Children Inspired by Tutor and Adventure SW

Andy was struggling in school. Although she had been enthusiastic about learning from an early age, she was suddenly having trouble, particularly with math. Her attitude and self-esteem were naturally beginning to decline. Her parents knew something had to be done, but were unsure where to turn for help. Enter Toby Epstein, a fifth-grade teacher in St. Louis, Missouri. For 11 years she watched the unsteady progress of certain students, like Mandy, who desperately needed individual attention. "I became convinced that the system was leaving wide gaps in the education of many students," Epstein says. "And it was clear that the majority did not fail for lack of ability." Even with this conviction, Epstein did not know the best way to help these students. She could not divert more class time to those who needed it without holding back the other students. It wasn't until she left full-time teaching that the answer presented itself. Making a Difference "In the fall of 1990, my husband and I had just moved back to Missouri and I had not yet found a new teaching position. It was then that several parents approached me and asked me to help their children with touch typing. Typing led to word processing, which led to writing and within a few months I was helping them with everything from computer literacy to mathematics -- and making a difference." Other parents began asking Epstein for her business card. Suddenly, the answer was clear. Drawing on her classroom experience, Epstein founded The Computer Tutor, a tutoring company established to help students with diverse learning styles understand math, reading and computers. Using one-on-one, after-school meetings in her home and specific educational software, Epstein is now renewing the confidence of many young learners. A majority of Epstein's lessons are centered on the computer. She cites careful selection of software as one of the most critical aspects of successful tutoring. "I always choose software from reviews, recommendations or by company name," Epstein says. "The only kind of games I buy are both educational and entertaining. I really stay away from straight drill games on the computer -- the kids get enough of that in the classroom. I must be able to teach them the necessary concepts while they're playing the game." To Save a King One product she feels is very important to developing math, reading and reasoning skills is Jungle Quest from Nordic Software of Lincoln, Neb. "Jungle Quest is an adventure game where children have to solve math problems to progress through African jungles and rescue a king," Epstein explains. "It's easy enough to play so it gives the younger kids the feeling that they're just doing a higher-level adventure game." With Jungle Quest, Epstein can enter custom problem sets so the lessons are personalized for each student. "Advanced students need more challenge, so I experiment with more difficult math problems," Epstein says. "I give the struggling kids all addition, or all subtraction, for example. If they are at a really basic skill level, I let them use a calculator. After a problem is repeated enough, they begin remember it without resorting to outside help." Epstein also uses Jungle Quest to practice reading and writing. She has the children write papers about their Jungle Quest adventures. They then work through the editing process together. "I've found that writing done on the computer tends to have more complex ideas in a richer vocabulary," Epstein says. "I've also noticed that kids who use spell checkers actually become better spellers." Success Begats Success Epstein's work is not limited to young children. She is helping a broad range of students, including gifted, learning disabled, preschool and even several adult learners. "The key to success for these students is that they learn to feel good about themselves -- they acquire a sense of self-esteem," Epstein asserts. "This means concerted personal attention. Programs like Jungle Quest are extremely helpful because they are structured so that the children are successful. They feel a sense of accomplishment that they don't often get in school. Their self-esteem g'es up, their interest in school g'es up, and then finally, their grades go up. It is very rewarding work!" And what about Mandy? Mandy was referred to The Computer Tutor by her school principal at the end of second grade. She was frustrated with math and having trouble with reading. She was unable to add or subtract, not even on her fingers. Epstein found that Mandy's self esteem had "taken a beating" and that she no longer thought of herself as able to learn. Individual attention and "fun" learning games like Jungle Quest have given Mandy the courage and patience to try new games and build new skills. "Jungle Quest was very good for her. It held her interest and did not make her feel threatened," notes Epstein. "While she thought she was only playing a computer game, she got terrific practice without even realizing it." After one year of personal tutoring, Mandy scores in the middle to high range for mathematics on the Missouri Mastery Test, and her reading is up to grade level. Best of all, her parents report that their daughter has regained her love of learning.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/1994 issue of THE Journal.