Published on August 5, 2018 – Jackson McNeil II
A Chronicle of my Summer Teaching
Jackson McNeil II
I had the privilege of spending the summer working with a group of remarkable people! One evening in May as I was social media browsing, I ran across an advertisement for a summer teacher. Higher Achievement – Baltimore was looking for teachers to work their 5-week summer academy. I found this quite interesting. Being at the tail end of my dissertation research on the effect(s) that after school programs have on student’s path to college, the connection to this organization that proposes to do just that was more than a coincidence. Thinking there was no way that I would actually be selected, I applied.
I went through the interview process, a phone conversation then an in-person interview, and to my great surprise I was offered a position as a summer teacher. I was not only surprised, but also excited. I love being in the classroom, and have no doubt that I have been gifted in that area. My fondest professional memories are back when I served as Admission, Review, and Dismissal Assistant to my aunt, who was in charge of special education services being rendered at Joseph C. Briscoe High School in West Baltimore. I loved that job! I loved the environment, the people who I worked with, and the feeling of fulfillment that I had knowing that the work we were doing made a significant difference in the kids’ lives. We built relationships with those children, and were successful at pretty much everything that we did because of those honest and genuine bonds that we forged. The children trusted us, they liked us, and because of that there was nothing that we couldn’t ask them to do and they didn’t strive their hardest to achieve – for us and for themselves.
I expressed interest in being an ELA teacher at Higher Achievement’s East Baltimore center, however, I learned via email that I was assigned to be a Math teacher in South Baltimore, Cherry Hill to be exact. One evening my wife and I took a drive over to Cherry Hill to see the building that I was assigned to. It was a dismal site to see. The building looked to me to be on the verge of being condemned. There was graffiti all over the outside of the building, windows were broken, the lawn unkempt, and chains were placed on the outside of doors to the main entrance. A plethora of emotions ran through me. Sadness that this was the place that students were supposed to learn in, fear that I was walking into an “Eastside High” situation, and anger that the whomevers allowed this to be a reality. Of all the emotions, the anger reigned supreme! My intentions walking into this endeavor was to get to the bottom of this – from day one.
The three-day summer training session began and I walked into it with excitement on my chest, enthusiasm in my legs, anger on my shoulders, and advocacy on my mind! I’ve been in the space before, so I decided rather than walking into the ring swinging, I would allow the “opponents” to demonstrate their abilities first by explaining the reasoning behind what I had seen, then, once they provided what had to be an insufficient explanation, I would pounce! This turned out to be an intelligent strategy, because in the first session of the training we learned the names of the buildings that the summer academy would be housed in, and none of them was the building that I had visited. It turns out that the address that I found on the internet was the address of a former building that was used, and in fact, I was assigned to a different building not far from the original one. The building that I saw was closed for pending renovations. I was still peeved that this had been a place of “learning,” but was relieved that it was no more. Relief soothed my mind – and shoulders – and my judgmental yet inquisitive facial expression immediately became a semblance of a smile. That smile allowed me to see so much in the room that I wasn’t able to see before. For the first time I saw a room full of people, all gathered together to support the young people who would be entrusted to us. As my anger level lessened, my heart began to open, and I could see the space for what it was – a group of truly remarkable people.
Remarkable in the sense that they all came from varied backgrounds and experiences, yet shared a common desire that was rooted in the betterment of children. Being the skeptic that I am, I saw and heard a couple of red flags, but minimal at best. They were teachers, administrators, artists, dancers, counselors, faith leaders and more. They were male, female, tall, short, Black, white, nappy and straight. The room was so rainbow coalitioned that even Jessie Jackson would have been jealous.
