Questions For Tutoring Homeless Children

On June 20, 2011 Colby Devitt contributed the following interview to QuestionsForLiving. This interview focuses on Colby's experience tutoring a homeless child in Los Angeles.

QuestionsForLiving: What questions were you asking that led you to volunteer with School on Wheels?

Colby Devitt:

  • What can I do to fulfill my desire to expand my sense of connection?

I started volunteering from an impulse to explore.  I had a full life with meaningful work, family and friends, but I felt that something was missing. I knew I needed to extend the reach of the ordinary scope of my daily activities and connect in a new way, creating greater community around me.  So I decided to volunteer, which is something I had never done in any regular way, and to volunteer with children.

  • Is the organization I’ll volunteer for well-run and high quality?

There’s no shortage of children in need and organizations servicing them, particularly in Los Angeles where I live. I knew that I wanted my volunteer time to make a significant difference in the lives of those I was serving.  I had the best chance of doing this by spending my time with an organization that had a good track record, a clear mission, and which was run by good people I respected. School on Wheels, which started 18 years ago, fit those criteria.

  • What’s the best way I can connect to a child in a way that will make a positive impact?

I realized that I wanted to develop a meaningful relationship with the child, or children, I would volunteer with.  Volunteering with School on Wheels seemed like a good way to do this – homeless children are obviously a population in need. Families with young children account for 40% of the homeless population and homelessness is on the rise. The one-on-one tutoring would give me a chance to develop a relationship with specific children and put the resources of my good education to use.

  • Does the organization let me scale my involvement?

One issue I was concerned about was the time commitment required. I took my prospective volunteer duty seriously and wanted to put myself in a situation where I could start volunteering and scale up my involvement if desired. I liked that School on Wheels initially required only one hour a week with a three month commitment. One hour a week? I thought,  I can do that. They assigned me Victor who was then six. He is now eight and I’ve been tutoring him and helping his mother and sisters ever since. 

QFL: What are the primary questions that you ask yourself when working with Victor that contributes to his ability to read?


  • Is his experience of reading as enjoyable as possible?

I work for a company called the Reading Kingdom which teaches children, ages 4 – 10, to read and write through an online program. The Reading Kingdom system of instruction is success-based, meaning that the program teaches reading and writing skills in an intuitive way, building up step-by-step and always ensuring that children are prepared for the teaching material they receive. I employ this principle with Victor whenever possible.

  • Does he understand and emotionally connect to what he’s reading?

Unfortunately, Victor does not live in a reading culture. There are no books where he lives, and his mother does not speak English well, nor does she read stories to him. So our reading time together is very important. I try to find material he likes and do what I can to make that material resonate with him emotionally. A big part of whether or not he connects to the material depends on whether or not he understands it. The Reading Kingdom system has a number of reading comprehension activities and techniques that I employ.

QFL: What are some of the primary questions that you ask yourself when working with Victor that contributes to, or improves, his quality of life?

  • How is he doing today? What are his needs and how can I help him meet them?

Tutoring a homeless child comes with its own set of challenges. For the majority of time I’ve known Victor, he has lived with his mother and sisters in a domestic abuse shelter and has experienced his share of violence and turmoil. So before I do any kind of formal studying with him I check in with him to gauge how he is doing – mentally, emotionally, and physically. My primary concern is that he feels cared for in my presence and that he knows I am present for him. Sometimes this means that our sessions involve more therapy than homework.

  • How can I teach him how to learn?

This is the fundamental thing I hope to teach Victor – to learn how to learn. His homework is the context in which I try to teach this fundamental skill. 

  • How can I help him find what excites him?

One of Victor’s most pernicious obstacles is that he is surrounded by low expectations. Despite his native intelligence, no one around him expects very much of him, nor are they giving him the tools to succeed. For example, no one makes him do his homework, and like many 8 year old boys, Victor needs a nudge in this area, but he doesn’t get it. So, unfortunately, he has to learn to motivate on his own. I try to encourage him to develop what excites him, so that he has stronger internal motivations to overcome his obstacles.

QFL: Based on your experience, what questions do you feel that tutors should ask themselves to get the most value, and learning, from each session?


  • How can I teach my student how to learn?
  • How can I instill values that promote a desire to learn?
  • How can I best teach the material?
  • How can I show them how to learn material on their own?
  • How can I instill confidence?
  • How can I give them tools to frame problems and solve them?
  • How can I make learning fun?
For more information regarding Colby Devitt and Reading Kingdom, please visit:

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