Teacher, Mentor, and Friend

August 29, 2013

Yessenia Moreno ’16 is a Penn Program for Public Service Intern from the University of Pennsylvania, a new exchange opportunity in which 1-2 students from Brown University and UPenn spend their summers in West Philadelphia or Providence, working as an intern and conducting research on a local social issue. These are a series of three reflections written throughout her summer experience at D'Abate Elementary School in Olneyville.

June 28, 2013

Location means everything. When I came to Providence, I did not expect to see striking similarities between the capital city and Philadelphia.

Olneyville is a neighborhood of Providence with a strong Hispanic community. The streets are filled with markets, restaurants, and especially bakeries of North and South American influences from countries such as El Salvador and Mexico. The neighborhood also has a strong African American community. Many families live Olneyville live in poverty; some barely get by, while others are homeless. Yet regardless of socioeconomic status, Olneyville has a strong community that is immersed in their schools.

D’Abate Elementary School, my service site, holds a community school summer camp where incoming elementary school students from kindergarten to sixth grade have the opportunity to enroll in a summer program to provide them with academic and extra curricular activities 9 AM to 4:30 PM, Monday through Friday for five weeks. The program is led by the Swearer Center for Public Service of Brown University. The teachers are all university students teaching a range of subjects from Language Arts, Dance, Science, to Chinese. I am currently a Mathematics and Language Arts teacher for kindergarten and a Mathematics teacher for first grade. However, what makes D’Abate unique in terms of teaching is that most students below third grade are English Language Learners. Teachers of the summer camp in the past have taught their subjects in English and Spanish. Although this ultimately makes it more difficult for the teachers to create their lesson plans, it is necessary. As a native Spanish speaker myself, this was the main reason why I chose to take on the task of teaching kindergarten and first grade students. I understand the struggle.

This past week, all the teaching staff has been undergoing training to prepare for the camp that begins Monday of next week. Each main teacher is responsible for creating their own curriculum and lesson plans, using Common Core standards as an aid. For me, having never worked with devising curriculum or lesson plans, I have found this difficult. My general plans so far are to teach bilingually, having students learn their alphabet and numbers in English and Spanish. I strongly feel that ELLs will feel more comfortable and non-ELLs will be excited to have the opportunity to learn another language. I have divided each week with a main topic. The first week’s lesson plans for kindergarten LA is to learn the alphabet including sounds and associations. The goal is to have the children be able to write their name by the end of the week. For kindergarten math, the topic is learning how to count to 20, understanding sequences, and being able to identify the number of said objects physically presented. The goal is for them to be able to count to 20 in Spanish and English by the end of the week. First grade mathematics will be reviewing numbers up to 50 and count by 2s, 5s, and 10s. The goal by the end of the week is for them to be able to do simple addition and subtraction problems. Now that I have a general idea of what I want to teach for my first week, I begin lesson planning.

July 1, 2013

Screaming tantrums and an ocean of tears is the best description I have of today’s morning events. Today was the first day of the D’Abate Community School Summer Camp. For many students, it was their second, third, or even possibly fourth year coming to the camp. However, for kindergarteners, fresh out of Pre-School or of no previous school instruction, this was their first time being apart from their parents. Having experienced what it was like for my little sister to start school, I understand the fear that most kids have when they begin school for the first time. But even then, a classroom full of the same attached-to-parent child is not something I would wish upon anyone.

When it comes to children, I would definitely say that I am patient. I give children the benefit of the doubt. They are children! What do they know? Well, as children of few words, they know how to cry best. Already nervous for my first day and clearly ambivalent as to what to expect, I started off my class with an introduction of myself, trying to ignore little Joanne on the floor to my right screaming and crying and Mark on my left still attached to his mother at the hip wailing. I looked up at the few parents in the room’s faces with what I hope was not evident fear in my eyes. They left their children with me. I have never had so much responsibility before. But what made it more stressful for me to bear was the fact that most did not speak English at all. Not a single word. Besides Thomas, the shy and reluctant to speak boy of five, clearly over 90% of the class was comprised of English language learners. Of this, I was not surprised however. I introduced myself once again and led the rest of the class in Spanish and English. It’s an unsettling feeling to see the children stare at me blankly when I spoke English. I definitely tried my best to incorporate both languages. In Math class, I taught numbers 1-20 in English and Spanish while in Language Arts I did the same for the alphabet. I found it incredibly charming how the students helped each other, whether or not they were Spanish speakers. But that still did not relieve my stress. I was teaching them a new language while simultaneously teaching curriculum formulated for English speakers.

