By Jaziah Masters, Baylor University (2017)
This room has special meaning for me. This past summer, room 209 became my classroom, a moment any aspiring teacher will remember for the rest of his or her life. However, the joy I felt after learning my assigned room would pale in comparison to the joy I would feel only a few days later when my students entered through the door. SuperKids Camp 2015 was underway.
As part of the Shepherd Internship Program, I worked with the non-profit Park & People Foundation. Located in Baltimore City, Park & People hosts many summer programs. My time was spent with SuperKids Camp, an academic enrichment program targeting elementary students. I served as a reading counselor, meaning that I led and instructed my own class. In other words, I became a classroom teacher for the summer. At least, that was my job description on paper. Little did I know, I would be doing so much more than delivering curriculum. ‘Instructor’ would be just one of the many hats that I wore over the summer.
SuperKids Camp seeks to combine traditional summer camp activities with enriching, literacy-based education. Under this model, students will not fall behind in their reading skills and return better prepared for school in the fall. Since its inception in 1997, over 24,000 children have attended the Camp. I had the privilege of serving alongside two other returning reading counselors. Having already matriculated through the program, they returned as college students ready to assist students with whom they closely identified. Their participation was particularly inspiring. These counselors embodied the tangible success of the SuperKids model. Throughout the summer, they were a constant reminder of what my students could achieve.
I had never been involved with a program like SuperKids, not to mention engaged with the city of Baltimore. I had a lot to learn. During my week of training, I was introduced to a problem facing the Baltimore community that applies to students across the nation: “Summer loss” reflects the fact that students, particularly students in poverty, experience decline in learning when they are not in school because they do not engage in summer educational activities. Once school restarts, these students are not preforming at the level they need to be successful. As this cycle continues, the cumulative result often becomes a gap too great to overcome. This deficit can lead to discouragement, disconnectedness, and drop-out. Through SuperKids, students are able to avoid summer loss. This concept was new to me. Many, myself included, imagine summer as a carefree time when “kids can be kids.” I had not really considered that lower-income students could be at a disadvantage. SuperKids dedicates itself to increasing literacy ability in order to counter this disadvantage.
Literacy extends beyond the ability to read. I recall the day when one of my quietest students called me over to where he was reading. He pointed to a phrase and asked me the meaning behind those words. I looked and told him the phrase was in Spanish, “El Sol.” Before I could tell him what it meant, he asked, “Does it mean Sun?” I’m sure the look on his face was priceless because I immediately jumped and exclaimed “Yes!” I was pleasantly surprised that my student was able to use context to decipher the meaning. That experience speaks directly to the whole definition of literacy. In that moment, my student had used context to deduce the correct meaning. True literacy goes beyond deciphering meaning. As Eric Liu explains in his article “What Every American Should Know,” literacy is, “a matter of decoding context: The surrounding matrix of things referred to in the text and things implied by it.” The ability to understand context is a major component of literacy. Without regular practice, this skill can easily decline. This idea, though new to me, was certainly reinforced in my classroom.
Indeed, that day, the profound effect of summer loss made perfect sense to me. Children who experience summer loss are losing much more than the meanings of letters. They are losing context and entire frames of reference for making and discerning meaning. These concepts are waning because these students are not getting enough practice. I believe that is why cumulative summer loss is so difficult to overcome.
Discussions with other staff members gave me greater insight into the broader picture of how summer loss contributes, in part, to the achievement gap between lower-and higher- income students. Studies prove a major reason why students score lower on standardized tests because they do not fully understand what is being asked of them. Standardized tests across all subjects require test takers to decipher, evaluate, and apply what they read. Therefore, knowledge of the entire skill set of literacy is crucial. Summer loss must be combatted by addressing literacy skills holistically. This understanding gave me a deepened perspective on my role in Baltimore and as an aspiring educator.
I began my internship expecting, albeit unconsciously, thinking that the students I would be working with would be blissfully innocent. I saw children, particularly elementary school students, as happy-go-lucky and not having a care in the world. Many of the students that I worked with matched this description, but several did not. I witnessed firsthand what it is like when a student, even at such a young age, carries significant baggage from home. For these students, I had to be much more than a teacher. I had to be a friend while remaining a mentor. While a challenging role, it was one that I soon embraced. These students would teach me the value of human capital.
It was a bright and sunny day the first time I noticed one of my students internalizing an issue. That afternoon, the entire camp was outside playing games. Not my student! He was sitting alone picking at the grass. I did not know what I was going to say as I approached him, but I hoped the right words would come. I tried to make conversation, but got nowhere. He did not want to talk about whatever was wrong. I sat a while longer and reassured him that I was there for him if he ever did want to talk. By the end of the day, I found out that his parents were going through a volatile divorce. My heart immediately went out to that student. Some days he would come to Camp bright and attentive, and other days drained and non-responsive. This was not the only student who experienced hardships during the Camp. The need for individual attention in a classroom setting persists. I struggled with this in a class of sixteen. I can only imagine how little attention can be paid to individual needs in a traditional classroom.
Any student, regardless of age, needs to be heard. During our conversations, I listened and never press for more details than the students were willing to share. I fostered an environment of openness and acceptance. I could not protect my students from everything, but in my classroom, I had more say. Soon my students and I developed a special kind of bond, by far the most valuable takeaway from my internship experience.
I came to understand the power of personal connection. Time, energy, and effort all contributed to the bond that began to develop between us. This bond cannot be established overnight. It is built day by day. It deepens with every conversation and every teachable moment. It is forged with the games played and laughs shared. The bond I shared revolved around mutual interest. As they got to know me, and I them, we grew to appreciate and value each other. I will never forget that feeling; it made my departure almost unbearable.
Witnessing first-hand the effectiveness of the SuperKids model left a profound impact on me. I would like to see the model expanded. Children across the US could benefit from this holistic approach to literacy. In doing so, we as a nation could begin to address the cognitive and emotional gaps that rob lower-income children of greater opportunity within our society.
I am forever changed by room 209. It will always hold a special place in my heart, as will every student within those four walls. I am better for the summer spent with SuperKids and am beyond grateful for having the opportunity. For a few weeks, I was a teacher, a friend, and a superhero.