I’d sit down next to a parent, or a sibling, or a grandparent, or a teacher, and watch them read, absorbing the mannerisms that seemed to define that very act. When I was a toddler, I would scan lines of text and flip pages with a complete lack of comprehension, simply hoping to emulate the readers in my life. After looking on for some years, I began to try out letters, words, phrases — to test the literary waters. My vocabulary and confidence slowly grew as I moved from The Cat in the Hat to Diary of a Wimpy Kid to Harry Potter. Just as I had watched the readers around me when I was younger, my teachers now watched and guided me, correcting me when I misread or misunderstood. By second or third grade, I had become the reader I am today, voracious yet indecisive, often juggling more books than convenient.
I came to realize, at some point in elementary or middle school, that many don’t have the same experience of learning to read as I did, for reasons socioeconomic, familial, or even geographic in nature. The unfortunate absence of reading in some of my peers’ early lives seemed an even more disappointing reflection of more general problems within our education system. On a more personal level, I tried to imagine my life without the role models that sprung from the books of my youth: Will of the Ranger’s Apprentice series, Hermione, Percy Jackson, and so on. I couldn’t. Education, which should be the great equalizer, seemed to have fallen short for some students. I decided action was necessary, but the proper avenue for that action was unclear.
When I stumbled upon Reading Partners right before my freshman year of high school, I knew I had found the best option for me. Reading Partners, a national literacy organization, operates mostly in underfunded elementary schools in cities across the United States, coordinating individualized tutoring sessions for struggling students in kindergarten through third grade. Tutors for Reading Partners are provided with abundant resources and guided through each session by an intuitive lesson plan, which allows them to focus on building positive relationships with their students while directing educational growth. I began tutoring for Reading Partners that year and have continued to do so nearly every week since.
Each individual Reading Partners tutoring session mirrors, at least in a general sense, the experience I had while learning to read. To begin, the student and tutor pick out a book for the tutor to read. Known as the “read aloud” portion, this part of the lesson gives both the tutor an opportunity to demonstrate what a proficient reader looks like and the student a chance to share that experience of reading, and with a book of their choice at that. In these minutes, I am miraculously now the model for another budding reader, completing an educational cycle. Not only is the reciprocal demonstration of reading, in my mind, the logical extension of everyone’s early years of sitting by others, but teaching another student also offers me the chance to understand both just how similar my student and I are and the role others have played in my education. Where older people in my life gently guided my reading and oration, I now can do the same for another student. It is important to remember that the latter half of that sequence is directly predicated on the first. My reading ability — just as is true for nearly all other abilities of mine — is the product of my interactions with many formal and informal instructors.
The next part of the tutoring session focuses on the direct instruction and then implementation of reading fundamentals or strategies. After reading to my student for 10 minutes, I might work through vowel pairs or sentence structure or inference patterns, providing methods for them to be more comfortable in moving through a more advanced text than ones with which they are already familiar.
The hour ends with the student reading a book that corresponds to their reading level. For some students, this part of the session is the best, a moment for them to show their confidence and advance their learning; for others, it can be terrifying, a moment during which they must face an activity with which they have struggled in the past. Through it all, every student in Reading Partners continues to grow. Particularly with students I have worked with over months or even the entire school year, witnessing this reading process is an experience incomparable with any other.
In my three years with Reading Partners, I have not guaranteed the educational success of all of its students, revolutionized the act of teaching, or even ensured the reading success of any individual student. But I have been able to offer an improved reading ability to a few, which is gradual change but change nonetheless. I have come to understand the measured instruction and patience that must accompany teaching. I have learned about the intricacies of the mind of the beginning reader. Most importantly, I have seen the blossoming of countless young students, students who will undoubtedly continue to learn, become more confident readers, and ultimately sit down with someone else and show them the great wonder of reading.
Michael Deschenes is 17 years old and lives in Pasadena, California. He enjoys writing, especially for his school’s newspaper, The Paw Print, for which he is the opinion editor. He also loves reading, camping, and playing badminton and basketball.
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