Tutoring Your Child

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For the past two decades, home education activists like John Holt and Christopher Klicka, as well as public education reformists like John Taylor Gatto, have criticized the inadequacies of public education.  Home schooling is the answer for many families, including my own.  However, for many families, home schooling is not an option.  What about single parents and dual-income families who simply cannot survive on one income?  You don’t need a college education or teaching experience to tutor your child at home or to supplement their education.  You can also do it quite inexpensively or completely free of any costs.  All it takes is dedication and a library card.

The first hurdle is deciding what to cover.  If your child is struggling with a subject at school, then that’s an excellent place to start.  If not, then find out what subjects your child is interested in.  One of the strengths of learning at home is that the entire field is open—you can teach and learn just about anything from books and the internet.  Libraries have a consistent and ever-new supply of both.  They are free (if you return the materials on time) and many cities have several branches or even different libraries, as well as numerous computers for patrons to use while at the library.

One caution here is that teachers teach from books too.  Unfortunately, not all books are accurate and many textbooks have inaccurate information within them.  This is also true of libraries.  Many library collections include old and outdated books.  As a rule, the most recently published books are usually the most accurate and up-to-date, including internet sources and recent discoveries in science and history.  To find the publisher date, look inside the front cover, or on one of the first few pages for the copyright page.  On this page, you will find the ISBN number, the name and city of the publisher, and the publishing date, usually preceded by a copyright symbol, Ó.  On videos, the date is on the actual video label, while on DVDs, the date is on the box label (usually).  Since DVDs have not been around for long, any DVD is probably new, but I have DVDs made from twenty year-old movies, so that isn’t necessarily true.

So where do you go at the library?  The best place to start is with the librarian.  To get a library card, you usually will need a public utility bill, either garbage, electric, or gas, that shows your current address and name on it.  It usually takes about 15 minutes and then you are free to check out books, videos, and often other materials.  The librarian who issues you a library card is often different than the reference librarian, the person who can help you find materials on various subjects.  Most library materials are organized numerically according to the Dewey Decimal System of coding.  You don’t need to know this system as most librarians know it by heart (that’s part of their training).  Librarians are helpful because they know what materials their specific library has, as well as other libraries in the immediate area.  They can tell you, and often show you, where to find the materials you need.  The juvenile section, otherwise known as the kids area, is a great place to start, but also consider checking out adult nonfiction materials if they are appropriate.  We find that the adult nonfiction materials often have better pictures than the juvenile materials, while the juvenile materials have better descriptions.  Make sure you know how many books, videos, and magazines you are allowed to check out at one time and how long you have to keep them.  Books are usually four weeks, magazines two weeks, and videos one week.  Know the fines for keeping materials too long (past the overdue date) as well.  Many libraries no longer charge late fines, but many will charge 25 cents per day per book.  If this is a burden for your family or you find it difficult to get to the library often enough, then consider finding another branch or library with no fines (they do exist).  Many librarians will waive fines if you’re only late once in a while and not habitually late returning materials.

So how do you use the materials you find?  I am an avid fan of graphic organizers.  Graphic organizers are ways to organize what you read, what you think–any ideas that pop into your head.  They help children to visualize what they’re trying to say or what they just read.  It also keeps what they’ve learned accessible to another person, perfect for tutoring.  Then you can see visually what facts they’ve already learned (what’s there) and what they’re missing (the gaps).  Here is an example of a graphic organizer.

Shark MindMap (graphic organizer)
Shark MindMap (graphic organizer)


This is a graphic organizer on sharks.  As the child reads a book on sharks, she organizes all of the information she learns.  For example, she learned that sharks are classified as “fish” within 9 orders, 33 families, and 330 species of sharks, as well as other useful information.  As she reads another book, she adds bubbles to the list to expand the information she’s covered.  This is both an excellent way to jot down what material you’ve read, as well as a way to see what you haven’t read.  If your child’s assignment is to include information on where a particular species is located in the world, then your child would have to keep reading as it’s clear from the graphic organizer that he/she hasn’t read that yet.  As a parent, you can start a graphic organizer for your child, leaving blank the material that the assignment is supposed to cover and have them fill in the information as they find it.  Teaching them how to use an index is a very useful skill, so they can quickly find the information they need, rather than reading the entire book, especially if it’s not a subject your child is particularly interested in.  For example, if your child’s assignment is to learn about the history of Florida from 1800 to 1860, this graphic organizer would be a good start.

Florida History MindMap (an example)
Florida History MindMap (an example)


Now that you’ve got the books, the videos, and a graphic organizer started, how do you get your kid motivated to learn?  This question is best answered by your own child.  Every child is different.  Videos have a unique way of bringing subjects to life.  We have a large collection of dinosaur and animals videos and DVDs that we’ve collected over the years, including most recently the Blue Planet series.  Videos excite the mind and encourage children to seek further information from books.  History is especially better received when viewed as a video.  National Geographic has a great selection of history videos in which real actors re-create real events in history in a way that brings those events to life for students of all ages.  If your library does not carry a specific video that you want to view, then request they purchase a copy—ask your reference librarian how.  You can also ask about requesting materials from other libraries.  Standard Deviants is a group of videos that cover various topics in math, science, and other subjects you wouldn’t expect to find in a video.  Some kids love them while some kids hate them.  Think about it—what medium allows your child to see how a lion tracks and hunts a gazelle, or how sperm whales dive into the dark depths of the ocean to hunt giant squid?

Another powerful way to motivate your child is to put the subject into a context that interests them.  For example, let’s say your child needs to learn about apples.  Here is where an internet search and a librarian come in handy.  Librarians can show you and your child how to conduct simple queries on a computer.  At websites like http://duckduckgo.com and http://www.lycos.com, you can enter the word “apple” and get all kinds of images and links to articles on apples, from how to make applesauce to why apples were forbidden in some cultures as a result of the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden.  Or perhaps your child would be more interested in how many days it takes oxidation to completely reduce an apple to a shriveled up brown ball the size of a ping pong ball.  There are so many different ideas on apples that the internet can help your child discover what may interest him/her.  Most library computers these days are very safe for kids to use, with settings that disable search engines from displaying child-inappropriate websites “accidentally”.

Quite often, your child will be interested in a subject that your library has no books on.  For example, your child wants to learn about zebra sharks and the library has fifty books on sharks, but only two have one lonely paragraph on zebra sharks.  You check the internet and find several websites with information, but too numerous to check all in the small amount of time left before the library closes.  Encyclopedias can be your best friend here.  Almost all libraries have several sets of outdated encyclopedias that they will allow you to check out and take home.  Looking up zebra sharks (most likely under Z) would be much more likely to produce several paragraphs of information.  The same goes for an animal dictionary or animal encyclopedia, which many libraries have.  If the book you find your information in is a non-circulating book (they won’t let you check it out and take it home), most libraries will allow you to make free photocopies of the pages you need (usually up to ten pages).  Often, they will do this for you, freeing up your time to look for more books.

The most important part of tutoring your child at home begins with the time you spend helping them to order their thoughts, gather the information they need, and expand their universe to include information from around the world.  Freeing your child’s mind to do that is the most important gift you can give them.

Originally published February 2, 2014.

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