More Changes of Plans

On Sunday, I got an email from Angela saying that due to the fact that this week is the final week of Ramadan, the PASS program wouldn’t be happening this week. In the final week of Ramadan, Muslims observe all-night prayers and must prepare for Eid, the final day of Ramadan and one of the most important holidays in the Islamic world. So Abdi decided it would be best not to have the program run for the week.

I certainly understand this (and to be honest, a week off isn’t so bad), but it was a little frustrating to get the news at the last minute. Again, I think this shows the difficulty in starting up any sort of structured learning program. It seems straightforward to help students academically; just set up a time and a meeting place and have some curriculum, and you’ve got a sort of summer school. In reality, though, it takes a whole lot of planning and foresight. As I’ve said before, the boys who participate in PASS are awesome, and I love working with them, but the disorganized nature of the tutoring sessions has been a source of frustration for me.

I’m trying to figure out what I personally can do to improve the program for the remainder of my time there. Part of the problem is that I really only have one more week left, since this week was cancelled. I have to spend the following week preparing for the upcoming year of publishing The Beacon (the student paper I work for), and then classes start. I want to provide structure and resources for the Somali community to get the help they need, but I’m not sure exactly how I’m supposed to do that at this point.

Reflections, Reflections

Last Thursday was my last day working in Shawn’s class at Roosevelt. Three weeks really went by quickly. Looking back, I’m really glad I was able to participate in the Gear Up program, despite the frustration with not being able to run the original program I was supposed to be involved with. As I’ve said before, one of my goals for this internship is to figure out whether or not teaching high school is something I really want to do or not, and working in Shawn’s class gave me a much better idea of what it’s like to teach high schoolers.

At the same time, I still haven’t come to a decision. I’m still confused about whether teaching English at the high school level is something I’m cut out for. I definitely did enjoy my three weeks at Roosevelt, but a summer school program like that probably doesn’t give a totally accurate picture of what teaching is really like. One thing I discovered is that in general, I do care about how students do in class. Being in a place of authority, it made me glad to see students working hard and turning in assignments on time. It also frustrated me greatly to see students who didn’t care about schoolwork and spent all their class time distracting themselves and others. If I do become a teacher, it will take some effort to feel compassion not only for the hard workers, but also for the slackers and the misbehavers. I think that’s important.

In fact, I think caring is maybe the most important part of teaching. Watching Shawn teach, I could tell he genuinely cared about each student in the room. He doesn’t teach English because he likes English (though I’m sure that’s also an advantage for him) but because he cares about young people and wants to help them. It’s not so much a profession as it is a life-long act of service. I suppose as I continue to think of career choices, I should consider whether I want to teach or whether I just want to do something with writing. Is service to young people my main goal in life, or do I just see it as a way to use what I’m good at?

Ramadan and Service

Because tutoring at the Somali Resource Center was not something I expected to do or planned on doing when I became an Intern for Justice, I have at times found myself less engaged with the boys there than I ought to be. Often in the afternoons when I’m tutoring there, I get tired or bored and don’t help the kids as much as I could. I haven’t totally been serving with the enthusiasm I should be. This is especially an issue because Abdi and Angela recently nominated me to be a co-teacher/coordinator for the days Cindy (the regular teacher) can’t make it. If I’m going to be a good leader and role model and servant for these kids, I’ve got to do better at helping them.

It’s Ramadan right now, and all of the Somali boys’ families are fasting. Adolescents themselves don’t usually fast, but most of the kids come without having had breakfast. For the past two weeks, I’ve admired Abdi, Samme, and Liban’s selflessness as they’ve passed out food and water to the kids while they themselves are hungry and thirsty from fasting.

This selflessness inspired me to fast for Ramadan this week. For the past three days (and I’m wrapping up tomorrow) I haven’t eaten or drunk anything from sunrise to sunset. Fasting all day really isn’t as bad as I expected it to be, but it does affect the way I go about my day. I have to get up around 5:15 so I can make myself breakfast and eat it before the sun comes up. Then the rest of the day sort of feels like it all leads up to the evening meal — I get hungrier and hungrier, thirstier and thirstier throughout the day, until 8:40 when the sun sets. I then try to take time to pray and reflect on my purpose for fasting, but I just end up devouring dinner before I’ve really finished reflecting.

