Category: Ask A Tutor

Oct 24

Ask a Tutor Tuesday – 10/24/2017

Question: “My student doesn’t want to do anything but homework. I try to bring in other things like books or worksheets but he doesn’t put in any effort even though he is behind in his reading skills. He is in fifth grade.”

Thanks for this question; I think it’s a relatively common behavior for students to resist what they see as ‘extra’ work when they have homework to do instead, especially as they get older. I would suggest making the connection for your student about why this work is important for him to do. Since he is in fifth grade, he is getting to be mature enough to recognize where he might need improvement with certain skills.

Engage him in a conversation about what he wants to work on and be sure to give him choices, so he feels he has some say in the matter. This will, in turn, give him a sense of ownership and might strengthen his dedication. You might start a conversation with: “I know you have homework, and we will prioritize that during our sessions, but I am also here to help you strengthen skills and become a more fluent reader. What things could work on together in addition to homework that would help you in school?” Then, let him answer and see if you can agree on a schedule; maybe 30-40 minutes on homework and 20 minutes on skill-building activities. Over time, you can adjust as needed.

Last, make sure the extra materials you bring in are interesting to him. Some students are reluctant to do worksheets but eager to read a book about a subject they enjoy. Try to incorporate student interests whenever possible. Perhaps using a digital learning tool like Khan Academy might be beneficial. Also, it is possible that some of the materials you have presented are too advanced given his skill level. He may be resisting to avoid embarrassment over acknowledging what he doesn’t know. You could do an assessment with him to determine appropriate grade level materials. Also helpful: admitting when you don’t know something and modelling how to find out the answer. If you can show your student how to tackle the unknown as a fun learning challenge, rather than as something to dread, it will help develop his grit and determination, two important qualities for success in school.

Good luck!

Amanda Carr joined School on Wheels in early 2015. As engagement specialist at School on Wheels, she is dedicated to providing volunteers with resources to help them succeed.

Have a question for our Ask a Tutor feature?

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Sep 12

Ask A Tutor Tuesday – 9/12/17

“My student is staying back a grade and the rest of his friends are moving on to high school. He doesn’t want to do his work and thinks it’s pointless because he is going to fail anyway. How can I get him motivated to work during sessions?”

As a teenager myself, I can empathize with this student.  Having to repeat a grade and being separated from your friends can be a blow to one’s confidence and cause levels of self esteem to drop. However, this doesn’t mean that a student should stop striving to make the most of his/her educational experience. Choose an appropriate time to sit down with your student and talk to him about his future. Remind him that his decisions can affect the course of his education. Choosing not take school seriously may cause him to be unqualified for future classes he will be interested in taking and even potential job opportunities.  

If your student is still discouraged because he will be separated from his friends, remind him that he can still hang out with them during lunchtime or outside of school. He will also make new friends in his classes, and this experience may open the doors to friendships that wouldn’t have been made otherwise.  

About the tutor: Zarina Yunis is in 9th grade and has been tutoring with School on Wheels since February 2016.

Have a question for our Ask a Tutor feature?
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Aug 8

Ask A Tutor Tuesday – 8/8/2017


“I’m working with a 6th grader and am having a hard time tutoring math. It’s so different from the way it was taught when I was in school. Sometimes I feel like I’m giving him the wrong information, and a couple of times I’ve definitely been wrong–and found it a little embarrassing. Any advice would be appreciated.”

My experience has been math is almost always the subject kids have problems with. I have a strong background in math, so usually my problem is how the subject is being taught in school.  I use a couple of sources. I first go to Khan Academy to see how they present the problem. I also have a number of books from third to sixth grade math on what the students should know and how Common Core is teaching it. Also, looking at the student’s book and homework assignment oftentimes has examples. Once I learn what particular section of math the student is working on, I will spend time prior to the meeting preparing so I don’t waste time when I am there. I always carry a small whiteboard and erasable markers to both show the student examples and let them work so I can see it. Additionally, seldom do students know the fundamentals very well (times tables, fractions, percentages), so I spend some part of the lesson reviewing them, usually with apps on a tablet.

Sixth grade might be algebra or geometry, and one of the first things I do is try to relate the subject to the real world. For example, algebraic equations are expressions of how nature works. The next time you go to a drinking fountain and press the handle, you will see that the water rises and then falls. The shape is a parabola and its equation is Y = X (squared). This can be too sophisticated mathematically, but it starts to help students understand the abstract nature of math.   

It is difficult to attempt to tutor a subject that you don’t know really well; however, today there are many online free courses that you can look at. Hope that helps.

Khan Academy Sign Up

About the Tutor: Richard Bennett graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and has a JD from Whittier Law School. In his professional career, he was a software engineer, sales and marketing executive, and business owner of a software and consulting firm. He has been a volunteer for SOW for nine years, and for the last five years he has tutored students at Family Promise of the Verdugos. He is also currently a member of the Board of Directors for the Glendale YWCA.

Have a question for our Ask a Tutor feature?
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Jul 5

Ask A Tutor Tuesday – 7/5/2017

Question: I tutor at a group home and the students never have homework. When I bring academic things to do they don’t want to participate. I feel like I’m not making any impact. They all definitely need help with basic skills.

