Daniel Grear, a student at Hendrix College, participated in the 2013 Shepherd Internship Program, where he interned with Life Pieces to Masterpieces in Washington, DC. Grear is an English major and a member of the Class of 2015.
photo by Seneca Wells
6:00 a.m. sharp. The sound of metallic reverberation bombards my window as a construction site sputters awake. Welcome to the utterly predictable scheduling of urbanity. Though I open my eyes to an apartment of three roommates, I am out the door before any of them are out of bed. An early awakening ensures that our children will spend very little, if no time without the supervision of their parents. I greet my fellow intern, Rachel, in the lobby of our apartment complex and we walk to the Foggy Bottom metro station, only 100 feet from our front door. Our walk to the metro is surrounded by high-rises. We live in a very affluent part of town. The metro station is teeming with white men and women dressed almost exclusively in business attire. I feel a bit out of place in shorts, a T-shirt, and sandals. Our commute is no shorter than 30 minutes. By the time we have made only a few stops, the number of passengers dwindles and only a handful of faces, all a different color than my own, accompany us on the train. I witness firsthand how racially and economically divided Washington, DC, still is.
Once we arrive at the Capitol Heights metro station, a Life Pieces to Masterpieces (LPTM) staff member picks us up in a large white van. Because we are Caucasian, our employer doesn’t feel comfortable with us riding the bus to the LPTM office, which is housed on the second floor of a nearby elementary school. As soon as we open the door to the van, we’re greeted by the warm smiles and early morning grumbles of five or six apprentices—African American boys ages 5-12. I offer a “hello” to each child and am quickly reminded of how family oriented our organization is when I’m immediately referred to as “Brother Daniel.” Each of these children has been picked up only minutes before I arrive. The children we’re serving live in Wards 7 and 8, home to some of DC’s most low-income neighborhoods.
As soon as we arrive at the elementary school, the van-riding children are ushered to the playground to blow off a bit of steam before their day of hard work begins. Our high school mentors lead a cardiovascular exercise while I keep my eye on wandering children who are less interested in following instructions. Fifteen minutes later, Rachel has finished preparing breakfast and we lead the children inside by way of an undulating single-filed line. The children scarf down their breakfast with varying degrees of vigor, depending on whether they were fed or not at home.
After breakfast, our 30 children are divided into two groups: 15 that will come with me to American University to work on academics and 15 that will stay with Rachel at the elementary school to hone their art skills. The commute to American University is taxing and tiring, but the students embrace the excitement of a new classroom. Traveling across town to a real college campus engenders a feeling of importance. They recognize that they have potential that is worth investing in. Our academic purposes are for literacy, comprehension, and above all, confidence. In addition, our summer program’s overarching theme is Connecting Communities Across the Globe, with our focus country being China.
The beginnings of our days at American University consist of group time in which all of the students commit to striving for a “visionary day,” or one with inspiring adherence to our guidelines of respect and cooperation. Soon after, the boys divide up by age. Two DC Reads tutors, volunteers from American University, aid each of the groups. I work with ages 7-9. Today, we introduce a new book entitled “The Ugly Vegetables,” about a Chinese-American child’s struggle to understand why her family grows vegetables instead of flowers like the American families. Initially, we ask the students to make predictions from the book’s cover exclusively. Some predictions are creatively ridiculous, others are insightfully accurate, yet all suggestions are welcomed and applauded. Soon after, we allow each child to blindly select an item from the “Mystery Box.” Each item relates to the story in one way or another, allowing for more informed predictions. Finally, after anticipation has been properly built up, each child takes a turn reading and sharing the illustrations with other children. This is not met without a struggle though. There are clear discrepancies in the reading capacities of the children. We ask patience of the more efficient readers. As attention wanes, it becomes clear that lunch is around the corner. The smell of grilled cheese sandwiches being prepared by Aunt Lo wafts into our corner of the room.
