Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Today I Went A-Tutoring

A few weeks ago, I was writing a bunch of profiles of women in the community for a special advertising section--Today's Woman--in the Times Record, the local newspaper. I wrote six profiles, but my favorite was of a woman who directs the county Juvenile Detention Center here, an ex-police officer. I didn't know what to expect, but I ended up being bowled over by how much good she and her team were doing for these kids, kids who society usually just gives up on. She realized that having these delinquents in juvie for several weeks or months was a golden opportunity to turn their punishment time into a time for growth, change and empowerment. I won't go into all of the creative ways she has managed to involve the community in becoming catalysts for their rehabilitation, but there were plenty and the state Department of Education had named the school there the best non-traditional classroom in the state. 

As soon as I got home from the interview, I went home and gathered up three bags of books to donate because she had mentioned how spare their library was and how the kids gobble down anything they have to read, since they have few other diversions outside of the classroom. Then when the director called to thank me for the article yesterday, I decided to mention that I'd be happy to volunteer there sometime. A few hours later, one of the teachers called me about tutoring some of the girls. By the end of the phone call, I had committed to coming in this morning to work on 10th- and 11th-grade math skills with two girls studying for their GED. 

Now, first of all, I've never worked with incarcerated people before, and second, it's been at least 15 years, really longer, since I did much in the way of math, which was always my weakest subject. I was a bit wary this morning, but eager to see if I could help. 

It's kind of intimidating down there. Before I did the interview and got the tour, I didn't quite realize that the kids would be in prison stripes, live in cells in a genuine jail and when going to and from court or anywhere else they may be taken, wear handcuffs and leg irons. I guess juvie's always so dismissively mentioned in those crime shows that I didn't realize just how much it really is prison. 

The kids adapt to their environment, though, and for many it's an extreme improvement over their home life, cell blocks and armed guards and all. The girls I worked with today seemed like just normal 17 girls in prison garb, concerned that they weren't grasping the math skills they needed for their GEDs and trying hard to learn. 

We worked through a few pages of their GED math workbook, mainly on fractions, which thankfully I still mostly remembered. A couple of times I kind of faltered when they'd ask me questions ("Do we need to multiply the bigger denominator or divide the smaller one to get the common denominator in this first step?"), but we managed to muddle through, and when in doubt, I let them each try a different method on their own to see which one would work. By the end, I think we all understood fraction problem-solving better. 

I was going to commit to maybe an hour every Tuesday, but one of my girls has a GED pre-test Thursday afternoon and still has trouble with a lot of sections, so I told her I'd come back tomorrow and help her with geometry. 

Now, all I remember about geometry is that I was good at it and I like the colored pencils and a couple of random Pythagorean theorem type things. So, I'm going to go buy a GED math book this afternoon and brush up on my skills to help them tomorrow. 

It feels good to be able to help someone so directly. It's gratifying. And, actually, it's great practice for me because I've been trying to study for the GRE and was astounded at how rusty my basic math skills had gotten. I think teaching a concept to someone else is one of the best ways to make sure you really understand it yourself, so I had the girls go over the lessons they had just learned by teaching it to each other. 

Towards the end, when I was about to leave, one of them said she was worried because she still had so much to learn and said she tended to forget what she had learned after she went to sleep. The other girl told her, "Don't worry. I'm here all day every day for the next seven weeks, and I'm always happy to help you if you'll help me. I'm not going anywhere. We can beat that GED together." 

I never thought I would have so much fun working out math problems in a correctional facility. Life sure is something. 


Melissa said...

As someone who has been going to correctional facilities for over 10 years, I can say they are all spookier than you would think. Also, the people inside of them are just folks. There's no BIG difference between "those criminals" and the rest of us.

Glad you had some fun out there.

Yvonne A said...


Great post! I was touched by it and very proud to be your aunt.


Laura said...

very cool. How you ended up in math, I'm still not sure, but I'm glad it went well! Fractions would have completely freaked me out. Keep us posted.

REA said...

I'm so proud of you! I've tutored in alternative
classrooms and loved working with these kinds. Mainly they are just ordinary kids who have not had many people show a loot of interest in them.