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School Talk: Peer tutoring helps students develop new skills

By: Vicki Barber, El Dorado County Superintendent of Schools
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Cooking is not a specialty for me. I enjoy food, love to eat out, and appreciate fine cuisine. But, putting it together at home is not something I go out of my way to perfect. So, what would I do if I wanted to learn to cook? Learning something new can be quite daunting. Even when there is desire, the idea of taking on a new skill when you aren’t quite sure you’re capable of learning it is quite overwhelming. In addition, there seem to be so many ways of acquiring new skills;you can take classes, go to workshops, hire a coach or read books. Now, translate your feelings about learning this new skill to a child who is struggling to learn something new like reading or multiplication. We often assume that children simply learn new skills naturally as they mature. Some do. Maybe you did as a child. Most of us, however, run into areas where we just don’t get it. Learning when to use apostrophes was a problem for me. (It was truly a challenge for me to learn the difference between’s and s’). If I were in school today, I might get help regarding the use of apostrophes from a peer tutor. A peer tutor is a child who is the same age, or just a bit older who already understands the skill with which I’m struggling and can help me learn it. Peer tutoring is often easier for the learner to accept because the tutor isn’t the “expert” or the “teacher.” He/she is just someone who has a skill the learner doesn’t yet have. In my example, it might have been a seventh-grader teaching me, as a sixth-grader, how to write a sentence like, “This is my brother’s parakeet.” In El Dorado County, a number of schools provide a peer tutoring option for students. One great example takes place at Gold Oak School. Years ago a fifth-grade class and our county run program for multiply handicapped students teamed up for peer tutoring. According to Superintendent Dick Williams, the program continues today, and has even expanded under the guidance of special education teacher Bev Baker. Not only do the fifth graders from April Hood’s and Sarah Marshall-Gillihan’s classes work daily with Bev’s students, but this year they put on their first Winter Program. With their peer assistants, Bev’s students sang songs, rang jingle-bells and held the first assembly the special needs children had ever conducted. According to Williams, this was as big as a Presidential press conference including videos, cameras and photos. The expression on the faces of the parents, from both groups, was enough to know this peer-tutoring is a huge success for everyone. Yes, I could certainly take cooking classes or read 14 books on how to make gourmet meals. Or, like the students in our peer-tutoring programs, I might talk with my friend Sally who loves to cook and ask her to give me some tips on preparing chicken. The apostrophes can wait. I’d really rather try out Sally’s new recipe. Vicki L. Barber has been with the El Dorado County Office of Education for 26 years. In 1994, she was elected as the Superintendent of Schools.