We were introduced to the Higher Achievement way, the purpose of the organization, and the strategies that it implores in order to achieve positive results. Again, the skeptical me wondered what a predominantly white organization could be doing to impact that lives of a predominantly Black city. What do they know? I’ve seen too many white folk coming to do Black work, and in the end do the same thing – reproduce the same racist and conformist ideologies that are embedded in the public school system. But this training was different. They actually held a training segment on race and the ways that it influences learning. They also hosted a discussion on bias and how it negatively impacts Black children. The training and conversation was not as direct or specific as I would have appreciated, however, I was impressed that the topics were introduced. That unfortunately is more that can be said about many groups who work with Black children.
I was surprised and excited to learn about the ways that Higher Achievement incorporates research-based strategies into its programming. As the training progressed, I could see the self-efficacy work of Bandura, and the influences of the Maryland Out-of-School Time Network, and culturally responsive teaching of Ladson-Billings, and even discussions about the power of relationships as a conduit to learning as discussed by Rita Pierson. It was evident that the organizers had done their research and taken ample time to incorporate it in the best way possible. I could see how the theoretical models that I’d studied are carried out in actual practice. It was exciting to see theory in action and to be a part of its impact on actual students. Throughout the training I had to suppress the urge to announce to the entire group the whos and whats that coined the different activities and processes incorporated into the programming. I was amazed at how much I actually recognized, and was even more enthusiastic about the start of summer academy when I would have the opportunity to implement this work and some of my own!
Training ended and it was finally time to begin summer academy with the students. I took great pride in the way that I decorated my classroom. Although the building was not as dismal as the one my wife and I visited, the building we were actually working in, New Era Academy, was no Hilton. There were water bugs, ants, the water fountains did not work, the water in the sinks and toilets was brown, and the air conditioning was pretty much non-existent. Still, I put much time and effort into making my room as inviting and intellectually stimulating as I possibly could (check the before and after vids).
Classroom BEFORE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dXFGEZX-hS0
Classroom AFTER: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kKT4OL1omRY
I tried to make certain that my space encouraged creativity, innovation, and provided an emotional response which would stimulate thinking. I tried to make every section of the room have purpose, and to utilize every tool that was at my disposal. I planned for this space to be the place where children wanted to come to, even if they weren’t crazy about Math. My desire was to provide an opportunity for children to gain a deeper appreciation for Math, as opposed to just teaching Math skills – hence the theme: #MathIsLife.
The kids, referred to as scholars, were crazy, awesome, cool!! They were a group of 5th and 6thgraders from the neighborhood, many having participated in Higher Achievement’s after school academy. They were familiar with one another, but of course, had no clue of who I was. Getting to know them was a journey in and of itself. As always, I began by learning their names. In my first class, I asked each of them to say their first name and spell it for me. I wrote each name down and spelled it and pronounced each one three times. They appeared quite bewildered. My intention was to demonstrate for them that I cared enough and had enough respect for them as individuals to learn their names. How often do youth development people go about their business with young people and never take the effort to learn their names? What does it communicate to a young person – or an adult for that matter – that someone thinks of them so minimally that they won’t even learn their name? I went further with this and informed the scholars that anytime I either mispronounced or called them by an incorrect name, they were entitled to four scholar tickets (tickets awarded to scholars that can be redeemed at the scholar store), a check that I had to cash at least three times this summer!
I began the summer with a 5th grade Math assessment. During summer teacher training, the Math teachers all gathered together and decided that even though the curriculum did not call for it, we thought it was useful to institute a pre and post assessment. One Math teacher is also a teacher with BCPSS, so, he pulled an assessment from their site. The result of the assessment was quite disappointing. The majority of 5th and 6th graders were not successful in the 5th grade pre-assessment. I learned that simply delivering the given curriculum was not going to be sufficient. My assessment continued with conversations and drills. I gave more basic Math problems and played games with the students to get a better understanding of their skill level. From my informal assessments, I learned that many of the students were operating from as low as a 3rd grade Math skill level. To that end, and since Math is foundational, I had to simultaneously teach 3rd, 4th and 5th grade Math skills. I taught 3rd and 4th, and introduced 5th. You can’t get fractions if you can’t multiply. The scholars had difficulty with factors in the multiplication table, so I knew that trying to get them to comprehend fractions was going to be next to impossible.