Although fasting hasn’t brought me any kind of grand enlightenment, it has made me more conscious of my actions throughout the day.. The hunger and thirst throughout the day continuously remind me that I work at Roosevelt and at the Somali Resource Center primarily to serve young people, to help them learn.

Being a white guy

I’ve been thinking a lot about race lately. I spend my mornings at Roosevelt, which is known to be one of the most racially diverse high schools in the nation. I don’t know the numbers, but from the time I’ve spent there, white kids definitely seem to be the minority, while black and Hispanic students make up the majority of the student body. There is also a sizable number of Hmong (a largely displaced ethnic group from southeast Asia) students at Roosevelt, as well as recent immigrants from East Africa. It’s pretty awesome to see students of so many colors and backgrounds interacting in the same classroom.

Earlier this week, a Hispanic girl named Karla asked me, “Do you have blue eyes?” “Yes,” I told her. Hesitantly, she said “Not to sound racist or anything, but why do only white people have blue eyes?” I wasn’t quite sure how to answer the question, so I said, “I don’t know. I guess it’s just a genetic thing.”¬†After that, I looked around the classroom and realized I was the only blue-eyed person there, and one of only three white people, including the teacher.

Karla’s question stuck in my head, because I wasn’t sure where it came from or why she asked it. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed normal. People of color have to constantly answer questions about their genetic features — “What’s it like to have Asian eyes? Can I touch your hair?” Because I’ve always been surrounded by mostly white people, I’ve never had to answer questions like that. It’s good for me, though, to think about why I don’t have to answer those questions.

I’ve also been thinking about race in the context of my work at the Somali Resource Center. For a while, I was seriously questioning the value of my involvement in the program. A lot has been written about the destructiveness of the white savior complex, in which upper-class white people make themselves feel good by helping lower-income brown people. I seriously worried that taking a place of authority over a bunch of Somali kids might not be the most helpful thing for their community. But after some thinking, I felt better about it, for a few reasons. First of all, this is something Somali families in the community asked for. A couple of families came to the school district asking for support for their sons and daughters during the summer. The agency really lies with the Somali families on this one. Secondly, although several of the adults involved are white and American-born, the program is coordinated by Abdi, a school district employee who grew up in Somalia. Furthermore, two of Abdi’s nephews, Samme and Liban, have also been helping with tutoring. I think it’s good that some of the adults involved in the program know more about the students’ background than I do.

Beginnings and Challenges

I just finished day two of working full-time with the two programs I’m helping with, which feels good because sometimes working very part-time can leave me feeling unproductive.

Shawn Swanson, the teacher I’m working with for the Gear Up summer program at Roosevelt, is great. Before I met him, Liz and several other people who knew him told me that he’s a dynamic teacher who’s really successful with students. One Roosevelt employee called him “phenomenal.” After spending a day in his class of incoming 9th graders, I see why everyone thinks he’s great. Without being too controlling, he is very direct about what he expects of students and what students should expect in his classroom. He’s very efficient with time and makes sure to get each student’s questions answered quickly. Although I didn’t have much to do today during class, it was really good just to observe how he teaches. I hope to learn a lot from him about how to manage a classroom while still being a likable teacher.

The couple of days at the Somali Resource Center have been…well, not quite what the other interns and I expected. The program for tutoring African immigrant youth is still being figured out, as I mentioned in the last post, so we’re trying to figure out exactly who will be there and what we’ll be doing. Originally, the plan was for us to mostly tutor high school-age immigrant students, and we expected a fair amount of students. Yesterday, only four students came, all middle schoolers. Today two high school students came as well, and we’re still figuring out how to differentiate activities for different age groups.

