by Stephen Kohner
Teacher, Baie-Comeau High School
On-line SOS Tutor for LEARN

I have been an on-line tutor for LEARN for a number of years now. I tutor one night a week for the SOS Writing Centre during their fall/winter and spring sessions. Students from across the province, who are enrolled in an English school, have access to a number of free on-line tutors Monday to Thursday nights.

I want to tell you of one very recent episode I had that made me understand and truly appreciate the impact, function and beauty of on-line tutoring, in particular of the Zenlive platform that is in use. For those not familiar with this tool, a teacher is able to use an interactive whiteboard, chat, video, PowerPoint, web-based or text based materials in a asynchronous or synchronous manner, delivering it over the Internet (It does a whole lot more…)

One evening, a student signed on, one whom I had never tutored before (we have our repeat customers…). I always begin by asking the student if they can hear me, if they have a microphone, if they can view the interactive whiteboard, etc. It helps me, within a few seconds, to understand what features of Zenlive I can use. I then ask a few personal questions to help me situate them in terms of geographic location, grade level, and school. I follow this up by introducing myself – many are amazed that they are actually in touch with a teacher based in Québec, but located many hundred of kilometers away. The English education sector in Québec is small, so I usually know most of the high schools by name; sometimes I am lucky and I know a teacher in their school. Such was the case one evening back in late February.

I found out that this one student attended an alternative school in Montreal that had a focus on the Arts-  be it music, drama, visual arts or dance. Coincidentally, I knew one teacher from this school since we are on a Quebec Ministry advisory board together. Sure enough, this student had this particular teacher. You can imagine the virtual bond that was instantaneously developed.

I asked the student if she could hear me all right… since there was no response, I instantly began to text chat with her. “No,” she responded. “I do not have speakers or a mic.” We tutor students that have all kinds of different computer realities; we work with what the student has, so I continued to text chat with her. I turned off my mic. Long story short, she was looking for help in writing a piece for a Blue Met project entitled Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live. Coincidentally, I had worked on that initiative last year with my students so we had yet another connection.

We worked for a good 30 minutes or so (way past the “official” tutoring hours). I had shown her how to write a haiku, so together, using the interactive whiteboard, we came up with a number of them based on music, more specifically, the violin since it was the instrument she played at school. We said good night to each other, and I thought nothing more of the encounter. That is until I met up with her teacher at my next advisory board meeting…

“Do you know the story of X, the girl you had tutored a number of weeks ago?” asked her teacher.

“No… I only know her name, that she plays violin and she attends your school,” I replied.

“Well, let me tell you something… she was born deaf.”

My mind was turning, trying to put the information together… deaf… violinist… huh?

It turns out that she plays violin because it is one of the few instruments that allows her to feel the vibrations. She is gifted in music and taught herself to speak (she does not speak very clearly, hence, the reason why she did not use the microphone to talk with me on-line). She demands a lot of herself and insists on being treated as a “regular” student.

I realized at that point how powerful a tool the on-line classroom environment is to those students with special needs, to those who do not want any special attention, to those whose physical disabilities simply do not show up on screen. This girl came in as a student, used the on-line tutoring platform and never once gave any hint that she, in a regular school, would have been labeled as a special needs student. The online learning/teaching platform provided a detachment from everyday societal judgment. You can imagine how empowering an experience it proved to be…

I find it incredible that students in Quebec, through LEARN, do not have to worry about labels, stereotyping, special treatment, or reputation when they learn on-line. They are who they are – plain and simple – students who need a helping hand from time to time. We, as on-line tutors, deal with their needs, not their “baggage”, or history, or even their IEPs. On-line tutoring is like working blind – and I have learned that that is not a bad thing at all.