what do you usually do?' and 'what do you think so far?' and make the student articulate their learning. If you can do that and then prod them to make connections they weren't otherwise making ('oh, so that's how it works!'), that's all you need to do for the student to be satisfied with their progress in a session.

Something I want to emphasize is the role of practice-- tutoring comes naturally to some and not-so-much to others, but practice helps in both cases; don't expect to be brilliant immediately. You'll find your own way of doing it with time, as long as you learn from each session; I highly recommend you keep a tutoring reflection log after each student and discuss/reflect on your experiences with other tutors in the center if possible. Allow the student to go at their own pace, and do your best to not have the session depend on your input so much as their thinking-things-out process, and it'll be fine.

If/when you have time, read up on basic style and analysis textbooks, such as Joseph Williams' Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (which has exercises), Weston's A Rulebook for Arguments, and other general thinking/approach-based books. The central thing (that I've found) that you can bring that helps is clarity: both in your own thinking and in the students'. Intuition is just short-cuts, which you would need to untangle and deconstruct in your own understanding first and foremost. All the things you think you know about language have reasons (not necessarily right ones); if you look at every session as a journey where both you and the student are on a journey to find those unspoken, subtextual reasons, you're on the right track.
posted by reenka at 2:50 PM on December 14, 2011

Teach the skill of close reading.

Remember how you took incredibly detailed margin notes in your novels in college English? That's what you should teach them to do. I can give you some curriculum if you want to see how I structure it in my class (I teach HS English).

For the history part, I'd focus on whatever standards are applicable and helping them make better use of their textbooks and materials from class. Help them see connections and cause/effect.

Really, this is a problem that a bunch of highlighters, copious marginalia, and a lot of discussion will take care of. I don't think anyone will expect you to create a whole new class to teach - your role is more to maximise the potential benefits/gains from their HS courses. Good luck!
posted by guster4lovers at 2:54 PM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Teach the skill of close reading.

posted by resurrexit at 2:57 PM on December 14, 2011

Nthing the suggestion that you teach reading comprehension strategies and organized notetaking.

Also, set a discernible goal each session. I use the following script when tutoring: "Hi! So good to see you. What's on your plate today? Okay, sounds good, which of those things is likely going to be most important/frustrate you the most without assistance? Okay, let's try to tackle that one thing in the next X minutes and at the end of the session we'll leave about 15 minutes to go over your homework."

Hold them accountable. You do not do their work for them. They must come with notes each and every session. They are expected to leave with work partially completed under your guidance and they alone are responsible for finishing the rest. Help them get to the root of the class's syllabus so they know exactly what their teacher expects of them, and then just teach them the organizational skills that will get them there.

Also... For what it's worth... You're also not supposed to reteach anything. I made the mistake of trying to do that in college when I tutored anthropology. The girl I was tutoring was, bless her heart, really just not a good student, and she needed to actually pay attention in class and she wasn't. She came to me to reteach everything to her and I did and it was not my job to do so. She never quite caught up. -shrug-
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 3:45 PM on December 14, 2011

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