Category: Chicago

Home from Chicago

This past week has been one of the greatest experiences of my life in many ways. Our ASB team began the week in Chicago in typical tourist fashion. We spent Saturday afternoon and Sunday braving the cold and exploring the city, stopping to take many group pictures along the way. These two days provided the group with an opportunity to bond before we began our direct service – and bond we did! It was evident from the very beginning of the trip that there was no better group of people to share a week of meaningful service with. On Sunday night, I went to sleep unbelievably excited to start my week of service the next morning.

First thing Monday morning, the group headed to Northwestern Settlement, the settlement house that provided us with an abundance of great opportunities to serve. The morning was dedicated to a brief history of the settlement house, an overview of all of the services they provide to the community, and a quick tour. It was evident from the moment we entered the building that the people of Northwestern Settlement were some of the most generous and empathetic people I had ever met. Their philosophy that “everyone is a neighbor” really shined through. Their warm hearts were evident from the way they welcomed us and the way they treated each other. We spent the afternoon helping AmeriCorp’s Project YES! with a Martin Luther King Jr. Literacy Day. It was a wonderful opportunity to help show students of all ages and their parents that reading can be exciting!

On Tuesday, we got to see Rowe Elementary School, which educates students from kindergarten through sixth grade, for the first time. We spent the majority of our time at Rowe learning about their mission as a charter school. The Rowe Elementary teachers and staff quite obviously care deeply about the future of their students. Each child is called a “scholar,” the classrooms are all named after colleges and universities, and the different grade levels go by the year in which they will potentially graduate from a four-year college. While I do think that such a strong emphasis on college at such a young age puts a lot of pressure on the students, I also believe that it is important to engrain the idea of college in their heads. The majority of these students come from families where nobody has attended college. Without the encouragement of Rowe, a lot of these students would probably grow up believing that college is not a possibility for them. I think it is important that Rowe teachers not only tell students that they CAN get into and graduate from four-year college, but they also show students that they should have high goals for themselves that they can achieve if they work hard. Rowe Elementary also places an emphasis on social-emotional learning. I think that this is an important aspect of learning, especially for younger students, that many school systems have completely removed from the curriculum. Rowe starts off every day with an extensive greeting during which students engage in guided conversations with one another. Every day closes with a brief reflection on the day. Students also attend one enrichment class (such as drama, physical education, or yoga) every day. I think that it is very important that the teachers not only fills their students with factual knowledge, but also encourage their students to seek self-knowledge, develop passions, and explore meaningful ways of self-expression.

The next day, we went back to Rowe Elementary in the morning. I was placed in a third grade classroom. While I was in class, I got to observe a brief lesson on poetry. Then, the students got to write poetry on their own. I was instructed to walk around the classroom, answering any questions students might have and helping everyone include line breaks in their poems while the teacher helped a small group of students who needed extra help. The students were instructed to write about something from their “hearts;” they had previously drawn maps of their hearts, including everything that was important to them. It was amazing to see the different passions that each of the students had. Two stories that I heard stood out to me the most: one student shared with me that her dad had abused her and I was very grateful to learn that she no longer lived with him; another student was writing a poem about his father who had been shot and killed. The ease with which these students told me these things that I perceived as tragic blew my mind. Then I realized that this was, sadly, the reality of the world in which they lived. Things that I could never imagine happening in my lifetime happened to these kids every day. Suddenly, the passion that these students had for learning and the care and encouragement that the teachers gave to them became immensely more meaningful. Without this school, students would have no safe place to explore and develop who they are and who they want to become.

Later on Wednesday, we went back to Northwestern Settlement and helped out with the food pantry for a while. The generosity of the people who worked there completely blew me away. Not only did the food pantry workers give out food to those who came for it, but they also had genuine conversations with every individual about his or her life. If there was something that they needed help with, the food pantry workers helped them. If they couldn’t help, they found somebody else who could. They were always sure that every single person had everything they needed. After the food pantry, we headed back to Rowe Elementary for an after school program. Dean McKnight, Emily, and I were placed in a kindergarten classroom where we led games and kept the students company while they waited for their parents to pick them up.

