At Hopkins Tutorial Project, Learning Is a 2-Way Street

by Ian Wilhelm

The Johns Hopkins' Levering Union offers all the typical distractions for isolated college students: a refreshment bar with video games and pool tables, a cafeteria stocked with food, and a concert hall. But around a corner from all this, up a staircase lined with mythical paintings, the building loses its mundane aspects. It becomes a place where students can no longer remain isolated. It becomes the office of community affairs and home of the Johns Hopkins Tutorial Project.
The Tutorial Project for 20 years has turned Hopkins undergrads into volunteer tutors for inner-city youth. The undergrads help with the youths' schoolwork and teach them about college. More importantly, though, is that the Project allows the Johns Hopkins students a glimpse at the larger city community around them-a community often hidden from view by academics or those distractions in Levering Union.
The first time Weslie Wornam, head of Educational Outreach for Hopkins, walked up the stairs with the paintings, she said to herself, "What kind of cult have I gotten myself into?" The artwork that covers the walls depicts many myths, including the creation of the world, the struggle between nations, and the world's fiery consumption at the Apocalypse. Not exactly your typical backdrop for an after-school program.
The murals, painted by Hopkins graduate Dr. Robert Hieronimus, were not made for the Tutorial Project, but their urgent tone mirrors the efforts of the Project. With public schools failing and the State legislature slow in reacting, the Tutorial Project tries its best to help the deteriorating situation and to help its victims: the children.
Children from Baltimore city, ages 6-12, come to Hopkins twice a week after school to receive tutoring. The hour and a half sessions are one-on-one and usually involve reading, math games and computers. Wornam, who came to Hopkins in 1990, has helped to increase the use of computers in the program. Now, rows of computers fill the main room and CD-ROM games must be reserved beforehand in order for tutees to use them.
The Project pushes itself to be more than just a babysitting service. Wornam explains that student organizers track the progress of 10 children with tests. The children are only allowed to stay if the organizers see that they are improving.
Despite these standards, the Project has a waiting list and limits enrollment to two years per child in order to create more opportunities for others.
Overall, though, the Project's true strength lies not in what a child can learn directly but indirectly. I learned this when I worked as a tutor for three semesters with a young boy by the name of Jarett Robinson. Jarett, an eight-year-old, had a short attention span and way too much energy after school.
I found that no matter how hard I tried to have him excel in his studies, he always learned more when I allowed him to wander. We walked around campus and the indirect learning began. He asked questions about the buildings, the students, and the classes. What's the name of that place? Who lives there? Why can't we follow them [usually into a class or dorm]? I answered as best I could and took him to different parts of the campus like the President's Garden and the library. His eyes just lit up when we entered the computer lab.
In a similar fashion, the tutors learn best when exposed to a new environment as well. Johns Hopkins has a way of shutting its students off from one important environment-the city. One example is the directions the school gives to prospective students and their parents when driving up North I-95. Instead of getting off at 395, the directions state to follow 695 around to Towson and then take 83 back down. The reason for this is plain: 395 would lead to downtown and a ride north on Charles Street, which is a straight shot through some of the city's lesser parts.
One way the Project exposes the undergraduates is by taking a note from the Tutorial Project's early days in the 1970s; the Project has Reverse Day. On this day, vans of Hopkins undergraduates take off into the city and spend time at the children's homes. Instead of the neat red brick buildings in a parklike setting the students are used to, they see row upon row of houses without any green between them. Taken from their safe, isolated campus, the tutors become the students and the tutees become the teachers.
I visited Jarett's house on one Reverse Day and we read a book in his living room. The sounds from outside filtered through his door and suddenly, a loud crack sounded. I must have seemed startled because Jarett put his hand on my shoulder and said, "it's all right.."
The experience brought to life the isolation of the Johns Hopkins campus. Just as much as I need to show Jarett the internet or library, Jarett needs to show me his world-a world of public housing, the struggle to have fun, and the ultimate decay that consumes his area. Not exactly your typical backdrop for an after-school program, but a necessary part of my education.

Ian Wilhelm, a junior at Hopkins, is an intern with this newspaper.

Copyright © 2003 The Baltimore Chronicle and The Sentinel. All rights reserved. We invite your comments, criticisms and suggestions.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle and Sentinel content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on March 5, 1997.