Wednesday, August 29, 2012

IHAD it!

This term I'm sitting in on my colleague Sigmund's honors section of HON 479: Cultivating Global Citizenship, our school's interdisciplinary senior capstone course. (As Director of the Honors Program it will often fall to me to teach this class, and I'd like to see how someone else puts the course together before I do it myself.) The course addresses modern ethical systems, exposing students to these systems and helping them to understand how to apply those systems of ethics as they take part in an incredibly diverse and dynamic society.

The honors section of the course features a service learning component, in which the students tutor for an hour and a half each week at the I Have a Dream (IHAD) Foundation, a privately-funded program which gives academic support to at-risk youth, helping them to build the skills they need to succeed in middle and high school and to continue on to college. Last Thursday the class met at the IHAD's center, located in the Pisgah View Apartments (public housing development) in West Asheville, about five blocks from one of my usual running routes. Kieran, IHAD's on-site director, led the tour and Eugenia, his assistant, helped out. On that day the students were asked to complete their volunteer forms. I filled one out, too, deciding that the best way to become fully acquainted with the class would be to get in on the after-hours activities, too.

Yesterday was my first day at the center, working alongside five students in the class. It's been a long time since I've tutored, and a long time since I've worked with at-risk youth. The experience was a wonderful one, and eye-opening.

Each kid has to complete whatever homework she has for the day and then read a specific number of pages. The amount each kid reads depends on her grade level: sixth graders read six pages, seventh graders seven, and so on. Once done with each task the kids receive special marks on the cards they wear around their necks on lanyards, and they can receive "dots" (made with a Sharpie) for exceptional effort; dots can later be traded in for various treats and honors.

I worked with four kids, one at a time. The first student, Efrem, had no homework, so we went right on to the reading. He was an eighth grader, but after glancing at the print size in the book Efrem had chosen (a digested version of Dickens' Great Expectations) Eugenia asked him to read ten pages. This he did, and quite well, actually showing excitement at several points in the story. (He loved the word "idiot." Who doesn't?)

The next student struggled far more mightily: Umberto, another eighth grader, was clearly behind his grade level in reading and writing. He'd had to write a story for his language arts class, and the paragraph he'd produced was rife with errors, mostly in spelling and orthography. "It doesn't have to be perfect," Eugenia had told me as she'd paired me off with Umberto. Nonetheless, I hoped I could hit on some of the major problems. We went through the paragraph carefully, and each time a word didn't read the way he read it aloud to me, I stopped him.

"Are you sure that's what you said?" I'd ask. And we'd work it out. It took a while. The reading took some time, too. He was clearly not confident in his reading ability, stumbling over every fourth or fifth word, simply omitting words he didn't have any idea how to pronounce. We stopped several times per page as I asked him to say a word over again or puzzle a word out. He was very patient about this, and I rewarded him with a dot for his efforts.

The next two students were the most fun ones to work with. Ulysses is one of the IHAD program's most popular students. He's a precocious and bright seventh grader who had to work with me on his math homework and his reading. His math he flew through, reducing fractions like nobody's business. He clearly knew what he was doing, and he even caught his own errors. When it came to reading, too, he was a pro, but it was like pulling teeth to get him to read his allotment. He slogged through six pages before trying to cut a deal with me at the end of every sentence on the seventh page. "Can I stop here?" "No, you need to read another paragraph." "Can I stop here?" Nope, one more..."

The last student, Bertrand, was a great kid. A tall and slender eighth grader, he was struggling with problems none of the other tutors there that day knew how to handle: reducing cube roots. The center was clearing out: nearly every other kid was done with his or her work, and no one had dared help poor Bertrand. Eugenia turned to me; she knew that I teach at UNCA, but she didn't know what subject. "Do you know anything about this?" she implored.

" do know what I teach?" I told her, and it was as if the clouds parted. I sat down and started to work with Bertrand. The first couple were slow going as he got the hang of what was going on. I tried to explain it intuitively as well as algorithmically, but I didn't know what sort of conceptual basis he had to build on. We worked out four problems of the five he'd been assigned, leaving the last for him to finish later. "Thank you for working with me," he told me. I think it might be one of the slogans they teach the students to use ("I'm sorry for running into you; it was an accident" is another, for instance), but he said it with earnestness and sincerity. I was touched. I shook his hand.

"You're very welcome, Bertrand. It was a pleasure meeting you." I hope I get to work with him again.

I look forward to working with these kids. It was a pleasant an escape from the craziness of campus. It's good to be reminded that education is more than measurable outcomes, curricular reform, and recruitment and retention benchmarks. It can be simple, as simple as helping a student struggle with the word "sputtering" or with reducing 6/8 to lowest terms.

We can all stand a good dose of such simplicity.

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