The Gutenberg Dictionary

November 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

Yesterday, I was tutoring Ramond. Ramond lives in a densely populated enclave of Orthodox, Hebrew-speaking Jews and Latin Americans. Never have I ever regretted taking German in High School more.

Ramond is in 9th grade and English is definitely his second language. I have a sinking feeling that the only English that is spoken in his family’s apartment is when I arrive every Monday and Wednesday night to teach English Language Arts and Algebra.

Like most of my students, I am greeted with a disinterested look upon entering. Ramond’s mother tries her best to communicate with me, but for the most part it’s nods and smiles between the two of us. Don’t get me wrong, I blame myself far more than I blame her for the language barrier. Someone not learning Spanish in America is like someone wearing a Tom Brady jersey to a Jets bar–it’s idiotic (and could get you killed).

Given that Ramond is in 9th grade I wrongfully assumed that he would be, in the least, a decent reader. In our most recent session, I had to explain the difference between “possible” and “impossible” through a horribly improvised ceiling analogy (“you can’t go higher than the ceiling, so that is impossible“). I might have confused him more.

Due to the reading trouble, doing Algebra problems has become almost…well…impossible. Even if Ramond did understand the logic behind the math problem–which I think he does–he can’t read most of the question prompts in order to implement the tools in his toolbox, so to speak. You can’t solve for “x”, if you don’t know that “x” represents the range in tire pressure between two car tires (my pictures were ineffective).

So, yesterday, I decided we would spend most of our time on reading English. My genius idea was to have Ramond read passages and look up words in the dictionary as he went along. This was an embarrassing mistake.

Me: Do you have a dictionary?

Ramond: “Yes.”

Ramond then walked to his kitchen and returned in minutes with a tattered pile of papers that could be best described as the “Gutenberg Dictionary”. The book was in rougher shape than the Magna Carta.

The word he needed to look up first was “intrigue.” We both looked through the pile of papers, but were quickly met with a disappointing reality: there was no “I” section and, thus, no listing for “intrigue”. I ended up pulling out my Blackberry and looking up the meaning for him online (I could not recite the exact definition).

When I as growing up, my family always had a specially positioned dictionary–a hard-covered tome that was always available for any $10 word Ray Bradbury (or whomever else I soaking up that week) could dream up. It was embarrassing for me to assume that every family would have such a book.  But, then, I thought, why would a family that has so much trouble with English not have a dictionary in their home?

Is it wrong to assume that each family should have such a book? Especially when there is no internet access?

I’m trying to figure out what to do next time. Ramond says he like scary stuff. I wonder if Goosebumps would be a good idea? I guess I have to determine his reading level first. How does one do that?

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