Aging can be difficult, bringing on a flood of changes that are not always easy to accept. Children grow up and move away, the house feels empty and much too big, and retirement leaves hours in the day, previously occupied by work, wide open for new adventures. Time is suddenly in abundance, yet, many seniors may find themselves wondering what to do with it.
Mary Click, national director of Oasis Intergenerational Tutoring, has the answer: Become a volunteer literacy tutor to children in grades K-3 to help them succeed at developing reading and language skills during this critical time in their lives. Teaching experience is not required. The only qualifications are enthusiasm, patience and compassion.
Tutoring gets older adults out of the house, which eliminates social isolation, and gives them an opportunity to share their lifetime of experiences with a child, Click explained. Older adults also make excellent tutors, not only because they have the time but also because they’re consistent—and children need consistency in their lives.
Oasis Intergenerational Tutoring is a program of the Oasis Institute, a nonprofit organization based in St. Louis that promotes healthy aging in older adults aged 50+ through lifelong learning, active lifestyles and community service. In honor of its 40th anniversary, the organization’s goal this summer is to recruit 40 tutors a week at its partner schools across the country for the 2022-2023 academic year.
Small commitment, big rewards
In preparation for tutoring, volunteers participate in six to eight hours of training, plus additional workshops throughout the year to keep them excited about literacy. Tutoring begins in October and continues all school year.
“Principals often tell us the atmosphere is changed when tutoring begins in their school buildings,” Click said. “Tutors add a positive element to school. There’s respect for older adults from students.”
Tutors and students meet one-on-one, once a week for 30 minutes to one hour, depending on when and how long a child can be pulled out of class. Tutoring session plans are created by the team at Oasis. All tutors have to do is grab the books and corresponding activities from the school’s “Oasis Library” and let the reading begin.
Classroom teachers refer students for tutoring because they’re either reading below grade level and not receiving special services, Click explained, or they could benefit from the individual attention of a tutor. Tutoring may even continue through the fourth and fifth grades if the student needs more time to catch up.
Tutors serve as mentors, friends and role models—relationships that develop organically from reading books together.
“It’s a natural flow when you read a book with the child,” Click said. “You talk about the story, the vocabulary words they may not know, literacy components, such as sequency or rhyming. They’re learning and they don’t know it because it’s fun to laugh and read a book with someone else.”
While tutors and students take turns reading, tutors are trained to read aloud first and use inflection in their voice to note punctuation and excitement.
“The more animated and interested you are, the child is,” Click said.
She noted that tutors need to be flexible because sometimes, a child has an off-day or an exciting thing happen to them and they want to talk about it instead of doing the lesson. She stressed it’s important for tutors to set aside their plans for that day and provide a safe space for children to open up about what is distracting them from learning.
“A child’s story is important to the tutor, and they listen,” Click said. “It means the world to the student that their tutor has come to school just to visit them.”
Tutors are also invited to serve in the classroom, go on field trips and attend assemblies when parents are unable to make it.
Pandemic’s impact on curriculum
Due to learning loss the past two years of the pandemic and rising mental health issues among youth, the program has expanded the mentoring aspect of its tutoring sessions and added social-emotional learning to the curriculum.
Social-emotional learning helps children understand their emotions, which leads to a healthy sense of self and empathy for others, Click said. It’s developed by reading books that explore emotions and asking children if they ever felt the same way as the character in the book.
Tutors help children succeed at school and life
Principals are quick to tell Click that children who have attendance issues look forward to tutoring and never miss school that day.
“Ninety-six percent of teachers respond to our survey reporting improved confidence and self-esteem in students,” Click said. “Even if students don’t understand, they will keep trying to understand—not only the literacy component but also math or science, or any other subjects that are taught in school.”
Not surprising, several tutors across the country have been recognized by school boards with volunteer awards. Over the years, Click has also seen tutors invited to former students’ graduations and weddings because they helped shape their lives.
“One tutor, one student, two lives changed forever is our motto,” Click said.
To become an Oasis tutor, call 314-995-9506 or complete an online interest form at https://tutoring.oasisnet.org/become-a-tutor/. School districts can apply to participate in the program by calling 314-862-2933, Ext. 231, or by filling out an online form.