After the COVID-19 pandemic pushed her high school classes online and erased her summer plans, Tanisha Kota decided she should put her unexpected free time to good use.
Months of distance learning had been less than ideal — but OK — for the 15-year-old from Eagan, who said she’s lucky to attend a good school and have the support to keep up with her studies during the pandemic. But she worried about other students who had a tougher spring semester, especially younger kids who might have fallen behind or struggled to stay focused.
Stuck at home, Kota figured the best way to help would be to offer her services as a tutor, for free, to any elementary school students who needed some help. She built a website, recruited a couple of friends to join her as volunteer tutors, and tried to spread the word through people she knew.
Kota thought her virtual tutoring service, Geniusprep, might get a few takers. But as soon as her website went up, the requests started streaming in from across the Twin Cities — and across the country. With many parents struggling to balance work with helping their children learn at home, Geniusprep’s offer of one-on-one support found a wide and welcoming audience.
“I didn’t think it would get that big,” Kota said. “I didn’t understand the power of word of mouth.”
Not far away, another group of students was brainstorming, too. Eagan High School students Arush Iyer and Timmy Tu, along with Timmy’s sister, Zhen Tu, who attends Yale University, spent part of the spring building their own virtual tutoring service. Their organization, ELLoquently, pairs high school and college tutors with students around the world who want to improve their English language skills. By August, they’d recruited dozens of tutors to work with 180 students and were working on plans to keep growing.
Like Kota, the founders of ELLoquently said the COVID-19 pandemic has provided an unusual chance to tap into networks of young people who want to help others — and have time on their hands, with many sports, school activities and social events on hold.
“With quarantine and restrictions, people can’t [always] go out and volunteer,” said Timmy Tu, “so we thought this would be a good opportunity.”
Building new organizations from scratch was a challenge all of the students said they were excited to take on.
Kota, who had previously worked part-time for a tutoring service, put hours of thought and planning into Geniusprep. She designed lesson plans for reading and math, mapped out how tutors should work with students — from discussions about goal-setting to suggestions on how to break the ice in a first tutoring session — and came up with her own criteria for screening potential tutors.
By mid-July, Kota had assembled more than 30 high school-age tutors from four states, all of them eager to volunteer their time.
“I always made sure the tutor wanted do this — that it wasn’t a parent forcing them to,” she said.
Parents who log on to Geniusprep’s website can scroll through a list of the teenage tutors, complete with information about the Advanced Placement or honors-level classes they’ve taken — one of Kota’s requirements — and the subjects they specialize in. They can either request that their child be paired with a specific tutor or let Kota find a match.
Managing the logistics of all of her volunteers and students has become nearly a full-time job — so much so that Kota only fills in for tutoring sessions when other tutors are unavailable, rather than taking on students herself.
When she does get a chance to work with a student — a recent session was with a boy in New Jersey — Kota said she gets to see firsthand something her volunteers keep telling her: after months stuck at home, making connections with new people doesn’t feel like work. The kids are often overjoyed to have someone new to interact with, and parents are thrilled to see their children light up.
“Some of the kids have so much energy, and they are so excited to get it out talking to you,” she said.
ELLoquently’s founders scanned their networks to build their roster of volunteer tutors, and spent hours sending e-mails and messages on apps like Instagram and Discord. Once they’d gathered a list of volunteers, they recruited professional help to provide training: a small group of retired English professors willing to lend their expertise for free. Volunteer tutors agree to work with a student in an hourly conversation each week.
The program now has tutors and students across the U.S. and in more than 30 countries. And while the group’s founders had initially thought the program would appeal mostly to high school and college-age students, they are finding interest from older people who want to both teach and learn.
“We’re delighted because we get this opportunity to help a bunch of different people,” Iyer said.
As the pandemic pushes more students and schoolwork online, other young Minnesotans have also been busy brainstorming about how to help their fellow students. In Plymouth, 14-year-old Hannah Efron and 13-year-old Malini Patel worked together this spring to create Online Acceleration, an app that connects students with tutoring help and other academic resources.
It’s not live yet — it was designed as a model as part of the Technovation Girls tech competition — but the app’s designers say they hope to keep working on the idea because they see a real need for students stuck at home with limited resources.
“Our app is really useful in a pandemic; you can’t go out and meet teachers and you might not have as many teachers available to you,” Efron said.
Though the school year might provide some scheduling challenges for services staffed by full-time students, the founders of ELLoquently said they’ll keep matching up students and tutors. Kota said she thinks Geniusprep will likely have to go on hiatus once the school year starts again. But she hopes to restart it at some point, possibly offering group classes.
No matter what happens, Kota said she’s happy to think she’s been of some help to kids and families during a stressful, complicated time.
“I’ve gotten so much positive feedback from tutors saying, ‘This is such a good idea, and I never would have thought of it,’ ” she said. “It makes it all worthwhile when you see the smiles on people’s faces.”
Erin Golden • 612-673-4790