The early conversations with the scholars informed me that not only did they lack understanding of mathematic principles, there was also an apathy in their thoughts about Math. I began instituting Math chats, where we would take 10 minutes of instructional time to just talk about Math and the ways that it shows up in life. The scholars made it very clear to me that Math was not anywhere near the top of their list in things they enjoy doing. I had them journal their completion of the statement, “Math is…” The responses ranged from a picture of a person in a bed sleeping, to a blunt “stupid.” It was my intention to change that. I did some research, checked a few instructional websites, connected with other educators via Twitter and Facebook, took many trips to various area Dollar Tree stores looking for fun and inexpensive tools to use in the classroom, and sat down and gave thought to how I would triangulate the instruction that I knew was needed. Summer Academy was only 5 weeks, so I knew that whatever I came up with had to be impactful.
I rethought my lesson plans and decided that I would mix some old skool and new skool techniques. As previously mentioned, my main goal was to see an increase in scholars’ attitudes and appreciation for Math, secondary was learning the Math skills. To achieve my primary goal, I focused heavily on the subjects that we would engage in during our talks, and they ways in which I would have them interact with me. Some scholars would rather draw than talk, so I gave them the option to participate in whatever method they chose. I found online games that I used to help the scholars become more solid in their foundational skills. They were not happy when they saw me click on the link for Math Jeopardy at a 3rd grade level, however, those issues seemed to be relieved once we began playing the game. I utilized the dry erase board to have scholars practice in front of the class, and had the remaining scholars practice on their individual practice boards. We played Uno, Connect Four and other games to conceptualize Math in different ways. Placing three red chips on top of six black ones helped the scholars to visualize the fraction 3/9. Literally everything became a tool useful to conceptualize Math. One day during Gathering Time, the conversation centered around the amount of time that the scholars spent watching television and playing games as opposed to studying. When I made the announcement, “That’s Math!”, the scholars all grimaced!
Over time I saw subtle changes in the ways that the scholars conceptualized and interpreted mathematical concepts. I was beside myself when Dreonna offered to work a Math problem on the practice board when she initially informed me that she hated Math and would never work a problem in front of the class. It also made my heart putter when scholars recognized Math in different places in the world made a point to let me know when and how they saw it. I have to admit, my left eye became a little moist on a field trip when Seth told me to look at the traffic light and informed me that it was Math that determined the amount of time that the light took to change colors. I simply smiled and said, “Yes my brother Seth, that is correct.”
As much as I would like to say that at the end of Summer Academy all of the scholars had a great appreciation for Math and killed the post-assessment, but that would not be true. The fact of the matter is, there were still a few scholars who I don’t feel I was able to make significant connections with – several of them because they ended up leaving the program for family vacations and other reasons. The post-assessment told me a few things. Overall, the scholars demonstrated an 8% improvement on the scores. While this is not scientific, it did make me feel good to be able to put my finger on something positive. There were several scholars who improved their scores, and a few who performed worse on the post-assessment than they did on the pre-assessment. Without having one-on-one conversations with the scholars, it’s difficult to understand this phenomenon. That being said, when you consider the 8% increase in scores with the verbal demonstrations of conceptualization, with the increased willingness to participate, with the requests to go to Math class, with the smiles on their faces when they got something right, and with the requests that I come back to teach them in after school academy, I’m satisfied with what we were able to accomplish in a span of five weeks!
This summer has truly been one for the books! Remarkable experience,with remarkable people, and of course, remarkable scholars. I couldn’t have chosen a better way to spend my summer. When I finally cross the finish line with my dissertation research study, I plan to see myself teaching at the college level, but as brother Drake tells us, it’s not our plans but rather God’s Plan — and looking at the faces and expressions of the scholars below, I’m open to the fact that K-12 might be my life, at least for the imminent future… ?