On a warm morning in July, Olivia Williams ’23 is huddled at a table under a pavilion at the Boys & Girls Club of Mercer County. She is flanked on either side by Cameron and Derek, two rising third-graders from Trenton. But the agenda today isn’t bound to the table. One moment Williams is going through lessons in a textbook, the next she’s sitting on the concrete floor, chalk in hand, drawing a number line to help her explain math problems.
To be sure, there’s a learning curve for both Williams and her students. An art education major, Williams took a course last spring titled “Curriculum in Art Education,” which in any other year would have provided her some days to observe a classroom inside a local public school. But the COVID-19 pandemic prevented her from having that valuable experience last school year. So when she heard about the School of Education’s ambitious new summer tutoring program, aimed at helping K–5 students make up for lessons they might have missed during the pandemic, Williams jumped at the chance.
She is one of 35 TCNJ students who joined what is known as the New Jersey Summer Tutoring Corps. “I thought it was a great opportunity to get my feet wet with teaching,” Williams says.
When asked what she’s learned about teaching this summer — her first working directly with students — Williams cracks a smile. “What haven’t I learned?” she says.
The $2.4 million tutoring program took place over July and August, with 100 educators working with 2,000 students preparing to enter kindergarten through sixth grade. The program’s 23 sites — YMCAs, YWCAs, and Boys & Girls Clubs — stretched across 18 of New Jersey’s 21 counties. Funding came from a $2 million grant from the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund, a private initiative co-led by First Lady Tammy Murphy, and a $400,000 grant from the Overdeck Family Foundation.
The idea for the tutoring corps originated with Laura Overdeck, who, with her husband, John, created the family foundation 10 years ago. Overdeck is well versed in how kids learn. She is the founder and president of Bedtime Math, a nonprofit organization that provides parents of kids from 3 to 9 years old with a daily math problem.
Overdeck, well aware of TCNJ’s stellar reputation for training tomorrow’s teachers, approached President Kathryn Foster about her idea for a summer tutoring program for students who might have struggled to keep up with their studies during the pandemic. Foster then approached Suzanne McCotter, the dean of TCNJ’s School of Education, who took the idea and, with help from across the campus and around the state, molded it into reality.
“We had to choose where we were going to focus,” McCotter says of planning for the summer tutoring corps. Ultimately, they settled on mathematics instruction for two reasons. One, it’s the subject most students had trouble keeping up with during the pandemic. And second, state math scores were already concerning pre-pandemic.
In 2019, only 48% of the state’s fourth graders were at or above proficient levels in math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Those shortcomings were exacerbated during the pandemic, when students spent months at a time learning remotely, many struggling to grasp the virtual lessons. “The idea of a tutoring program really resonated with me,” McCotter says. “It is a proven strategy to reach young learners, and I also knew our students at the college could help.”
Perhaps McCotter’s most pivotal decision was hiring Katherine Bassett as the program’s director. Bassett, a former New Jersey Teacher of the Year — she won the award in 1980 while a media specialist and librarian in Ocean City — has served as CEO of an organization that trains education leaders and develops model standards for teachers.
It was Bassett’s idea to refer to the young learners in the program not as students but as scholars. “It sends a strong message that the students are valued,” Bassett says, “and that they have strong aptitudes to engage in learning and that we have expectations of them and they have responsibilities when it comes to learning.”
Bassett worked closely with the site coordinators — the liaisons between TCNJ and the 23 teaching locations — including Joan Tucker, who oversaw Williams and the other tutors at the Trenton site. Tucker, a Trenton public school teacher for 21 years, saw firsthand the value of the tutoring corps, as she watched students who had declared themselves “math dumb” begin to grasp concepts that had eluded them during the school year. “I noticed that as children interacted with the tutors,” she says, “they started to comprehend what they misunderstood.”
While the tutoring corps was designed with young students in mind, it had the secondary benefit of giving future teachers like Williams the experience of working with students in small-group or one-on-one settings — something these soon-to-be educators were deprived of during the pandemic. “We wanted them to get more experience working with actual kids in person,” McCotter says.
The tutors — students and recent graduates from colleges across New Jersey — spent the first week of July learning about the curriculum they would be teaching from TCNJ math professors. They also received general classroom instruction from Bassett. For Williams, one of the most enjoyable lessons learned was being reassured of her decision to become a teacher.
“It’s been ridiculously helpful,” Williams says of her training, “just in learning how to hold myself as a teacher, how to conduct a classroom, and affirming that teaching is something I want to do and am capable of doing.”
Perhaps most importantly, she says she’s learned to recognize that all students learn in different ways and at different paces. The key to connecting with them, she says, is to identify and highlight their strengths. “Every student is capable of learning,” she says. “You just have to meet them halfway.”
At the Boys & Girls Club, Williams normally tutored two students at a time, and she’s learned to pair students according to how well each one motivates the other, a sometimes incongruous calculus that might move her to pair an overactive student with one who is more serene. She’s learned which students do better while seated and stationary and which do better when moving from spot to spot. These are lessons Williams will carry into her career as a teacher.
McCotter hopes to extend the program into the foreseeable future. “We don’t see these problems going away,” she says. “The differences in achievement were illuminated by the pandemic, but there are always going to be kids who will benefit from one-on-one or small-group tutoring. And now we have a way to address that.”
As for Williams, she has enjoyed watching her students make connections with the curriculum over the course of the summer, gradually evolving toward their own “aha” moments. “Just being with them, seeing their eyes light up when they understand something, knowing I was able to communicate that to them, it’s been very rewarding,” she says. “But they’re also having fun with what they’re doing, and that’s made me feel fulfilled with what I’m doing.”
At one point in her tutoring session with Cameron and Derek, Cameron asks if he can use a piece of chalk to draw something on the pavilion floor. Williams gives her blessing, and a moment later an excited Cameron squeals, “Ms. Olivia, look what I drew!” Williams turns to glimpse a message that would surely affirm for any aspiring young teacher the soundness of her career choice. In green chalk, Cameron has written: “Math Rocks!”
Picture: Peter Murphy