My interest in education has manifested itself in different ways over time, from making mini books on different subjects as a fifth grader, to writing and communicating ideas as a beat reporter for The Daily Princetonian. However, serving as an advisor to two high school girls last summer and listening to educators talk about their profession through the campus group Students for Education Reform this past fall inspired me to explore teaching as a possible career.
I decided that a Princeternship with Citizen Schools— an innovative afterschool program helping students become academically successful, with an eye towards college—would provide a great opportunity to learn about effective teaching methods and the specific challenges of urban education. The Princeternship did not disappoint, and I was very thankful to have been able to participate in the program.
At 10:17 am, I boarded the Dinky with a copy of the NJ Transit schedule on hand, along with fellow Princetern Allison. After traveling to Princeton Junction, we hopped on another train and headed to Newark Penn Station, where we talked and ate brunch before catching a bus ride to the site of Citizen Schools: Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School (K-8).
After signing in at the school’s security desk, we were led upstairs by the campus director, Mr. Jose, to the Citizen Schools staff office. There we exchanged greetings with our host, Sylvia Monreal ‘10, a two-year teaching fellow who had graduated from Princeton with a degree in Politics. Sylvia introduced us to a member of the office who was prepping for the day’s fun team-building activities (“flick the cup” and jellybean relay races) and then gave us a quick tour of the building. Afterward we went outside and talked on the blacktop, where the students were having recess.
Citizen Schools partners with public schools to provide afterschool homework support, math and language arts instruction, college visits, and apprenticeships for students in grades 6–8. Sylvia explained to us that although students normally elect to join the program, the Martin Luther King site is unique in that student participation is mandatory. Because the school is rated as “Failing,” the program’s goal has been to raise students’ test scores and grades as a “turn-around” approach.
Two years after the program’s implementation, scores and grades have gradually improved. However, Citizen Schools faces a new challenge because the regional superintendent has announced that the school, along with a number of other low-performing schools in Newark, will close at the end of the year and be replaced with charter schools. In the face of all the uncertainty regarding the future of the school and the Newark Citizen Schools program, the teaching fellows work hard to keep the students motivated and focused on their work, which I find very admirable.
While on the blacktop, a number of students introduced themselves to Allison and me and asked us where we were from and what work we were doing. Meeting the Citizen Schools staff was also great. Although most of the fellows were busy preparing lessons, a few talked with us about why they had joined the program and discussed the challenges and rewards of teaching. One staff member who had majored in Theater as an undergraduate said that he drew upon his acting skills frequently to engage students. He also mentioned that the students had put on a play about bullying in line with the new bullying laws set by the state that went very well. Another teaching fellow said that he tried to meet the students on their level—playing basketball outside with them on the playground, for example—so that he might get to know them better and earn their trust and respect.
That afternoon, I rotated through several different classrooms managed by teaching fellows and recorded observations about student-teacher interactions and teachers’ pacing of different components of their math and English lessons (e.g. 3-minute hook, 5-minute introduction of new material, 10 minutes of guided practice, etc.). Although several students acted out during the program, the teachers handled the misbehaviors very well and with great patience. Overall, I thought the first day highlighted some of the challenges educators might face on a day-to-day basis.
When Allison and I arrived at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School for our second day of the Princeternship, we were immediately recruited by a teaching fellow to help with lesson preparations. Afterwards we talked with another fellow who showed us a program he used to analyze student grades and standardized test scores and create more personalized and effective lesson plans. For me, the day as a whole involved much reading and discussion of teaching methodology: Sylvia had sent us a number of resources the fellows used to create lesson plans, such as the book Teach Like a Champion and their own Lesson Internalization Plan (I-Plan). Both stressed the need to hold students accountable for giving answers in the classroom and for teachers to push students to provide more accurate explanations, in complete sentences that helped them better express their ideas.
After observing teachers in the classroom, I had the opportunity to sit in on two apprenticeships, the term Citizen Schools uses to refer to specialized modules like engineering, film, marketing, or dance taught by local community members. The first apprenticeship I observed involved culinary arts; students made homemade cookies from flour, egg, vanilla, oil, etc., some of them cooking for the very first time. The second apprenticeship was engineering-based and involved making mini “Bug-bots” using clay. Students in the apprenticeship constructed a simple circuit to light up a pair of LEDs, which I thought was a really creative way to teach principles of electronics. One of the students was very interested in electronics and told Allison and me that he intended to participate in a local LEGO robotics competition offered for middle school students.
Although Sylvia had to take an absence from Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School on the last day of our Princeternship, Allison and I arrived on campus before receiving her notification and stayed to continue the day’s observations. After helping one of the program directors with office tasks—creating two monthly calendars to hang on the wall—we entered into classrooms again to shadow teachers.
While in class, I met two students who were curious about where I was from and what college was like. I was happy to speak with them and answer their questions before they had to begin their homework assignments. During the lesson period, I thought that the instructor did a great job of using the Socratic Method to ask students to identify the mood and theme of their assigned poem and provide evidence for their claims. In another classroom, an instructor played a science review game that involved answering a question after catching a kickball with one hand.
At the end of the classroom observation period, I sat in on a documentary apprenticeship led by a team of students from Rutgers. The goal of the apprenticeship was for students to make a mini-documentary using Flip cameras about a social issue they cared about. In past weeks, the students had decided to make a film advocating for the construction of a park in their neighborhood so children and teens would have somewhere to play. I thought the Rutgers students and Citizen Schools teaching fellow that assisted them did a great job prompting the students to think critically about how they might lobby for the construction of the park as filmmakers. To get the students thinking, the instructors asked questions like: “Who do you want to interview for the film? Who would support the construction of a park (e.g. parents, youth, and community members)? Who would oppose it (e.g. police, community members against tax increases), and why?” Overall, the project seemed very positive—the students were learning how to think critically; gaining confidence and sharpening interpersonal skills by learning how to conduct interviews; gaining technological literacy by learning how to use a camera and edit video; and finally, making a direct positive impact on their community.
Observing the three student apprenticeships was one of the highlights of my time at Citizen Schools. The experience showed me the creativity possible in writing and implementing lesson plans and how such lessons could produce benefits for students beyond the classroom. Coming out of the Princeternship, I think I would like to explore opportunities for two-year teaching fellowships post-graduation. I am very thankful for Sylvia Monreal, Citizen Schools, and the Princeternship administrators for making this learning experience possible.