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It’s early on a Saturday morning and blustery cold: two very good reasons why Brookline third grader Vikrant Sabharwhal might prefer to be anywhere but a classroom. Yet here he is at the School of Education with teacher Catherine Cunningham in this rectangle of a room partitioned into snug study cubicles, surrounded by easels, desks and chairs, and supply shelves. The calendar proclaims February, but under his winter coat, the young sports fan wears athletic shorts and sneakers. “Pick a story that you want to read to me,” Cunningham (SED’13) says.
Vikrant chooses a book of fairy tales and turns to the chapter on Chicken Little (a book on hockey great Wayne Gretzky lies temptingly on the table, a dab of literary ice cream for him to savor later). Keeping his coat on, he reads, while rocking in his seat with hands between his legs. “The sky is falling. The sky is falling. We must tell the president!” His voice flatlines, so Cunningham mixes congratulations for his mastering the words—“That was awesome”—with some gentle coaxing to use a little more expression. “Chicken Little is kind of freaking out here, so your voice needs to sound like you’re freaking out too.” She demonstrates, and he puts more oomph in his second rendition.
Vikrant has been coming to this class since first grade—class in this case being the Donald D. Durrell Reading and Writing Clinic at SED. Founded in the 1950s by its namesake, then SED’s dean, the clinic has helped generations of Boston-area schoolchildren with reading difficulties. Throughout the academic year and during summers, a dozen to two dozen students trek to BU each weekend for two hours of reading, discussion of reading, and deconstructing the written word.
“Our data tell us that our students are making a three-quarters of a year gain after about 40 hours of instruction at the clinic,” says Jeanne Paratore, an SED professor and Durrell clinic director. A child tangled in inscrutable thickets of written words, sentences, and punctuation faces not only potential embarrassment in front of school friends and teachers, but the hurdle of Massachusetts’ mandatory periodic standardized tests.
“Kids struggle in reading for a range of reasons: some of them because of inequitable opportunities, some of them because of different kinds of motivation or interests, some of them because of different types of learning disabilities,” says Paratore. “The majority of the students who come to us are substantially behind, two years or more,” in reading comprehension.
The clinic’s tutors are working teachers (mostly SED alumni), who are joined in the summer by SED graduate students. The former are paid, and that means that during the academic year, families must fork over $1,690 per semester for tutoring. The clinic has a meager budget for scholarships. Until a few years ago, only SED students did the tutoring. Then Paratore became director and realized that by adding paid, working teachers, she could serve more kids—there’s often a waiting list—and align the clinic’s work with what the teachers said was being read by students in their regular school classes.
The benchmark National Assessment of Educational Progress suggests literacy achievement among the nation’s students has been stable or slightly better since 1971, Paratore says. But given the reality that some kids will always struggle with reading, schools need to address that, and the problem is that making extra time for reading help means cutting instruction somewhere else. Yet many schools “don’t have the money to extend their school day, and many parents don’t have the background to provide kids the help they need themselves,” she says. “So clinics like ours are always going to be necessary.”
Necessary for kids like Jocelyn Wong, a vivacious fourth grader from Newton. Several tables over from Vikrant, Melisa Rice (SED’08) quizzes her about Superfudge, the book she’s just read about an 11-year-old who’s none too happy that his mom is about to give birth to another sibling. In between swigs from her water bottle, Jocelyn consults her workbook, with sections for “Retelling Notes,” “Thinking Thoughts,” and “Tricky Words.” She struggled with the meaning of “Adidas,” she says, but knows that it modified the word “bag” in the book.
“If when you first saw it, you’re like, ‘I don’t really know what that is’—is that the end of the world?” asks Rice. “No,” says Jocelyn, adding, “I think the Mayans thought it was in December.”
During a study break, Jocelyn confesses that making an 8:30 a.m. Saturday session can be tough if she’s been up late the night before. But she also says the clinic makes learning fun in a way school can’t: “In school, you don’t get to pick what topics you want to learn about. At the clinic, we can pick what subjects to read, like sports or fantasy.”
That chance to choose what to read, plus the focused attention from one-on-one tutoring, accounts for the warp-speed literacy improvements many students experience—and that’s the payoff for the teachers who surrender their Saturdays to work. “During the week, there’s so much that you want to be able to accomplish with kids, and you can’t do it,” Rice says. “Class sizes are so huge nowadays, so it’s hard to really get to everybody.” With two hours devoted to a single student each week at Durrell, “you just feel like, oh my gosh, I did it.…It’s amazing, the growth I’ve seen in students.”
If the clinic makes better readers, it also cranks out better teachers.
“It’s translated back into my classroom,” says Cunningham, who teaches at a Roxbury elementary school. “It has really improved my instruction at my five-day-a-week job. Working one-on-one with a student is a great connection you make with a kid.”