BIG HORN — High school students rely on their peers for a lot of things — what movies to watch, what people to talk to, what clothes to wear.
At Big Horn High School this year, students can add at least one other item to that list: tutoring.
Peer tutoring is one of a few new programs this year at BHHS. The high school faculty and staff met at the end of last school year to discuss possible ways to improve student relationships across grade levels. The teachers ultimately decided to implement a freshmen transition academy, Ram families and peer tutoring.
The freshman academy helps students adjust to life as high school students.
Ram families are groups of around 10 students and one teacher who meet every couple of weeks for lunch or a fun activity. The school has one large Ram family activity each quarter. Last month, the groups performed community service projects in an afternoon. A winter Olympics competition and spring chili cook-off are being planned, as well.
Peer tutoring began a few weeks into the year. English teacher Patrick O’Harra volunteered to oversee the program, which is offered during the school’s third-hour flex period. There are about 20 student tutors, mainly upperclassmen, but also a few sophomores. Tutoring occurs in an old computer lab, which now has eight tables spread across the room.
Teachers identified potential tutors, but some also volunteered. Faculty members didn’t necessarily pick the brightest students, but rather tried to choose students who want to help others.
“You can know something, but being able to teach it and communicate it is something totally different,” O’Harra said. “Oftentimes those things overlap, but there are also students who are really good in the lab that maybe teachers hadn’t recommended.”
In graduate school at the University of Iowa, O’Harra oversaw a writing lab for business students. He enjoyed the experience and liked the idea of bringing something similar to BHHS.
Tutors pick when and how often they work. Some tutor nearly every day, while others come once per week. Before the program began, tutors picked the subjects they preferred to teach. At least seven tutors are available each day, with at least one in each subject area.
So far, O’Harra said around 30 students have received tutoring, most more than once. Math and science are the most common tutoring subjects, in addition to English and Spanish.
Teachers recommended BHHS senior Jill Mayer as a potential tutor. Mayer had plenty of prior experience helping friends with homework, so she accepted.
Mayer tutors on Tuesday and Thursday each week and helps students with math (usually algebra), chemistry, physics and English. She enjoys helping younger students, but it can take some time to get used to each student’s personality and learning style.
Mayer said the first few months have gone about how she expected, apart from the amount of students who receive tutoring.
“There are more kids in here than I thought there would be,” she said.
Most tutees either receive a lab pass or are sent by a teacher to work in the lab, but others drop in to get help with a certain topic. Sometimes all the tables are filled, other times only a few are in use. The lab has a low-key atmosphere, with most students quietly working together or sometimes on their own.
If a tutee is struggling, O’Harra advises tutors to question, not tell. That way, they can better understand what the tutee is thinking and learn why he or she is having an issue.
“It’s not a matter of giving answers, because that doesn’t help anyone,” O’Harra said. “Rather, just ask them why they’re doing it a certain way and question and question and question. Then say, ‘Here’s something that works for me,’ or ‘Here’s something you need to try.’ Otherwise, it’s just not effective.”
There wasn’t much of an adjustment period for assigning student tutors, partly because of limited tutor options, but also because students simply seem to get along.
“When I ask the kids how it went, nobody’s ever said, ‘Eh, I didn’t really like working with that person,’” O’Harra said. “People seem genuinely appreciative on both sides.”
Most students respond positively to tutoring, but the lab isn’t yet operating at full capacity.
“The biggest thing right now is trying to get teachers to use the lab or to feel comfortable sending a kid,” O’Harra said. “I’d ideally like to see everybody working every day, and we’re not to that point. Part of that is a demand thing, but I think we can use it more as it goes on.”
Teachers don’t have hard data on the program’s effectiveness, but O’Harra said early returns are encouraging.
“What I find interesting —because I’m in there every day— is just hearing the conversations,” he said. “It’s just really productive. You can tell when you’ve got a tutor and a tutee together that there really is something going on there.”