Of the entire day’s activities, I will never forget Michael. Michael is a five-year old kindergartener that speaks English and Spanish relatively well. While I was helping Thomas in tracing and writing letters A, B, and C, Michael was right alongside him. When Thomas was reluctant to write any letters, protesting that he couldn’t, Michael told him in Spanish, “Lo tienes que hacer porque si no, no te vas a preparar para cuando entres a la escuela!” He told him that if he did not learn to write letters now, he would not be prepared for when he starts real school in the Fall. This amazed me. The comment led me to ponder on what my role is in this camp. The camp is not just a place for students to have fun over the summer and learn a few things here and there in Chinese class, Dance class, or Social Studies class, but rather it is a place for the students to grow and become better prepared for the upcoming schoolteacher by learning social skills, behavioral skills, and the academic fundamentals they will need later on. Yes, I am their teacher, but also their mentor.

August 7, 2013

During teacher training prior to the start of camp, one of the first things we were told was to focus on our position as teachers and mentors, not friends. To this, I was a bit thrown back; I knew that I would be working with kindergarteners and first grade students during the entire summer camp and I was going to get attached.

Throughout the camp, I learned a bit about what actual teaching is like. True, the students are not your friends. There has to be a level of separation between teacher and student. If you are too much like a friend, they can take advantage of you, seek your weakness, and manipulate you. If you are too distant, they may not feel comfortable (or willing) to do what you tell them, whether that is participate, do their assigned work, or open up about their academic struggles. Finding a balance between the two was not easy.

The correlation between the way teachers taught their students and the ages they taught was very interesting to me. I found that as a teacher of younger grades, it was much easier for me to sympathize with children if they were having a bad day—anywhere from throwing tantrums about not wanting to be in class, crying because they miss their parents, or sad and distant for reasons not even I could pinpoint. I let them sit in the corner if they wanted to until they were ready to join the rest of the class. Some would join after some time, while others opted to stay out the entire class period. After all, the children I taught are 5 and 6 years old while I am an adult. At their age, I honestly don’t see their attitudes as malicious, but rather as attention seeking. As I have been doing my research for my PSL and understanding where these kids come from, it’s not surprising to me to witness a diversity of attitudes in the class.

Most of the students come from low-income backgrounds, whose parents may work at all hours of the day and who may be experiencing violence at home. I found it especially difficult in teaching this summer as a whole because of this reason. I worked with students that were excited to come to class; some arrived vibrant and refreshed and ready to learn. Others arrived in the same clothes they wore the previous day and an unwillingness to do anything. I couldn’t help but empathize with those students. I found myself after some time devising my lesson plans to include more “centers” time. Instead of spending most of the period lecturing in the front of the class and working on a class activity together, I found that dividing my classes into groups and having them do separate activities in specific increments of time and rotating was effective in developing closer relationships with specific students on a more personal level.

As opposed to taking a more “teacher” role and simply overseeing that the class was behaving, I tried to immerse myself into the lesson or “centers” station the best that I could. Having a co-teacher to help with the overseeing of the entire class was particularly helpful in this aspect. The Centers that I usually had consisted of some whiteboard activities with my co-teacher, usually having students solve addition or subtraction problems on the board (which they loved! There’s something about white boards that the kids absolutely adored). Another station was playing with blocks and shapes on the carpet and the last station was usually a worksheet or writing/drawing activity on a few desks. I would go to each center and play with the children, testing them on skills or simply asking what they were drawing. I found it really refreshing to be able to talk to each student on a personal level and see how his or her day was. I found it to be helpful in building relationships and creating a bond of trust.

Unfortunately, summer camp ended sooner that I had hoped. Time flew by! Looking back now as I am typing from my living room at home, I can honestly say my site placement at D’Abate was definitely a learning experience. I have grown a great respect for teachers that work with younger students, especially those from underserved areas. However, that being said, I still hold true the fact that regardless of where these students come from, they are kids. Kids have needs no matter where or how they live. Coming full circle, I believe John Dewey was absolutely right in universities becoming social centers of their communities. Programs like D’Abate Summer Camp are great opportunities for the community and universities to come together. I am happy I chose to do my site placement at Brown University and am particularly excited to see where my PSL plans go in working with ELLs at D’Abate in the future.