too cool for school

New virtual tutoring platform launches for Houston students, by Houston students

A group of Houstonians have launched a virtual tutoring platform for students in Kindergarten through eighth grade. Image via teachingtogive.org

Seven local high schoolers took lessons from their own schooling challenges in 2020 to launch a free, virtual tutoring program last month with the goal of helping younger students close learning gaps of their own during this unprecedented academic year ahead.

Dubbed Teaching To Give, the project matches kindergarten through eighth grade students with honor roll high schoolers from Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Strake Jesuit, and Bellaire High School for 30- to 45-minute teaching sessions in core subjects, languages, debate, and arts via Zoom.

Kinder HSPVA sophomore Weillison Hsu, who now serves as president of Teaching to Give, first proposed the idea to fellow piano major and Vice President Hayden Miller at the end of the 2019-20 school year. The 15-year-olds are bright, talented, and artistic, but their freshman years had not come without challenges: First, several of their teachers were required to take a leave of absence, leaving them with long-term substitutes. Then COVID-19 hit, making traditional learning impossible.

It took time to adjust, Miller says, but eventually he and his peers found their stride in the tech-based schooling style that Houston Independent School District has been following for months. Still, they feared the transition for younger students had not been as smooth.

"We have been used to that independence, where in elementary school, and middle school even, you do a lot hands on and in person," Miller says. So, they decided to help in a way that was safe, affordable, and approachable.

"During these times, it's just not possible to make sure that everyone is fully striving," Miller says. "We wanted to make it as easy as possible for parents to use us and to have a stress-free environment, to provide a successful education and set up."

Today, Teaching to Give has held more than 100 free web-based tutoring sessions for kids around the city in subjects from science to piano. They ask on-boarding students to complete a personality and learning style questionnaire and place them with one of their 29 tutors who they predict will work best with for their subject matter and interests. Miller says the minor age difference has allowed their sessions to have real impact.

"It provides a more relatable experience," he says. "A lot of the time we'll have the same interests as our students. We can use that to foster mutual excitement for the subject material."

Still, the group is learning how to teach in a virtual setting as they go.

"It really forces you to think of how you say things to get the result that you want," Miller says. "I think we will all come out of this as better communicators."

Miller, Hsu, and the five other board members — Lina Wu, Amy Park, Fiona Condron, Rushil Chetty, and Ashley Chu — plan to continue to focus on virtual tutoring sessions even after the pandemic ends and limitations on in-person learning lift. Again pulling from their own experience, they know that virtual options can provide big benefits for busy parents and students like themselves.

And in the meantime, they're hoping to start partnerships with a few local lower schools, are accepting applications for additional tutors, and are raising awareness for their new initiative, Project Pencil, which will donate art supplies to the Gregory-Lincoln Education Center in the Fourth Ward.

"Art is something that is universal. It takes away the stress of learning. Also, art lessons and music lessons are very expensive," Miller adds. "We wanted to incorporate that into our classes because that's what our biggest strengths lie in. We wanted to share that passion and provide a way to spread more unity between people. Art has a way of doing that."

Teaching to Give founders (Weillison, Hayden and Lina) virtually meeting with Thomas Porter, HISD Magnet Coordinator for Gregory Lincoln. Image courtesy of Teaching to Give

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Building Houston

 
 

A Houston founder and small-space expert founded TAXA Outdoors to create better campers than what was in the market. Now, amid the pandemic, he's seen sales skyrocket. Photo courtesy of TAXA Outdoors

In 2014 Garrett Finney, a former senior architect at the Habitability Design Center at NASA, brought his expertise in what he describes as "advocating for human presence living in a machine" to the outdoors market.

After being less-than enchanted by the current RV and camper offerings, the Houstonian developed a new series of adventure vehicles that could safely and effectively get its users off-grid — even if still Earth-bound — under the company he dubbed TAXA Outdoors.

The vehicles would follow much of the same standards that Finney worked under at NASA, in which every scenario and square inch would be closely considered in the smartly designed spaces. And rather that designing the habitats for style alone, function and storage space for essential gear took precedence. According to Finney, the habitat was to be considered a form of useful adventure equipment in its own right.

"Ceilings should be useful. They're not just for putting lights on," he says. "Even when there's gravity that's true."

Today TAXA offers four models of what they call "mobile human habitats" that can be towed behind a vehicle and sleep three to four adults, ranging from about $11,000 to $50,000 in price.

TAXA's mobile human habitats range in size and price. Photo courtesy of TAXA Outdoors

And amid the pandemic — where people were looking for a safe way to escape their homes and get outside — the TAXA habitats were flying off the shelves, attracting buyers in Texas, but mainly those in Colorado, California, and other nature-filled areas.

"January, was looking really good — like the break out year. And then the pandemic was a huge red flag all around the world," Finney says. "[But] we and all our potential customers realized that going camping was the bet. They were with their family, they were getting outside, they were achieving sanity having fun and creating memories."

According to TAXA President Divya Brown, the company produced a record 430 habitats in 2020. But it still wasn't enough to match the number of orders coming in.

"We had we had almost a year and a half worth of backlog at the old facility, which we've never experienced before," Brown says.

To keep up with demand, the company moved into a 70,000-square-foot space off of U.S. 290 that now allows multiple operations lines, as well as a showroom for their vehicles and enough room for their staff, which tripled in size from 25 to 75 employees since the onset of the pandemic.

The first priority at the new facility is to make up the backlog they took on in 2020. Next they hope to produce more than 1,000 habitats by the end of 2021 and 3,000 in the coming years.

"It's a pretty significant jump for us," Brown says. "We really believe there's a huge market for this."

With the new facility, the TAXA team hopes to catch up with the explosive sales growth. Photo courtesy of TAXA Outdoors

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