Malika Lee started tutoring young children when she was a young child herself.
“I feel like I’ve always had great teachers, and I want to be that great teacher,” says Lee, a senior from Country Club Hills, IL.
“The best part of working at the Literacy Clinic is the individual time I get with the students. Normally as a teacher, I have to focus on what this student’s doing, what this [other] student’s doing, and I’m never able to focus on that one child,” she adds. “I have to realize that not every student learns in the same way. I have to individualize my instruction so that my students can learn in different ways.”
For Alexis Moaton, a senior from Tinley Park, IL, the motivation to teach came much later.
She came to NIU to major in biology, but a freshman-year sociology course changed her direction.
Her professor spoke passionately about the school-to-prison pipeline that plagues many low-income communities, Moaton says. “If a child cannot read in the third grade, the chances of them going to jail later in life are very high,” she says.
That stark reality inspired Moaton to switch her major to elementary education, “just wanting to make a change there, to get children more involved in reading and writing and finding an interest in school.”
One-on-one tutoring work at the Literacy Clinic has provided her a glimpse of such possibilities.
“A lot of times, you’ll see that a child misspells words, and you automatically assume that they’re just a bad speller,” Moaton says.
“But it’s like, ‘What exactly are you misspelling?’ Or, ‘What are you struggling with reading?’ Many times, when you break it down and analyze it in small portions instead of as a whole, you’re able to work on those specific skills that the child needs to develop to become a stronger reader and writer.”
Lee and Moaton are only two of several NIU students – inside the College of Education and out – who are acquiring unparalleled hands-on experience and teaching while earning money through work-study at the clinic.
Director Susan Massey knows that her tutors are not only gaining a leg up in the job market but also getting an amazing head start on becoming exemplary educators.
“Several of the tutors – our newest tutors – have actually started working here before they’ve had some of their methods courses,” Massey says. “So, when they get into their courses, I sometimes hear them say, ‘Oh, I learned about that at the clinic.’ They’re familiar with the assessment or the instructional strategy before they learn about it in the classroom.”
Beyond learning and practicing under the guidance of professional educators, the tutors also are simultaneously and organically preparing for their critical role as classroom-to-home liaisons.
“I do see them grow in their ability to work with students and also to talk with parents,” Massey says. “We do ask them to have a conversation with parents at the end of each session to discuss what happened during the tutoring session, what they might be able to work on at home.”
Located in the heart of the DeKalb-Sycamore retail and medical district, the Jerry L. Johns Literacy Clinic has offered reading support services for K-12 students for more than 60 years.
Clinic programs include America Reads, which provides free, one-on-one tutoring for K-5 students who struggle with reading.
Massey hopes to expand clinic-based, learning opportunities for Huskies by inviting the NIU Educators Club to volunteer and by making a practicum experience part of the Reading Teacher Endorsement program.
Kristine Wilke, a doctoral student in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction who serves as a graduate assistant at the clinic, welcomes any and all chances to engage with the children and the NIU students alike.
“Working here at the Jerry L. Johns Literacy Clinic makes me feel good about myself when I leave every night because I know that I have made a difference in the lives of the tutors and in the lives of the students,” says Wilke, a former elementary school teacher in Sandwich, IL.
“There are times when tutors may have questions and, not having the previous experience in a classroom, I can help them,” she adds. “I can help them work through problems, which also helps them with the students, and the student works through the problem, and, again, they’re both achieving that goal of moving forward and learning.”
First-hand clinic experiences exceed anything found in a book or classroom lecture, she says.
“Every child is not a textbook case. Each child is unique and an individual,” Wilke says.
NIU tutors “get to try different strategies. They also get to use different assessments and take the strategies from the data they collect to empower the students and embrace the skills that they do have so that they can actually become better and more proficient readers.”
“We pinpoint exactly where students need help, and that allows us to work on certain skills. We work a lot on reading, spelling and writing because they all need to develop together,” she says.
“A lot of times, when children are learning to read, they don’t necessarily develop the writing skills as well,” she adds. “We’ll pick up a book, and then after we read the book, there is a lot of comprehension that goes into it – like, ‘Were you able to understand what was in the story?’ and also developing those writing skills as well. Along with writing comes spelling.”
Lee appreciates the clinic’s tactic to match tutoring with the interests of the children, such as sports, to make the time “fun and very educational.”
It’s fun – in the “rewarding” sense – for Lee as well, as she watches the progress of her flock.
“If one week they weren’t able to read a word, but the next week they come and they could read a word, I’m like, ‘Wow! You did it! You finally did it! Good job!’ That’s just like a pat on the back to me and to them. I just get so happy,” she says.
“A lot of kids get confused with the ‘d’ and the ‘b’ because they’re kind of similar,” she adds. “One day, a student finally was able to recognize that the ‘d’ was a ‘d’ and not a ‘b,’ and I was able to tell the parent that.”
Some tutors aren’t on the path to teaching, however.
Zach Trueblood, an English major who graduated from NIU in December, brought his expertise in writing and literature to the tutor’s table. He plans to become a writer, although he admits that his time at the clinic has him “possibly revisiting the option of getting into education.”
“Before I worked here, I hardly knew how to set up a lesson plan or how to assess a child and see exactly what literacy needs that they had. I don’t really see it as a deterrent at all. I see it as more of an opportunity to learn,” says Trueblood, from Monticello, IL.
Tutoring also allowed Trueblood to improve his patience – “Working with children, you definitely need to have a patient type of personality,” he says – while helping him to put down roots in a community far from his central Illinois hometown as he spoke with parents.
But it’s the children he’ll remember the most.
“If a child is struggling with literacy skills and reading issues and writing issues, it’s really kind of crucial for them to get some more reinforcement that maybe the parents can’t offer at home or that they’re not getting at school,” he says.
“Having a strong, positive reinforcement in these children’s lives, I think, is probably the most rewarding thing and probably the biggest takeaway I’m going to have from coming to college here at NIU. It just makes me happy to come here and see the smile on a kid’s face when they finally get a word or a concept that they’ve been struggling with for so long.”
Like Lee, he appreciates the lighter side of the clinic’s approach.
“Every session, we try to incorporate a little fun activity at the very end that’s educational at the same time,” Trueblood says. “We do some crazy, fun stuff, like reader’s theater, which is essentially reading out of a book. Everybody does funny voices. We do like a little play. The kids make it.”
Massey believes the “wonderful” and “caring” tutors succeed because they are chosen well.
“The undergraduates we have here are really interested and really like the children. One of the questions we ask them in the interview is, ‘What are your experiences with children? Why do you like children?’ We want people that are excited and exuberant,” she says.
“They really love the children and want to help them. The children look up to them as role models, and I think it’s always good for them to have a role model that is not a parent or a teacher but someone that’s a college student,” she adds.
She enjoys watching the interactions of tutors, children and parents, especially the high-spirited energy that bookends each session.
“They go running back to their tutoring and then come out talking about what they read or what they did,” she says. “You hear the laughter as they are playing with one another and engaging in some sort of game that involves comprehension or words.”
Her tutors are happy as well. Just ask Lee.
“It doesn’t really feel like a job. It doesn’t feel like I’m coming to work because it’s something I like to do,” Lee says. “This experience is very beneficial to me because of the relationships that I gain with the students and even the workers. Everybody here is great. We teach each other, we teach the students and we help each other grow.”