Alice Cohen, whose personal tag line is “working with kids that other people don’t like since 1972,” spoke to a packed library of volunteers at Cambridge School Volunteers’ (CSV’s) middle school training workshop on October 27, 2016. The event’s focus was middle schoolers. Most volunteers in the room had some experience tutoring, but a few were new volunteers slated to work one-to-one with students in Grades 6–8 at CSV’s five after-school Learning Centers.
Cohen launched the event by describing the effects of early experience on brain development. Early experience—including the level of “attunement” a baby gains from adults—shape lasting “beliefs, perceptions, and attitudes,” said Cohen. “After the first 500 days of life, middle school is the other most critical period of critical growth and learning,” she stressed. A social worker and former assistant principal of the Manville School, who herself is the mother of a 12-year-old, Cohen is the new lead teacher for social and emotional learning for the Cambridge Public Schools.
Participants in the workshop did small group work on particular scenarios encountered in the tutoring relationship, following a brief documentary that gives voice to twelve-year-olds’ point of view, and hearing from Cohen about what “attunement” means, and what it can do, for a 11–13 year old.
With Cohen’s guidance, volunteers reflected on their “go-to” person, as a child, describing the qualities and nature of those most valuable and memorable of relationships. Adults in the room offered, among others, these adjectives: “nonjudgmental,” “listening,” and “available.” Cohen urged the CSV tutors to add those qualities to their tutoring sessions. “Your intuition, presence, and sense of what’s helpful is your genius,” she said. “The most important messages you have are “I am here for you;” “you’re going to teach me the way you learn;” and I’m going to help you learn more.”
Key points and video from Cohen’s workshop will be added to Cambridge School Volunteers’ Volunteer Resource Center.