Last summer I had the tremendous opportunity of working at the only Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® program in Georgia at Emmaus House. The Freedom School program hopes to develop literate and independent children who want to make differences in their lives and the world. Thankfully, Emmaus House selected me to be the 4th grade Servant Leader Intern (or SLI). SLI’s are the interns chosen to work at the Freedom School sites all over the country. Once chosen, SLIs go to a yearly nationwide training held in Tennessee at the Alex Haley Farm. There, we are taught all of the Freedom School’s ways of how to address scholars, how to teach the curriculum, and what Freedom School is about in general.
The Freedom School program came out of the civil rights movement from the mind of Marian Wright Edelman who envisioned a world in which, truly, no child is left behind. In this program, where we encourage children to believe in themselves no matter how small or young they may be, we are constantly letting the scholars know that they can make positive contributions to their families and communities.
This program is unique in a lot of ways, from the books that have characters that look and talk like our scholars, to the fact that we call the children “scholars” instead of “kids” or “students.”
We call them scholars so that they feel that they are equal to the interns.
Equal here does not mean that the interns have no authority over them, but rather means that they see we are all works in progress trying to better ourselves and makes differences in our lives. Whether you are an intern or a child, we are all scholars. Learning about this program, it was clear to me that I had a daunting task ahead of me, but it was also clear that if I did a good job, the rewards would be well worth the work.
Walking into Emmaus House on that first day of the Freedom School camp I had a couple of expectations.
I had heard my scholars would be difficult, that they would be different from “normal kids.” I heard they had attitude, and that some of them were just plain “bad.”
Now to give a little bit of background on myself, I am a rising sophomore at Barnard College in New York. I am Pre- Med with an intended major of Neuroscience. I also am a martial arts instructor, and have been for the past eight years of my life, so coming in I thought I might have an edge over my co-workers who were also starting their first year working at the Freedom Schools. I thought, “Oh, I’ve seen every kid there is out there. Nothing can surprise me anymore.” Needless to say, I was wrong on all fronts.
The first day of camp was daunting to say the least. Of course, we had been trained and had an idea of what to expect, but practicing by myself is different than being put in front of kids. We learned lesson plans, cheers and chants, and classroom management, but all of that left my mind that first day and came back to me in fragments. The rest of the interns and I stood outside waiting for the kids to arrive. And so they came little by little.
Once everyone was gathered, we went to eat breakfast and I finally got to see which ten out of the seventy were mine. At the table I was a nervous wreck as one by one they came to sit down. I smiled and introduced myself as Miss Lee as each of them took a seat, and then … nothing. I stared at them and they stared at me. I didn’t know what else to say. What do fourth graders talk about anyway? Thankfully, some of them knew each other and started talking while I had my moment of speechlessness. Eventually I came out of it and I asked all of their names. They eyed me tentatively, answered, and then went about their conversations while eating their breakfast.
From breakfast we moved onto Harambee. Harambee is a Swahili word meaning to come together, and it was the only time guaranteed that the entire camp would be together every day. At every Harambee we gathered to hear a read-aloud guest, someone from the community who came to read to the scholars and talk about themselves; sang the Hallelujah Chorus and the Motivational Song, which was Something Inside So Strong by Labi Siffre; and do cheers and chants, which were mainly about reading.
Seeing their first reaction to Harambee was quite a gift. We sang, we read, and we chanted, but on the first day, the scholars had no idea what was going on. They had never been through anything like that before. Eyeing the interns hesitantly as we jumped and danced around the chapel, they laughed at our silliness. Little did they know that Harambee would become their favorite time of day, and soon they would be the ones jumping around.
After Harambee, the camp split into the different grade levels and my ten and I went to our classroom. Once we got to the classroom, it was time for the Integrated Reading Curriculum (IRC). IRC is a major pillar in the Freedom School program, and was allotted the time in between Harambee and lunch, from 9-12. That was three hours that I was going to be alone with my kids in the classroom, and I did not know whether it would be a long or short three hours. I still did not know what to expect from them. We hadn’t had time to really talk yet.
