I never imagined I would be a reading tutor.
Unexpectedly, I met the most inspiring professor of my life…. John Shefelbine
Shefelbine was a tireless and devoted advocate for early systematic reading instruction. He was quick-witted and smart; he earned his Ph.D from Stanford, yet he never spoke down to anyone. When I asked him questions, his responses were thorough and precise, because he knew future teachers could solve the reading crisis.
MY READING PROFESSOR MENTOR
Shefelbine spent his career doing reading interventions. When he was a classroom teacher, he led small group reading interventions. Then he went on to lead school-wide reading interventions across the state of California. He argued for massive state-wide changes to teacher training programs, because too many K-3 teachers spend their entire careers not knowing how to do an effective reading intervention.
His passion for reading instruction captivated me on my first day of class, as I watched him pick up a chair in the classroom, orient it this way and that, to explain that the idea that letters cannot be “turned” is puzzling to young readers.
He gave us a reading passage with vocabulary words we’d never seen and he blocked out words; then we answered reading comprehension questions. Throughout his class, he performed simulations that allowed his students to imagine what a struggling reader experiences.
Most of all, I was astonished by the effectiveness of the reading programs that were his brainchild—each word in these lessons could be tailored to match the level of the student. Ultimately, his specialty was dyslexia, but he made his programs so they could be tailored to fit a child with any learning disability.
While I had John Shefelbine, I also had whole-language professors saying, “John Shefelbine shouldn’t be teaching you that. You need to let students read literature. You need to let students read naturally.” John Shefelbine was a pariah, and he nearly got himself in trouble by teaching us what he did. One dismayed administrator claimed, “I’m going to have a talk with him,” as if she was going to scold him.
MY FIRST DYSLEXIC STUDENT
I remember the first student I had under the counsel of Shefelbine. Patricia was in a serious car accident and lost her ability to read. She had acquired dyslexia. She had been going to a literacy organization for years to try to re-learn how to read. I asked if she’d be willing to help me learn Shefelbine’s programs; if she would be my first student, we’d learn together. She agreed.
Within one session, her progress was remarkable. I was precise, because I knew Shefelbine’s genius was in the precision of his programs. Since I was fresh, I was slow, often pausing for seconds to look up what I was supposed to say and do for each situation. Sometimes, I did the wrong thing. I went home baffled on how I was supposed to design the next lesson. I couldn’t believe reading instruction could be so confusing.
Shefelbine was patient with his students and he painstakingly helped us hand select words into our next lesson plans. He answered our questions with his usual brilliance and precision. Usually, I hated taking class notes. But in Shefelbine’s presence, I took copious notes, and I imagined smoke rising from my abused notebook pages.
Patricia was learning how to read. She made more progress in three months of Shefelbine’s program than she had in three years at the literacy organization. I was truly awe-struck by her progress, and I talked at length about the magic of Shefelbine’s programs to my boyfriend (now husband) until the poor guy was transformed into a reading specialist by osmosis.
MY SECOND STUDENT WITH A LANGUAGE DELAY
My second student as a reading tutor, Brandon, was a second grader that couldn’t read at all. He had a severe language delay and behavioral issues in school. The program worked with Brandon too. I remember the first time Brandon’s eyes lit up after he effortlessly read “this side up” on a popcorn bag he was going to slide in the microwave. The school quizzically asked Brandon’s mom, “How did you get Brandon to learn letter sounds?” Brandon’s mom smiled, “I hired a reading specialist.”
WHAT SHOULD I BE? A READING TUTOR?
Years later, after working with many students, but always with my foot in something else, I called Shefelbine. The conversation went something like this:
“I want to help struggling readers. What should I be? A K-2 teacher? A special education teacher?” I asked.
“No. Neither. If you really want to implement effective programs, go out on your own. “
“Is that possible? Can I even do that?”
“I remember your passion for this. If this is truly what you want to do, go for it. Find a way. Be a reading tutor.”
Friends and family were flabbergasted that, after years of school, I aspired to be a “tutor.”
I am so grateful for what I do. I get to teach children how to read. Children that are struggling in school, that believe they’re unintelligent, that are bullied for their learning differences, that have had many, many “changes” in school, each one was supposed to work, and each one failed to teach them how to read. These are the kids I get to teach.
When they read a word they couldn’t previously, a look of disbelief lights their faces and mine. I get to watch them say with wild enthusiasm, “I am learning how to read!” I get to watch their self-esteem slowly rebuild as they read harder and harder books.
How awesome is that!
And as if that all isn’t enough, I get “thank yous” from loving moms and dads. Really?
If you’re interested in getting a reading tutor for your struggling reader and live in North San Diego county, check out SanDiegoReadingTutor.com.