Finding the learning sweet spot


Above, Kristina Dennis guides Brycen Lamb, 8, through an exercise while brother Gavin Lamb, 12, works on extension activities.

By Michelle McLemore

Staff writer

Walk into an ice cream shop and you probably aren’t expecting to see youngsters and a woman at a table with furrowed brows, high fiving, giving in to sporadic giggling, offering questions and wait time…and yet no ice cream on the table.

Between COVID-19 restrictions and her school renovations, Onsted Elementary teacher Kristina Dennis had to find somewhere new to tutor this summer. Her love for coffee shops – and desire for something local to keep drive time short for families – led her to approach owner Marty Hubbard at Ad-Lib in Onsted. Hubbard graciously welcomed her on Tuesdays for eight hours. Then on Thursday, Dennis walked in (school bag over her arm) and said, “Oh, and I hope Thursdays are okay as well?” They both laughed.

Dennis is starting year 17 in teaching and this is approximately her seventh year offering summer tutoring. Each spring she sends out invites to prior summer students as well as students she had during the school year whom she believed might benefit. Other times, it is students, parents, or administrators who reach out to Dennis for extra help. Often, she explains, “I have a student choose to work with me for up to three summers in a row.”

Seated at a table next to the windows, student and tutor have a pleasant green field view with an occasional deer grazing. Like most would, they stop momentarily to watch and admire. At times a student reads out loud to Dennis. Other times Dennis reads and they work on reading comprehension or math challenges.

Student interest and attendance consistency for tutoring has increased this summer due to the March to June at-home, online learning mandate. Many students prefer in-person teaching and do better when it isn’t family trying to get them to do lessons, Dennis shared. “So, I always try to find the positive spin to the summer school most people characterize as a punishment.”

Dennis’ summer program is not just for kids needing extra help. “Sometimes a student will need work on a specific subject, but they love a different one,” Dennis explained. “So we make bargains and sometimes the last 10 minutes we do enrichment in the subject they enjoy – I’m a softy at heart – what can I say?” she laughed.

Summer tutoring began June 23 and will extend into August. Dennis sees students for one hour sessions from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thursdays. This season she is working with 12 different students – some students come every other week, some once a week, and some two times a week per student or guardian request.

“They enjoy it and the day goes by so fast,” Dennis says. “I’m not watching the clock at all. Some need math, some reading. I like the changes across grade levels as well throughout the day.” Dennis draws from her experience teaching grades 3, 4, and 5 as well as Spanish and Title I.

In addition to tutoring for summer enrichment, Dennis also leads summer school for K-3 on Mondays and Wednesdays. When asked what drives her to consume so much of her summer vacation in teaching, her answer was simple: “Because the kids need it. Yes, it’s a little bit of pay, but there is much more draw than that. It is about connecting to the kids – it drives everything I do.”

As the start of school looms closer, Dennis offers these tips for guardians to help their students:

  • Encourage your child to read to a family member. It really is about getting miles on the page.
  • Any kind of math is helpful. You can’t get away from math fact memorization. They will use it forever.
  • Standard flashcards are still helpful. Five to 10 minutes while in the car driving somewhere is beneficial.

Is it all worth it? The sparkle in Dennis’ eyes when she speaks is her testimony: “When kids return in the fall and take the initial placement tests, they are proud and excited about how they perform.” No doubt there also will be more high-fives and sweet memories of summer learning with


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