Teenage brothers from McLean launched an online tutoring service for elementary school students

“The first word is shred,” Bernstein says, and Gavin starts spelling the word to his best ability on that paper with pencil. Bernstein lists 24 more words before they review. Gavin runs into trouble spelling the second word, shriek.

“Okay, do you remember the rule with ‘E’ and ‘I’ and ‘I’ ‘E?’ ” Bernstein asks. “What’s the rule?”

“ ‘I’ before ‘E’ except after ‘C,’ ” Gavin says.

“Very good,” Bernstein says. “So what are we going to change in shriek?”

“We’re going to swap the ‘I’ and ‘E,’ ” Gavin concludes.

These are the lessons elementary school students are receiving in one-on-one instruction through Intutorly, a free online tutoring service created by McLean teenagers Alex and Ben Joel during the novel coronavirus outbreak. The program, which began in April, has reached more than 200 students as children struggle to find individualized learning with many schools teaching online.

“It rivals most of the paid services that I’ve encountered,” said Daphne Earley, Gavin’s mother. “Sometimes I think it’s a little bit better because [Bernstein] tries so hard to make him feel comfortable.”

The idea for Intutorly began at Alex and Ben Joel’s dinner table in mid-March. They had been reading about how distance learning disrupted many children’s instruction, and they wanted to help. Some families have placed their kids in small groups during the school day, with many creating learning pods; Alex, 18, and Ben, 15, recognized that not all families have resources for that.

They secured a domain name, designed a website and then recruited their classmates at the Potomac School to volunteer as tutors. They launched in early-April.

As children, Alex and Ben Joel transformed their living room into a space dedicated to building Lego forts together. They played on the same rock band, “Surge,” in middle school and they compete on the same debate team. Intutorly is just another of their joint efforts.

“We were very pleasantly surprised to learn that there were many high school students just like us who were looking for a way to meaningfully contribute during the pandemic,” Ben Joel said. “And at the same time, families are struggling to support their kids’ education during distance learning. By connecting those two groups, we were able to meet the needs of each.”

Multiple children signed up in the D.C. area, and the Joels asked their tutors and students to spread word-of-mouth recommendations about the service across the U.S. They spoke with staff at schools around the country about offering Intutorly to students for community service hours. By June, Intutorly had expanded to North Carolina. Now, it fields students in 16 states in the U.S. as well as in the United Kingdom, Canada and Russia.

The subjects the tutors teach include writing, science, reading, English as a second language, math, social studies, Spanish, Chinese and speech and debate. Two hundred students between kindergarten and sixth grade have signed up for Intutorly, as well as 180 tutors, most of whom are high school students. Each tutor is assigned to work with one or two students. Alex and Ben Joel estimate about 75 percent of their students are from outside the D.C. area.

“It’s been kind of amazing that it’s grown so quickly,” said Marlene Laro, the Joel brothers’ mother. “I don’t know that we could have foreseen where it is today. At the same time, it makes a lot of sense. The real magic of what Ben and Alex created is they recognized a need on both sides.”

When in-person classes shut down in March, Earley searched Google and social media for a month, seeking a virtual learning program where her two sons could continue one-on-one learning. She landed on Intutorly.

She said Gavin, a fifth grader, has struggled spelling simple words, which has lowered his self-esteem. Working with Bernstein since April, though, Gavin has built confidence in his writing. When the coronavirus passes, Earley is hesitant to rely on in-person teaching again because of the relationship Gavin has built with Bernstein, a sophomore at the Holton-Arms School.

Fortunately for her, Alex and Ben Joel don’t see an imminent end date for Intutorly.

“The idea of online tutoring, especially one-on-one online tutoring, is going to be able to continue even beyond the pandemic and social distancing,” Alex Joel said. “While it’s wonderful to meet with people in-person when possible, the convenience of meeting online is considerable.”

Even without that in-person connection, Intutorly preaches building relationships between tutor and client. Near the end of Gavin and Bernstein’s 30-minute sessions, they trade riddles.

“Who’s a really famous person in the meat aisle?” Gavin asked Saturday.

“Hmmm,” Bernstein said. “I don’t know. Who?”

“Alexander Hamilton,” Gavin said.

“That’s a good one,” Bernstein said. “Did you come up with that one yourself?”

“Yes,” Gavin said with a smirk.

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