Feature Blog by Program Director, Anna Ojascastro Guzon
We have somewhat of a tutor drought right now. However, we have already bandaged skinned knees, dusted despondency off of our shoulders, and moved on. After speaking to more experienced people in similar fields, like Sandy Taubenheim, a co-founder of Kaleidoscope Network, Maria Ojascastro, a long-time St. Louis teaching artist from COCA (and my lovely sister), and OJ Guzon, my husband, who just started his own business three years ago, I remembered that anyone can have a slow start. Also, people can’t or don’t show up sometimes. Even when people are getting paid, they don’t always show up. And even when people pay money, for example, for a class, people can’t always show up.
For our last session we had three tutors for 6 students. But every student there worked for close to an hour and a half without a break. As in the past, students were still writing even after the session ended. Teens reading, writing, discussing problems as they arise. And this is after a full day of school. One tutor, a former cartographer, was quite comfortable assisting two students at a time with their high school level math. Another tutor listened to her student talk about a short story that he is in the process of writing. And I acted as a substitute tutor for the remaining students, who decided they didn’t want any help with homework and they didn’t feel like writing today. I found that the best way to entice students into working was first, to tell them that it is perfectly acceptable if they don’t want work, and they don’t have to.
The writing assignment this week was based on a descriptive writing exercise I found in 826 National’s DON’T FORGET to WRITE, in which student’s are given a multi-course tasting menu consisting entirely of salt, and asked to write down their observations in detail. At the last minute, I decided I just couldn’t imagine these boys being pleased about tasting salts. Instead, they would act as food critics, sampling three different kinds of chocolate. But before I gave them their assignment, and the chocolate, I asked them to listen as I read a couple paragraphs from J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s “The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies,” from the website, Serious Eats.
For the past few months, I’ve had chocolate chip cookies on the brain. I wake up in the middle of the night with a fresh idea, a new test to run, only to discover that my 10 pound flour bin has been emptied for the third time. Did I really use it all up that fast? I’d put on my coat and walk out in the cold New York winter night, my sandals leaving tracks in the snow as I wander the neighborhood, an addict searching for a convenience store that will sell me flour at 3 in the morning.
You see, I’ve never been able to get a chocolate chip cookie exactly the way I like. I’m talking chocolate cookies that are barely crisp around the edges with a buttery, toffee-like crunch that transitions into a chewy, moist center that bends like caramel, rich with butter and big pockets of melted chocolate. Cookies with crackly, craggy tops and the complex aroma of butterscotch. And of course, that elusive perfect balance between sweet and salty.
After reading the passage aloud, I heard a few muffled laughs and under-the-breath comments. Acting as if I wanted to join in the laughter as well, I looked up and asked, “What’s funny?” Although, one can’t help feeling a little anxious when standing in front of a group of people laughing at something unknown to oneself.
“You better have food for us after reading that,” joked one of the boys who had just told me that English was his least favorite subject in school.
I exhaled in relief. They were listening, they did find the writing effective, and I did, in fact, have food for them. It often takes me several hours to find just the right piece of writing for a specific group of students or even for an individual that I’m tutoring. Sometimes, I fail. This time, thanks to J. Kenji Lopez-Alt and three kinds of chocolate, every student participated, taking time to create thoughtful responses, in spite of their initial resistance.
As an additional lesson, I asked the students to take one full minute to eat each square of chocolate, while playing close attention to nothing but their five senses as they eat. Without using the currently overused phrase, “be mindful,” I wanted the students to…well…practice mindfulness. Coming from a generation that has beaten the word, awesome, to it’s death, I wanted to stretch the ability of these teens to describe. We briefly went over the definitions of simile, metaphor, and adjective. And I told them that the only words they weren’t allowed to use in describing the chocolate was any form of the word chocolate. Here were some results:
“It sounds like chalk being broken.”
“It smells like a bakery.”
“It feels like skin with lotion on it.”
“It looks like dirt that has been taken care of.”
“The taste is bitter and teases, making you think it’s going to get better
but it doesn’t.”
“…strong smell of woods and mom’s perfume”