It seems to me that Somali immigrants have a particularly hard time in the American education system. In high school, I volunteered for a few months at a place in my hometown tutoring immigrant students, many of whom were refugees from Somalia. They seemed to struggle even more than ELL students from other countries. The students we’re working with this summer are certainly behind in writing and reading levels for their grades. While I can’t be sure of the causes of the particular struggles of Somali students, I suspect that it has to do with the fact that many Somali immigrant families spend several years in refugee camps before emigrating. While talking to a couple of the boys at the Somali Resource Center, we found out they had been born not in Somalia, but in a refugee camp in Yemen. I’m guessing refugee camps in general tend to have very little educational support, making it hard for children to gain necessary skills for any education, let alone one in an American school where they’re being taught in a different language. It makes it a little hard to know exactly how to help the students, but I am excited to learn with them and learn how best to help them. The good news is that even though I’m struggling a bit to know how to help the students, they’re really fun to be around. The boys all have a great sense of humor, and while their joking around sometimes is distracting, it’s also a lot of fun.

What I’ll really be doing (starting next week)

There is super exciting news about the structure of my internship this summer. Although the initial plan fell through, two other programs have come up that I’ll be working with, both of which sound like great opportunities. In the mornings, I’ll be working with a summer school program at Roosevelt called Gear Up, specifically focusing on being a writing consultant for incoming ninth graders. I’ve been emailing with Shawn Swanson, the teacher who is in charge of Gear Up, and it looks like I’ll be starting this coming Monday. It should be cool to be in a classroom setting helping students with language skills. Liz said Shawn Swanson is a super direct and concise teacher, so I hope to learn something from him about how to manage a class of high school students.

Today, while the interns and I were meeting with Liz, we learned about another program starting up next week that also sounds like a great opportunity. We spoke with a man named Abdi who works with Portland Public Schools and is organizing a program for students from several African countries. Apparently, several Somali families at Roosevelt have had a really hard time getting plugged into programs through the school, and they’ve come together with Abdi asking for a program specifically suited to their needs. Primarily, we will be tutoring these students in math and literacy skills. Exactly what the structure of the program will be is pretty up in the air at this point, but in a way that’s what’s most exciting about it. We don’t know whether five or 30 students will show up next Monday, and we don’t know whether they’ll all be in high school or if some will be much younger. But Abdi and other people who have been organizing the program are so passionate about helping these families that I can’t wait to see what happens.

The program runs in the afternoons, so starting next week, I’ll spend mornings at Roosevelt and afternoons at the Somali Resource Center near PCC. I can’t wait to start working more regular hours to help students get access to the help they need.

A Change of Plans

Yesterday, during a meeting with Liz, Charlie, and Chrissy and Soudea (two more interns working with AmeriCorps), we got some unexpected news. As I mentioned in an earlier post, one focus of the summer program at Roosevelt High School was a mentor-mentee relationship between juniors and seniors and incoming freshman. So the existence of the program is dependent on an equal number of rising seniors and incoming freshman. Unfortunately, only one freshman has signed up to be in the program.

We’re still not sure exactly why, but it seems that very little energy was put into recruiting eighth grade students for the program. It is unclear whether the people at middle schools in charge of recruiting did not make it a high priority or whether there was a lack of communication, but whatever the cause, eighth graders at middle schools near Roosevelt didn’t get any information about the summer program.

The program had to be canceled. It’s frustrating because it was the perfect fit for me — it focused on high school students with writing (which I hope to do as an English teacher in the future), and it involved writing pieces of journalism (which I also have experience with). It’s also frustrating to see the juniors and seniors who were excited about the program be told that it’s not happening anymore.

The good news is that I will still have work to do. I’m not sure exactly what it will be, but I will probably be working with another summer school program for Roosevelt students. Along with the other interns, I will also be working to develop a plan for future years so that a cancellation like this doesn’t happen again. Today we brainstormed strategies for recruitment and communication to help ensure we have enough students to run a program next year.

From what Liz said, I get the impression that this sort of thing isn’t terribly unusual. There are a bunch of different people employed by AmeriCorps and other organizations who work in the district to try and improve schools in new ways, and it seems that sometimes these people and programs don’t communicate as well as they could. There are at least five summer school programs for incoming Roosevelt freshmen alone. If the different programs could be more centralized and organized, I wonder if unexpected events like this would be less frequent.

I’m trying not to feel too discouraged about the whole thing, and I know that I still have a job, but it is aggravating to see plans for really cool things fall through like this. I am still looking forward to whatever work I will do with high school students.