Every day during the Summer in the Village camp at Elon University we opened our class of rising eighth and ninth-graders by asking them to write a brief essay or short commentary about a subject selected the night before. We gave them 10 minutes or so to write and then all were asked to read aloud what they had produced in front of the class.
The routine remained the same on the last day of the two-week camp Friday morning at Elon’s Lindner Hall – with a notable twist. The teacher, Marie Alston who is an administrator of pre-K programs for the Alamance-Burlington School System, and I would also participate in the writing. On Friday, the prompt written on the classroom whiteboard wall asked us all to provide our thoughts about Summer in the Village this year and what could be done differently. It also asked participants to write something positive about another person in the class. Names were drawn to avoid the kids only writing about someone they knew too well. My name and that of Ms. Alston were put in the hopper, too.
Across the board the students gave the camp, carried out three hours each morning, high marks. They all felt it was interesting, educational and sometimes fun. They either learned things or had things they already knew reinforced before going to the next level in school. I’d say they graded Summer in the Village an A-minus. Nearly all had something they would change. The biggest one was reintroducing special courses they called “encore,” which I gather offered things like art, dance and photography during the camp in previous years.
Meanwhile, I wrote the following.
“For me the Village has been an eye-opening and delightful experience. I see so much potential in each of you. I hope you continue to strive to reach it.”
As for offering a positive observation about someone in the class, I drew the name of a camper named Melvin. He’s a tall and thin teenager with a head for science. During the class he made very structured arguments during debates. His writing showed a subtle flair and a knack for humor. This is what I told Melvin, who said this week his career goal is to be a computer programmer.
“Melvin seems so serious but he really has a wonderfully dry sense of humor.”
His friends – all sat together during most of our sessions and played basketball together during breaks — nodded in agreement and said, “That’s right.”
I breathed a small sigh of relief.
Back in March when I told Dr. Jean Rattigan-Rohr that I might be interested in volunteering to help the camp, I had no idea what to expect. Jean is director of the Center for Access and Success at Elon, which oversees the Village Project. It is an outreach program Elon created to provide afterschool learning sessions for students in Alamance and Guilford County public and private schools. The Village Project is billed as an aid for students who might struggle with reading or other aspects of school. Some come from homes where English might not be the primary language. I found them all to be incredibly bright and talented. A handful are very gifted writers, well beyond their grade level in fact. Every single one is more gifted in math than I am right now.
The fact is, most are far ahead of where I was as a rising eighth or ninth-grader back in 1972 and 1973. For example, we never saw algebra in middle school. It was a high school-only math course. These 2017 campers know their algebra very well and have yet to attend even a day of high school. One student, Anna, was the author of a short story I couldn’t match until I was at least 18. Three students – Camilla, Michelle and Alex – produced poems of astonishing depth.
Even a month before camp started I began to get some buyer’s remorse for my overzealous decision to volunteer for something I had no experience in — dealing with kids. A thousand thoughts went through my mind in a whir, like: “What have I gotten myself into? I can’t do this. I don’t know doodley squat about kids. I never raised kids, I don’t even know that many kids. Sure, I had nieces and nephews but I only saw them for short periods of time, but I guess they liked me OK, so maybe … Nah, no way. How did I get myself into this fix? How will I talk to them? What the hell do I have to teach them? Damn, how did this happen?”
Yes, the truth is, I’m not an overly confident person even in the best of circumstances. This was heading into a blind curve at 100 mph without much idea of what might be around it.
As I mentioned, Marie Alston was most certainly the teacher and has decades of classroom experience. She knew most of the students already and made sure things moved smoothly and that we arrived each day with an engaging lesson plan that would include writing, reading, math, social studies, history and civics. We talked about everything from the potato famine in Ireland to the Electoral College and virtual schools – the latter touched off a lively debate. Watching Marie I marveled at how much interaction teachers must have with students on a nonstop basis. Questions can come from six different angles at once and more than a few are knuckleballs in the dirt – things almost impossible to answer.
She made my role much easier. I was merely the volunteer and the decision was made that I would be a sort-of writing coach. We had our starting question each day and ended with students writing in their own journals — something no one had to share. Many took advantage, some didn’t. Hey, it’s a camp, not a prison. We wanted the kids to enjoy themselves, too.
“We’re not here to make your lives miserable,” Ms. Alston told them at one point. They called her Ms. Marie and me Mr. Madison.
“We’re not?” I asked, something that actually got a little chuckle from the students. That was one of my high moments.