We ensure every child both a first and second helping of lunch in the hopes that we can supplement the potentially small amount they are given to eat at home. Some students are clearly hungrier than others, though it is difficult to tell whether this is the product of their disposition or of their home life. Regardless, all of the bellies fill by the end of the hour. After serving the children, I sit and eat with them, discussing their favorite video games and superheroes. These children are surprisingly resilient, the effects of their poverty often hard to see behind happy faces.
The afternoon offers a little more variety than the morning. We instruct the children to sit quietly in anticipation for a performance. The DC Reads tutors have worked hard to prepare a shadow-puppet show, a means of expression originating in ancient China. The children giggle, hoot, and awe as the tutors exaggeratedly bring “The Ugly Vegetables” to life. Next on the agenda is for half of the students to work one-on-one with DC Read tutors on literacy-based assignments. The other half remains with me for play practice. Because we’ll be performing for LPTM donors at the end of the summer, expectations are very high. The older students were assigned lines a week ago. Not one child has brought their script. Tempted to get frustrated, I decide to see how well they do with winging it. Surprisingly, many of the students have their lines memorized. One child in particular talks about how he’s been rehearsing both diligently and daily with his parents. I could not be more proud. Our next hurtle to jump is delivery. Most of the children speak their lines timidly and lack emotion. We make very little progress in this area today, but I’m hopeful. They become more comfortable with their lines each day.
After the students have swapped activities, it’s time for a closing circle. We reflect upon our behavior for the day, congratulating students who we deem “visionary” and encouraging others whose behavior fell a little short. Our final activity calls for the recitation of our process: “Connect, Create, Contribute, Celebrate.” After an eruption of applause, we pack up and head back to the LPTM office where the students are bused back home.
The changing faces of my metro commute home quickly remind me that these children and I inhabit very different worlds. We are, however, both encompassed by the same bustling city.
Life Pieces to Masterpiece’s stated purpose is to “provide opportunities for African American males ages 3-25 to discover and activate their innate creative abilities to change challenges into possibilities.” In the past, LPTM has been an almost exclusively art, and mentoring-centered, program. This philosophy engendered a generation of young men who were respectful, well behaved, and hardworking. These young men stood out amongst their fellow classmates and were given the thumbs up as they moved from grade to grade. LPTM boasts a 100 percent high school graduation rate for boys who commit to the program throughout high school. Problems began to arise, however, when the revelation that the behavioral excellence and maturity of these students was allowing some of their academic needs to be overlooked—teachers often incorrectly assumed that such respectable young men would eventually catch up. Some of these students were successfully graduating from high school with detrimentally poor writing and reading skills, leaving them ill-equipped to navigate the job market or ill-prepared for college-level studies.
This complicated predicament has inspired a new area of emphasis for LPTM. Only in the past few years has an extensive academic portion been added to the curriculum. Because of its novelty, the academic program has noticeable kinks. To begin with, very few staff members have explicit training in education—I was just as responsible for the formulation of curriculum as the permanent staff. As much as I was sincerely delighted to be given such an integral role in the crafting of our lesson plans, I felt unprepared considering that I’ve taken but one education course in college. In addition, students ages 5-12 were often taught readings out of the same book. As much as we did a decent job at dividing up and catering more comprehensive and challenging questions towards the older students, this fact was still severely limiting. A more intensive study into what kind of expectations teachers should have for each age set is absolutely crucial for the optimal success of the program. Finally, though testing is often seen a product of impersonal institutionalization, progress reports are necessary. Aside from what seemed to be infrequent narratives that attempted to approximate, we essentially had no way of measuring the progress our students were (hopefully) making. In order to ensure the success of students, as well as a steady flow of appeased donors, the affect of our work must be tangibly manifested.
Life Pieces to Masterpieces’ purpose has succeeded in providing an opportunity for these boys to fundamentally strengthen their confidence, self-worth, and sense of stability. These young men have truly found a home at Life Pieces. Where improvements must be made, however, is in the teaching methodology. In order to best ensure more real-world “possibilities” for these students—in order to take most advantage of these students’ potential, a restructuring and revitalization of LPTM’s academic program must take place.