On Thursday, we went to our team leader, Yanel’s, charter high school, Noble Street College Prep. In the morning, the students were taking practice ACTs, so Jeff and I helped the English teacher we were assigned to with things he needed done around the classroom. (I got to cut more strips of paper than I ever imagined.) After lunch, we got to help out during classes. At the end of every class, the teacher set aside 10 minutes for the students to ask us any questions they had about college. They were all anxious to learn about our college experiences. It was obvious that these students were all motivated to succeed. The environment of support that Noble provided for the students was shocking. The principal informed us that, as far as he knows, four different Chicago gangs are represented in the school. Based on how well-behaved the students were in the classroom and in the hallways, I never would have guessed that. The amount of support that the teachers gave to the students and the students gave to one another was astonishing. In one class I observed, the whole class would break out in “snaps” to celebrate an exceptional answer. It is so important that Noble provides such a safe and supportive environment to these students who would likely be stuck in a dangerous, failing public school if it weren’t for the dedication and hard work of the Noble teachers.

On our last day of service, Friday, we got to help out with the HeadStart Program, a federally-funded program that provides pre-K to families in need. I got to help out with two half-day classes. The one thing that I experienced that meant the most to me on Friday was the bond that I shared with one girl in particular. She speaks mostly and Spanish and I speak not a word of Spanish, and yet I could still tell that my presence meant a lot to her. She would always gesture that she wanted to sit next to me and play with me. It was amazing to me that even though we don’t speak the same language, she could see that I really cared about her and all of the other students. The students in HeadStart are very lucky to be there. The program provides 3, 4, and 5 year olds with social and educational opportunities that will help them excel in elementary school. Without HeadStart, they would likely not have the skills that they need in order to meet or exceed expectations in kindergarten. The dedication that the HeadStart teachers had to their students was also apparent. They taught most lessons bilingually, so that all students could understand. They also placed an emphasis on creativity through art and dance. I think that the teachers are doing phenomenal work to provided these students with the tools to succeed when they move on to kindergarten.

I was very blessed this week to explore two schools and a pre-K program that are doing great work in the field of education. I believe that every single student I interacted with will succeed thanks to the dedication of the teachers and the structure of the schools which they are lucky enough to attend.

Unfortunately, not all schools are as successful as the schools with which I had the opportunity of working. I strongly believe that the education system needs to be fixed. Schools such as Rowe Elementary and Noble Street College Prep and other successful charter (and even public) schools can provide great models for the education of the rest of the country. I believe that if we pour enough time and resources into educational reform, we will see more successful students doing great things to better the world. If we fix the education system from the very youngest, providing even pre-schoolers with opportunities such as HeadStart, eventually, all of our problems will be solved. These students are the future. And if we provide all students with similar opportunities to those I observed this week, then the future will be brighter than it has ever been.

After this week, I intend to keep learning about what makes schools successful and what makes schools unsuccessful, and I will advocate for education reform.

The Noble Experience

Today we did our direct service in Yenel’s Alma Mater, Noble Street Prep College. At first we talked with the Superintendent, Michael Milky, and then Principle, Mr. Olsen. They discussed their mission and answered any and all of our questions. What stuck out most to me, and many in my group, was how humanizing and accessible they made issues like gang culture and racial prejudices. I greatly appreciated when the principal shared his views on his students; saying that whenever he hears a potential teacher or otherwise refer to his students as “these kids,” red flag are raised. It really challenged how I thought of oppressive language. Whether it be a racial slur, “politically incorrect terminology,” or “These kids” and “those people, they all label and categorize a group of people based on unfair and arbitrary reasoning.
The second half of the day we split up. Most of us experienced the classroom environment and helped specific teachers. I, however, had the opportunity to help a group of teachers, all from the Junior class, who were working on a new leg of their curriculum. Observing from the charter school teachers’ point of view, I was blown away by the immense devotion that the teachers had for their students. That day they had received a report of a large increase in their students’ practice ACT scores; and the the teachers were basically as exuberant as the students. I was also touched by how cognizant they are of every aspect of their facility in order to create the most conducive learning environment. While discussing a potential assignment, these two teachers were very careful that the wording of the quiz did not come across as violent. it was obvious that the teachers did everything they could to make their students feel safe and secure, and I was so moved by their dedication to their students’ success. One last thing about the learning environment, every time a student got the right answer, participated, and even when I was introduced to the class, there was a chorus of snaps in welcome and congratulations. The mentality of the class was all about being the best you could be.