Going into the classroom I came in with smiles; and, asking them to sit down in a circle, I began to explain the curriculum to them. I explained how every day we would eat breakfast, get all of our energy out at Harambee, and then come to the classroom to read a book and discuss different topics. To help with the different subjects, we would be completing different projects and assignments to keep them interested and thinking of how certain issues related to their lives. Now, the night before, I had thought out how I would introduce the IRC to them. I rehearsed every sentence in my head over and over, trying to remember everything they taught us in training. I drilled that speech into my head only to realize, as I regurgitated it out of my mouth, that it was falling on deaf ears.
No one was listening to me. Instead, my scholars were all over the place. They were talking, singing, dancing, jumping, playing, screaming, doing anything but sitting down quietly and listening to me. Nothing I said could make them stop. And so the morning continued. Me, getting hoarser by the minute as I begged my kids to settle down and listen to the book, and them, ignoring my requests and continuing to do, quite literally, whatever. To put it simply, we did not get through IRC that first day, and I was so relieved to be able to get out of that classroom after lunch and go to afternoon activities. During afternoon activities the scholars went to art, P.E., or drama. They also went swimming and on a field trip once a week. Those activities on that first day gave me a much needed break, as I did not have to give any instructions to my ten extremely active scholars once I brought them to the art and drama teachers.
When the day was over, I went home feeling defeated.
I am ashamed to say that I had thoughts of “maybe they are bad,” and “I don’t know if there is any hope for them;” but, thankfully, I brushed it off and gave myself a pep talk.
The next day I got up and came back with a hopeful attitude. I resigned with myself that I was too nice that first day and that even if I have to be firmer, it will help all of us in the long run. I mean, I was here to help improve their reading scores, not to be their friend. I had just hoped I could do both and keep control of my classroom. I went in scared that they would start to hate me and think I was no fun, or ask to be in other interns’ class rather than mine, but they didn’t. They responded positively to the new sterner Miss Lee, and we had a great second day.
Of course, it was not perfect, as Miss Dasha, another intern who had been working for the CDF’s Freedom Schools for several years before coming to the Atlanta site, always said, “even your perfect days are not going to be perfect;” but it was such a step up from the day before that I could not complain at all. That day the kids started to engage more in the reading and we got to talk about their lives more, so that I got to know them better.
The energy that they had the first day was redirected and made into something positive and constructive.
Once I got to know my scholars more in the following weeks, I started to change some of the activities to fit their strengths. By far, my scholars’ greatest strength (and weakness) was talking. They hated to be still and quiet and write, but if I told them to come up with a song, or have a discussion, they were all eager to participate. Working with them and seeing them grow in the classroom made my job more worthwhile every day.
We, of course, had more bumps and bruises throughout the summer: outbursts, people not getting along, and attitudes, but that’s all a part of life. Not everyone can have a good day every day, especially kids. All of the problems we encountered in the following weeks only made my class closer. By the end, they were looking out for each other, almost as siblings do, and they came to me not only just for problems, but also to talk and hang out during their free time.
In those six weeks of freedom school, those kids proved every stereotype, every rumor, and every statistic about them wrong.
By the end of the summer all of the scholars were reading at or above their grade level, improving so much from the beginning of summer. And for me personally I got to see that these kids were not “bad.” I can’t believe that any child is bad. Yes, they may have their guard up at first, but if you give them love and attention, they give you twice as much love back. As much as I might have yelled, talked to, or had to discipline my class, I realized, by the end of the summer, that I never stopped caring about them. My scholars are some of the most special, intelligent, and loving kids I have ever met, and it was an absolute privilege to be with them and get to know them.
Leaving them for a year to start my second year of college is one of the hardest things I have had to do, and the only way I could get through it was to remind myself that I am coming back next summer to teach them again. The memories I made with them, I will cherish forever; and I cannot wait to make more.
If you'd like to join me in making memories and having an impact in young children's lives, apply for Emmaus House's 2016 Freedom School Servant Leader Internship Opportunities here.