This American Life: Harper High School, Part One


This is a story about a Chicago high school that had 29 current and former students shot in one school year. It’s incredible, in the way that The Wire is incredible, except that you know The Wire is fiction on some level. And this is a real school, real kids.

The most eye-opening thing for me was the idea that these kids don’t “join” gangs. They’re in them automatically based on where they live. Staying neutral is essentially impossible.

I’m tempted to put a nice button on this post and relate it back to my experience, but I can’t do that right now, and possibly never. It’s not honest.


How do you do your job, anyway?

Workplace comedy!
Workplace comedy!

Week 2 of volunteering at Wellstone was much like the first. It’s probably the highlight of my week, although I’m a little concerned that it’s going to be mad intense to teach 5 days a week. But sometimes I’m just so bored at my office job it’s starting to look like a good trade-off. Be careful what you wish for, Sarah… I do feel like I have to do something worthwhile instead of just pushing papers or rubbing on spa bitches.* Something that’s fun and a little unpredictable, though, unlike my grant-writing job.

One class is starting to be my favorite. I think it’s because I know the students’ names better than the others. And the reason I know the names is because there are some squirrely kids who drive the teacher bonkers and she’s always calling them out by name. They don’t seem like bad kids, so they amuse me a lot more than they do the teacher. If I were trying to cram a lot of information into 50 minutes, I have very little doubt that I’d feel differently.

One of the teachers I work with suggested that I talk to the student teachers about their impressions of the program. Maybe I’ll ask if I can email the student teachers my questions. We don’t have a lot of time between classes, other than a 30-minute lunch. Or maybe I can sneak in one question a week so they begin to dread the sight of me. All I want to know is, “Can I do this?” and they can’t really answer that.

This post is kind of all over. What I really want to ask is, how do you help someone learn without just giving them the answer? I know the theory is leading questions, but I have trouble doing that. For example, I was helping a fourth-grade girl at Homework Hub who had a two-page reading about aircraft carriers (yeah, weird) and some questions to answer. She said she was having trouble finding the answer to one of the questions in the reading. I found it and told her, “It’s in this paragraph. See?” She didn’t really get it right away, so I was like, “It’s the Battle of XXX and the Battle of YYY.”

Did she learn something from that? Maybe she learned that the answers are there if you look for them. I don’t know if she learned a lot about aircraft carriers, but that’s probably not the ultimate point of the lesson anyway. The real question is, can I teach? I don’t think I need to know how to teach NOW–that’s why I’m going to school–but can I learn?

*Not all my clients are spa bitches, but you know who and what I’m talking about. If not, I’m happy to explain it in detail over beers.

Thoughts on my first day of volunteering

Please enjoy this kitten.
Please enjoy this kitten.

I’m going to organize these better and probably expand a few out into their own posts. But for now:

  • The teachers and many of the students seemed happy to see me. That’s always nice. I wasn’t sure if the teachers would know what to do with me, but they mostly used me as extra help. It felt a lot like Homework Hub, and I think that experience was extremely helpful.
  • I was in 3 different teachers’ classrooms. They all had different styles of teaching that mostly seemed to work (hard to make an exact comparison, especially after one day). One of those teachers has to write my recommendation for grad school–who will it be?
  • I like that the school day is broken up into 50-minute chunks. It helps the day go faster. It works very well for me, although in the classes with extended reading times, it interrupted some of the students before they’d finished their books. I hope they get to finish books and assignments the next day, but I don’t know–I’m only there once a week.
  • Since I’m working with ELL students, they have to read simpler materials. Some of the books I read with them were little kids’ books. I would think that would be kind of boring, but maybe these students weren’t thinking about reading for pleasure.  They certainly seemed to be appropriate for their reading levels. It was a little weird to tell one student to quit macking on the girl next to him and get back to “Turtle and Snake Go Camping.”
  •  Standing all day is hard on my back, and I was wearing my comfortable snow boots. Note to self: no heels. Sorry, fashion.
  • When I was in school, I was fascinated by the teachers’ lounge, the only room I was never allowed into. Well, guess where I ate my lunch on Tuesday? Mm-hm.