What I love about Fish

by wltreece

About two months ago I started doing one-on-one literacy tutoring with a first-grader just progressing out of the non-reader stage.

D is a really sweet kid, but his behavioral issues prohibit him from working in a group. He’s the only student at tutoring who’s getting regular one-on-one work.

In the middle of tutoring, he’ll just going crazy – runs around the classroom, fills the sink up with soap, hits himself on the head. He has quite a reputation among the other tutors and the first grade teachers. Often, when he’s having a tantrum, he stops and asks me a series of four questions, the same every time: “Are you mad at me? Angry? Sad? Do you want to punch me in the face?”

Still, most of the time, I feel like I’ve lucked out by doing one-on-one tutoring with a very sweet kid while everyone else is overworked with groups of three or four students.

What’s frustrating is that after two months of tutoring him, I still have no idea what’s going to set him off. It might be that he has the wrong pen, or that he’ll topple the blocks we work near and get mad at his own clumsiness. Or maybe he’ll be reading his favorite book, a delightful little novella about a yak who bakes, and everything will be going smoothly– and then he’ll hit a hard word like “thank” and that will be such an obstacle that he throws the book across his desk and won’t read anything for the rest of class.

[Speaking of “thank”: once, when we were flipping through his flashcards, we set aside “Thank” and “Asked” as the words he had the most trouble reading. I asked him how he was going to remember them next time, and he paused, and wrote “This is thank” on the back of the card that said “Thank” and “This is asked” on the back of “Asked.” Unsurprisingly, this didn’t help…]

Not only am I still figuring out what makes him break down, it’s also hard to figure out what he’ll respond well to – and the tactics that work aren’t necessarily my favorites. He absolutely loves this stupid little point system where I give him a point for each word (of some difficulty) that he reads, and take away a point for each time he gives up or says “I don’t know that word.” I want to be emphasizing the intrinsic rewards of reading and learning about baking yaks – but no, he just wants points, even if they aren’t tied to any rewards. One of my roommates suggested that he might be an empirically minded kid who needs to see evidence of what he’s accomplishing, which sounds about right.

Recently, we’ve been using a stopwatch to see how fast he can read pages of a book, and nothing makes him focus like being on the clock. He’ll zip through the pages, and suddenly becomes persistent about attacking hard words. Again – philosophically, I’m not a fan of putting extra pressure on a six-year-old to compete against himself and read as fast as he can, but it gets results.

D loves the underwater world (mainly because of Spongebob; I think Barney sparked my dinosaur phase when I was 5, so I can relate), and the classroom we work in has a fish tank and a turtle tank. I often use visiting the fish and turtles as a reward for behaving. When we started writing, I began by asking him to write about fish (also a good topic for phonics, because he has trouble reading sh and ch). He wrote:


What I Love About Fish

I love fish because they are so so lovely.

Brown fish are the best.


When writing this, he was absolutely angelic, and more focused than I’d ever witnessed. Everything had to be perfectly spelled and very neatly – a side of him I hadn’t seen before. We started over three times.

Afterward he read his book to the fish, and hugged the tank.

The next week I asked him to write about turtles, and to write about what the turtles were doing. He came up with:


What I like about Turtles is they is so so sweet.

I love Turtles.

I like Fish.

I love Fish and I Love turtles.

I Love Fish and They are sweet.


I’m been trying to push him to write about what the fish/turtles are doing. The first time we tried to complete the sentence “Today, the turtles…” resulted in a tantrum, so I ended up just letting him write “I love fish” a lot. Two weeks ago, though, we had a breakthrough, and he wrote:


The Turtles are look out the window

The Turtles are swiming


We’re getting there!

It’s also nice to see writing emerge as a way for him to express himself. The other day, when he was being especially uncooperative, I said we couldn’t go visit the turtles. This made him even more mad, and he retaliated not by running away from his desk, but by writing “I don’t like Mr. Will” all over his paper. I couldn’t have been more proud.

D doesn’t react well to being challenged with material more difficult than he’s already read/written, so it often feels like we’re running in circles, reading the same level of books about seed planting and cute mouse habits over and over. So I was pleasantly surprised to find this week that D had progressed three levels in reading! He was assessed again for the first time in several months, and he jumped from non-reader to green, skipping the yellow and double yellow levels. I’ve yet to hear a satisfactory explanation about what this means, but they tell me it’s very good.

I’ve noticed that it’s harder to write in here now that tutoring is such a regular part of my day. It’s much easier to blog about new experiences than one’s daily routine.

A few weeks ago I delivered copies of the Notebook in Germantown and Kensington. I visited all the schools and community centers – it’s a great way to see a city.


One Comment to “What I love about Fish”

  1. Fun post, Will. The stopwatch technique made me think of this:

    If you (or perhaps another teacher down the line when he is more mature) can teach the kid to take control of his own stopwatching, he will have immense self-control power in his hands!

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