That can definitely be a challenge! First of all, I would suggest increasing student ‘buy-in’ if possible. Many group home students are disenchanted with the educational system that they feel has left them behind and not addressed their needs. Even so, we understand as tutors that it is important to graduate from high school with the basic skills needed to get and hold down a job in order for these students to break the cycle of poverty and homelessness. Start by talking to the students about their interests and goals. You might use some of the BUS lesson plans here to introduce post high-school options. We also have been adding academic resources, including a page of supplemental resources that has more creative lessons and games to entice even the most reluctant student.

Once students are able to connect their dreams and plans to education, they are more likely to accept help. If the student is in danger of not graduating or dropping out, do what you can to encourage them. Mentorship is often more important with high school students than homework help. Talk to your student(s) about your job, your experience at college, your hobbies and interests. See what you can find in common. Building this trust and relationship first may help students to more readily accept academic support. Remember to be as genuine and honest as you can be during your interactions; students can detect insincerity and will shut down if they do.

You can always reach out to School on Wheels staff for support. Remember, working with teens can be difficult, but it is also one of the most rewarding types of tutoring.

Amanda Carr joined School on Wheels in early 2015. As engagement specialist at School on Wheels, she is dedicated to providing volunteers with resources to help them succeed.

Have a question for our Ask a Tutor feature?
Email askatutor [at] or use the #AskATutor hashtag on any of our social media sites.


May 9

Ask A Tutor Tuesday – 5/8/2017

Question: My student seems advanced for his age. He’s 11 and can complete most of the homework we do with only a little prompting. I’m looking for a way to challenge him in our sessions. Any ideas?

It’s wonderful that your student seems to be doing so well in school. First, I’d suggest making sure you are covering all of the bases in your sessions and not just working on homework that he knows is easy for him. Some students don’t want to work on their more difficult assignments in order to avoid looking ‘not smart’ in front of someone else. However, if this isn’t the case, there are several things you can do to challenge your student.

  • See what he would like to learn. If your student has a very inquisitive mind, it is likely he would enjoy exploring some of his interests. For example, if he enjoys science, he might enjoy doing an experiment with you. If sports is an interest, you might do some research together on a particular player or team. If he is an avid reader, maybe the two of you can select a more advanced novel or nonfiction book to read.
  • Introduce him to one of your passions. Whether it is your career, a hobby, or a subject you are very knowledgeable about, hearing about your interests will be inspiring to your student. Better still, bring in some props to illustrate–books, photographs, tools–anything you think will be a learning experience for him.
  • Try doing some advanced math or ELA work from the Academic Program.
  • Bring in some brain teasers or other fun but challenging games, like a sudoku puzzle.

Remember, homework is only one part of the tutoring experience. The more you can engage your student in learning, the better.

Amanda Carr joined School on Wheels in early 2015. As engagement specialist at School on Wheels, she is dedicated to providing volunteers with resources to help them succeed.

Have a question for our Ask a Tutor feature?
Email askatutor [at] or use the #AskATutor hashtag on any of our social media sites.

Mar 21

Ask a Tutor Tuesday – 3/21/2017

Question: I work in a group home. What right do I have to “put my foot down” and make them work? If they say they don’t want to work, what can I do?

Cathie Alter: Working in a group home is very challenging. I find I have to build a relationship and gain their trust before they will participate in the tutoring session. It took me four months to get the student I’m currently working with to fully engage in our math tutoring sessions. I started out by finding something she did like, which was reading and history. Initially, we spent the full hour discussing books and talking about Thomas Jefferson. I gradually started to increase the amount of time we spent on math. We now spend at least 75% of our time working on math and 25% visiting. It took awhile, but it was worth it. Her math skills have improved, and I can tell she is proud of herself. I hope this helps.

Amanda Carr: It can be challenging to work with older students, especially if they are unmotivated. As a tutor, your primary purpose feels like it should be helping with schoolwork, so it can be frustrating when those plans are thwarted. Fortunately, there are some strategies you can use to help motivate high school students. However, you must keep in mind that School on Wheels tutors are in shelters to tutor and serve as mentors–not to discipline. Remember that many students have had bad experiences with teachers and adults, and they may also be ashamed of what they don’t know. You cannot ‘make’ a student work, but you can use some tactics to persuade them.

  1. Like Cathie said above, if a student doesn’t want to work on homework, don’t force it. Have a conversation about something else, and find out what they are interested in, whether it is books, music, sports, etc. You can then use this information in future sessions, perhaps bringing in an article in on the subject to discuss. Take time to build a relationship with them, and they will be much more likely to go along with tutoring.
  2. Use our BUS Program, which is a mentoring program designed to get students to think about life after high school, as well as encourage them to graduate. There are several activities, like the Career Zone Make Money Choices exercise, which shows how education influences lifetime finances and goals.This might work to motivate them to complete their homework.
  3. Let your student lead. Ask them to teach you something. They might be completely surprised about what they know–and surprise you with their enthusiasm, as well.

The most important thing to remember is that even if you can’t get your students to work on homework, you are modelling good behavior by being present with them every week. Be creative and be flexible, and don’t forget to have fun!

Cathie Alter has been a School on Wheels tutor for one year.  She is a former law firm Administrator and CPA.

Amanda Carr joined School on Wheels in early 2015. As engagement specialist, she is dedicated to providing volunteers with resources to help them succeed.

Have a question for our Ask a Tutor feature?
Email askatutor [at] or use the #AskATutor hashtag on any of our social media sites.