Daily Updates and some Musings

Team Chicago started off the day with an awesome exercise with Adventure Stage Chicago.  Adventure Stage Chicago is an organization that runs theater workshops for local schools.  They also work with pre-teens from the city to discuss their life stories through the arts.  A professional playwright uses their stories as an inspiration for a full production that is put on for the entire community.  Representatives from Adventure Stage Chicago ran a theater workshop for us that focused on thinking creatively and bringing stories to life.  We became closer as a team and agreed that these types of activities are especially important for inner-city middle-school students because they face a lot of peer pressure at that age and are still trying to define themselves.  It’s important for them to have the chance to develop themselves and express their stories through art.

In the afternoon, we visited Rowe Elementary School, a relatively young charter school for kindergarten through sixth graders.  Their three core values are pride, success, and honor.  We were impressed by the strictness and academic rigor of the school.  The school emphasizes college graduation from a young age.  Each classroom is named after a university and each class is referred to by their future college graduation year (ex. Class of 2030).  The students took us on a tour of the school and we were allowed to observe classes.  Many of the students have ambitious goals, such as going to Harvard and then studying law.  Later, we discussed the pros and cons of exposing very young children to college.  Some of us thought that it was important to talk about college at a young age for these children because most of them will be the first in their families to attend college, and they will not be able to rely on their parents to guide them through the process.  They might also face more difficult challenges in the future, such as pressure to join a gang, and it could be important to have them develop goals at a young age so that they aren’t deterred by negative influences.  However, many of us also thought the school was over-exposing the students to college, and that starting at such a young age could put too much pressure on them.

Our last activity was going back to Northwestern Settlement and speaking with the director of group services there, Mr. Alatorre.  He gave us an overview of the settlement house’s history.  The settlement house has a history of serving immigrants.  Initially, it served mostly eastern European immigrants.  Over time, the area has become predominantly Hispanic, and Mr. Alatorre told us that currently there are many immigrants from Ecuador.  We were all impressed by the dedication of the staff to the house and by the wide range of programs offered to neighbors of the community.  After touring the house, we went to an Indian restaurant and had an awesome reflection while waiting for our food.

Today was very important for me.  I’m beginning to appreciate more fully the value of education in service.  Two years ago, I think I would have been frustrated that we weren’t doing more hands-on service, but now, I find myself really loving days like today.  Because of the presentations we saw today and the discussions we’ve had with our team leader, I feel so much more prepared for our direct service tomorrow.  I understand it’s important to talk to the younger kids about our college experiences, because most of them won’t have family members who went to college.  I also understand that some of the high school students we’ll be working with might not welcome us warmly.  While I hope that this won’t be too much of a problem, I’m beginning to understand why it might.  Our group talked a lot about how it might feel to have volunteers come into your school and try to help you and why we might meet some resistance.  Before today, I wouldn’t have even thought this would be a problem.  It’s clear that the past two days of education will have important effects on our next days of service, but I think it will have even more important effects on us after this trip has ended.

The past year, I have thought a lot about how much of an impact ASB trips have on the communities we serve and on the students who participate.  The most common criticism of programs like ASB is that they are only a week long, and that’s not enough time to have any major, lasting impact.  In a way, this is true.  While I hope that our interactions with the students this week will inspire them to pursue higher education and to set their goals high, and while I believe the smallest of actions can have consequences beyond our knowledge or even imagination, we are not going to solve any social injustice in a week.  It takes lots of time and commitment to an organization to impact it in a major way, as we heard from the people at the settlement house.  Because of this, some people might question whether our time and financial resources would be better spent on long-term projects, or if we should just donate the money we spend on trips instead.  As president of ASB, I probably shouldn’t be admitting this, but I have had my doubts.  However, I have spent a lot of time thinking and reflecting the past few months, and the past few days in particular, and here is what I have to say:

Our mission as an organization is not to change the world in a week.  Our mission is to create positive change and foster passion for civic engagement among Lafayette’s student body.  To use Landis terminology, we want to move students along the active citizenship continuum, so that one day we may all be active citizens.  Being an active citizen isn’t just about doing hands-on service on a regular basis – it’s about taking what you’ve learned and applying it to your daily life.  It’s about questioning why our service is necessary, what the root causes of social issues are, and how we can best address those causes.  It’s also about trying to find answers to those questions through critical thinking.  We’re not going to solve the problems that ail Chicago’s education system this week.  But when I start to have thoughts like this, I like to remind myself of the poem “The Long View” by Oscar Romero.  My favorite lines are as follows:

“We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.”

