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February 19, 2015

Charlie's story

Life is not just biological. It’s a story.

Charlie Mintz showed up to his first day of tutor training at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in the Mission wearing a Joy Division T-shirt and carrying a basketball under his arm. I almost directed him to the playground before realizing he had come to Reading Partners. Despite my first impression, Charlie has proven that Reading Partners is exactly where he belongs—his eclectic mix of experiences makes him a model tutor.

Charlie has built his life around stories. A reading partner for three years in Oakland before coming to Cesar Chavez, he works as a senior producer and sound engineer for the Stanford Storytelling Project, where he teaches everyone from undergrads to emeritus professors how to tell their own radio stories.

His story as a reading partner goes a bit like this: A fresh college grad decided to make a tangible difference in the lives of students and connected so strongly with Miguel, an elementary student at Berkley Maynard Academy, that he pushed Miguel to improve his reading for three straight years. Even when Miguel made the smallest of advancements, year after year Charlie kept reading by his side.

“Without the ability to read, a kid is in really bad shape, and if I can do something about that I want to,” Charlie said. “The struggle was the reason I wanted to keep working with [Miguel]…The more I got to know him, the more important it felt that I get him through these difficulties.”

As a result of his dedication, Charlie was featured in the San Francisco Giants spotlight of ten Reading Partners volunteers.

A former Reading Partners site coordinator of Charlie’s wrote: “Excellent tutor that will work with even the most difficult-to-focus student. Super patient and kind.”

When Charlie moved from the East Bay to a few blocks away from Cesar Chavez Elementary, he decided to continue with Reading Partners in his new community. He now works with Ximena, a shy but eager-to-learn third grader who watches Charlie with big eyes as he enthusiastically reads Olivia Saves the Circus. During the tutor read aloud part of the session, Charlie’s voice rises above the room with his soothing radio broadcaster tone.

Ximena said she likes having Charlie as her tutor. “He’s not too mean because he doesn’t scream,” she said in an understatement. “He corrects me and words that I don’t read well.”

Charlie said volunteering adds to his life because he can see the good he’s doing when a student understands a new concept. He also likes thinking in the mindset of an eight-year-old. “You have to stick to simple topics like food or family or things you’ve done recently. It makes being sarcastic or ironic out of the question. What would they find interesting about my day? Not this story I heard on the news, but, ‘Oh, I had a great brownie today!’”

Besides eating brownies, other things Charlie does with his days include playing the drums, guitar, and paid tutoring with Tutor Corps. He still occasionally comes to Reading Partners with a basketball from a pickup game.

If he were giving advice to a new Reading Partners tutor, Charlie said he would tell them to be excited. “If you are excited, the kid will pick up on that, and you can model that enthusiasm for reading and stories.”

Narrative is the perfect way to hook students on reading because stories beg to be read, he said. “Stories are how we make sense of the world. It’s how we understand ourselves and other people and everything about being alive. Life is not just biological. It’s a story,” he said. “Once you get enough competency to get engaged in a plot, you realize how much pleasure there is in stories.”

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