If I learned anything over the past two weeks it’s that I’m probably not teacher material, for the long-term anyway. As a volunteer I could fake it for a little while, but not over the long haul. These kids are too sharp. I already knew we don’t pay teachers enough. What I learned the last two weeks is that it’s not nearly enough. Engaging students and keeping them engaged is far more than a parlor trick. A high level of skill and knowledge is involved.
The best lesson there came on Thursday, the penultimate day of camp, when Marie had a staff retreat at the ABSS central office and would be unable to attend camp that day. She gave me plenty of notice – more than a week that I would be flying solo. Oddly enough the day she let me know about the change in schedule was also a day when she arrived a couple of minutes late for the start of the morning. Before Marie arrived one of the students, Nemiah, asked me, “What happens if Ms. Marie doesn’t make it to class?”
We’ll find out next Thursday, I thought to myself. What I said out loud was this: “Well, there will be very little math that day.”
Because the thought of facing 13 and 14-year-old kids scared the crap out of me, I made a plan days in advance. Before we entered the second week I asked the students what they wanted to do after finishing school, their career choice. I wrote down what each student had to say. We had a great range of choices from doctors – one said she wanted to be an oncologist – to law enforcement officers. One said she wanted to be a singer / entertainer / designer. Another listed being a photographer / journalist / entertainer. One mentioned real estate (“I love HGTV,” she said). A start-up appealed to one student while another said he wanted to be a nanoscientist and perhaps develop weapons systems.
“Watch this kid carefully,” I said to myself. “He could be the next Steve Jobs.”
For my solo flight on Thursday my plan was to take this list of careers and not only dig deeper into what their hopes are but also look at possible paths to achieve those goals. I also wanted to have a discussion about the different paths we take in life. And note that no matter how much we plan, sometimes events force us to take a detour.
Next, I followed some advice offered years ago, probably when I was in high school. “If in doubt, ask for help.”
Because I’m relatively aware that there’s safety in numbers, I contacted my friend Adam Constantine, the social media director for University Communications at Elon. Adam’s life has had a few interesting twists. He was a communications major at Elon and played on the basketball team. Later, he played professionally in Bulgaria, Israel and a few other stops before injuring his leg, which also ended his playing career about five years short of his goal. He turned to a Plan B and utilized the skills he learned during his studies at Elon. It led him back here to a career in a field that didn’t really exist when he was in college — social media. But while in the School of Communications he learned video production, photography and writing.
It’s a great story he tells very well. Adam also has classroom experience and enjoys being a mentor for students.
We began Thursday with a short essay question about school uniforms. That touched off a great discussion with a variety of opinions given. Ms. Alston supplied the math problems for the day and the students worked them easily and without further questions. I think they knew neither Adam nor I could supply much help there anyway. We then launched into a roundtable look at their career goals. We talked more about what they wanted to do specifically. Fernando, who had an interest in law enforcement, said he really wanted to be a 911 dispatcher. Jasilyn, who said she wanted to be a singer and entertainer also noted that she was interested in the business of entertainment — searching for talent or being an agent. We talked about what steps each student would need to take in order to attain their career aspirations — from pre-med to obtaining a real estate license. Adam was a great teammate. We kept the conversation moving with observations and offering examples from our own lives. The students did their part by expounding upon their dreams and career desires.
That took us to the late morning when I wanted to rehearse for the main activity on the camp’s final day — a presentation by each student in front of their families. We had decided in the camp’s first week that each student — or they could work in small teams — would produce something in writing, in music or visually. Most chose writing short stories, essays or poems. One student, Anthony, created a photo gallery from the camp and three of the girls, wanted to do something with music. On Thursday we set up the room for the presentation, rehearsed a musical greeting for the parents and practiced the presentations.
And that’s how I survived the day. As it came to a close I asked Nemiah how we had fared in Ms. Alston’s absence. “I think we did good,” she said.
On the final day Ms. Alston returned and we started with the writing prompt about the camp I mentioned earlier. In a small coincidence, Melvin, whose name I had drawn, also drew my name. Asked to write something positive about Mr. Madison, Melvin said, “Mr. Madison is intelligent and he’s good at explaining things so people can understand.”
Maybe I wasn’t so bad after all.
During the last three hours I asked for us all to be in a group photo so I could remember our time together. That was maybe the hardest thing we accomplished during the camp. After that, their parents came in and watched their children perform. They were very proud of their kids and so was I. They were all great in their own ways.
As we said goodbye, all the parents and students shared thanks for our help. I got one or two hugs. I had longer conversations with a few of the parents and then the room emptied. I erased our math problems and lists from the whiteboard walls and helped Ms. Alston take things out to her car. I told her I enjoyed working with her and appreciated all the guidance and help she provided. “If I do this again next year I’m asking that you be there with me,” she said as I walked away.
I may just take her up on it.