This perfectly sums up what we are doing this week.  Some people in our group have studied education before and want to become teachers.  Others did not know what a charter school was before we discussed it during pre-trip meetings. No matter what our background is, though, we are all being challenged by our experiences this week.  I see it in the questions the team asks during activities, in our amazing and insightful two-hour reflections, and in the discussions people strike up when we’re on the train or sitting in our hostel room.  Seeds are being planted in us, just as we hope to plant seeds in the students we’ll work with this week.  And when we return to campus, we will work to water those seeds within us and to plant seeds in our peers.  It could be something as simple as reading an article about Easton’s school budgets in the newspaper each week, or researching a candidate’s views on education before voting.  It could be speaking up when we hear others talking about why the arts aren’t important in our schools, or volunteering to tutor at the local Boys and Girls Club.  It’s these small changes to our daily life styles that can cause lasting change.  Not everyone on our team is going to study or pursue a career in education, but that does not mean we cannot contribute to education reform.  Another thing that I absolutely love about ASB is that you can take the skills you learn here and apply them to any other area of your life.  For example, some people on our team want to go into medicine.  Hopefully, if they do, they will think about the communities they’ll work in, about how income inequality and poor education can contribute to health. This can better inform them as to how to work with patients to improve health.  The kind of critical thinking skills and social awareness we develop on these trips can help us to become active citizens in other fields.  This is why I am so passionate about ASB and our social change models and why I believe that experiences like this are so important.

MLKJ Day: A Day “ON”

This morning we finally set out for our first day of direct service, working with Northwestern University Settlement  House (NUSH). I could describe how we initially got on the blue line going in the wrong direction due to poor train labeling, but that’s not important.

We started with a brief tour of the NU settlement house, which, we were informed, is the oldest consistently operating settlement house in Chicago (since 1891). We saw their conference room, which used to be a pantry, a bingo room, and a coffee house all in one. We were also shown the newly renovated pre-K room, which was a good way to see how the large amounts of funding -both public spending and private donations- for the settlement house have been used to improve the facilities. We also saw part of the Noble Street Charter School, which adjoins the house, including its very nice theater and its cafeteria.

We then spent the next hour or two helping set up for the day’s event: a Day of Literacy in honor of Martin Luther King Jr (remembering the holiday today). I helped set up a reading room geared towards younger kids in the basement. We rocked it, I have to say -the Americorps people said so, at least. People also helped set up decorations and a “railroad” tracks around the event area to lead to certain spots in a family-friendly way.

Then brown bag lunches in a conference room with a glass tabletop. Nice.

But the highlight of the day was working with other volunteers to provide activities related to reading for children. The idea was to give them access to reading materials, as well as other  forms of expression that inspire them to read and enjoy reading. I helped some kids design colorful “bookmark buddies” that they can use as place-holders and companions when reading. These activities were particularly enriching for us because it gave us the opportunity to interact with our target population at last.

After the event and dinner we sat down with a handful of volunteers from Americorps to hear about their experiences in high school, with the organization, and when working in charter schools. They were all extremely friendly and open about their personal stories. Our conversation with them was very eye-opening and provided a unique insight into the experiences of those who have made long-term commitments to combating this issue.

In the evening we held a reflection session to discuss the day and all of our experiences. We especially focused on the question: Charter schools are known for instituting strict systems of deadlines and discipline that show signs of helping kids get accepted into college, but is this the key to success, or is it “hand-holding” that does not help the kids by teaching them self-discipline and autonomy?

Also a shout-out for Yanel for making a sandwich for me for lunch tomorrow while I use my time to write this blog post instead.

Down jacket is all packed, ready to brave that brisk Chicago tundra!

I can’t believe that tomorrow I will be going to Chicago! It’s crazy to think that winter break is almost over, but I am so excited that I have the opportunity to go on this trip. I am currently trying to help Jackie pack all of her winter clothes into one small carry-on bag, but I’m sure we’ll succeed. I am looking forward to learning more about the Chicago school system and the difference between charter, public, and private schools. I think I am most excited about working with kids and tutoring them, as well as visiting Chicago in general. I know that this will be a very interesting and rewarding trip and I can’t wait for it to begin!

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