Friday, August 16, 2013

Graduate Student Reflects on First Month in PC: Teens Rise to the Challenge!

Anna Hallman, Project Coach Graduate Fellow

Anna Hallman is originally from Middlebury, Vermont. Anna spent her freshman year at Gettysburg College, and then transferred to Smith College. She graduated from Smith with a degree in Education and Child Study, with a concentration in Elementary Education. In her senior year, Anna volunteered at Project Coach running college application workshops, college tours, and a Spin-A-Thon fundraiser for the program. As a graduate student, Anna is looking forward to gaining experience in higher education, and to contributing to Project Coach alongside her fellow Red Shirts (PC Fellows). Below is a reflection Anna wrote on her first month of her Project Coach Fellowship. She clearly experienced what is so magical about Project Coach - the ability for a teenager to step outside their comfort zone, receive support and positive feedback, and to find new confidence and power. 

Our experience in Holyoke was fulfilling, challenging, at times, and enlightening. We began our work in Holyoke, with 20 students interested in Project Coach for a variety of reasons. They seemed to excel in their growth and understanding of PC within the first week. Certain students were clearly stronger than others with the coaching component, but as we explained to the students, everyone had his/her own strength, and could contribute to the team in unique ways.
From a literacy perspective, it was fascinating to observe the students strengths and areas of improvements with reading, and more specifically, reading out loud. Each week, we asked students to preview a children’s book - all of which are sports-themed. The preview would typically take place on Monday or Tuesday during class time. On Thursday, the students were asked to read aloud, in small groups, with the children of the Boys and Girls Club of Holyoke. For some of our high schoolers, reading out loud was one of the scariest aspects of our program. For others, reading came more naturally, and did not activate major anxiety. We encouraged every student to read at least once during the program, and I believe that the large majority did. The first week was successful, but of course, there was room for improvement. 
The second week proved most challenging. Before I go on, I must clarify two things: first, we are reading in a gym, which presents a deficit from the outset (the children struggle to stay focused in a gym, not to mention their burning desire to just play rather than listen to a story); second, the high schoolers received one lesson on how to read to children - with the exception of that, and as much positive encouragement and support that each of the Red Shirts could provide, the students were largely depending on prior knowledge and experience with reading (which could have been positive, or negative). However, despite the odds, the students persevered, and did an incredible job the third and fourth weeks. We spilt the children into smaller groups the last two weeks, spaced them out as best as we possibly could given the space, and loosely assigned one PC Fellow to each reading group. The other factor that seemed to make a difference was my prepping the children before the high schoolers arrived; I would do a picture walk with the book of the day, first to give them a heads up that, “Today is a literacy day,” and second, to activate their prior knowledge, and get a sense of what they already knew (which was often an astonishing amount). I felt so proud of the high schoolers by the end of the program. So many of them overcame great apprehension and anxiety in order to read aloud. And while it felt tedious at times, and as though we were asking them to complete a great task without a tremendous amount of prep, as a whole, they took the challenge in stride, and impressed us with their professionalism, their bravery, and their perseverance.
Like with so many things, it felt as though we were just getting to the “good part” at the end of our time in Holyoke. That said, I remember the month of July with fondness, and am encouraged by the students’ ability to learn as quickly as they did. Our work is a tremendous learning experience, not only for the students involved in our programming, but also for us. Our time in Holyoke was telling of many of the obstacles we may face this year, but also of the sense of achievement, happiness, and excitement that comes from doing the work.

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