Sawyerville Day 1
In June 2020, I was ready to serve as a teacher at Sawyerville. Excited to be stretching my education skills, I was assigned to teach science to third graders. Throughout the shutdown spring of COVID, I was eternally optimistic that God would find a way for us to share His love with the kids of Hale County, but it was not to be. Working with kids face-to-face in Greensboro was not an option last year, so the creative minds of the Sawyerville staff from the Diocese of Alabama found a way to deliver Camp-in-a-Box (a box full of books, math activities, outdoor games plus school supplies) to over 100 campers last July.
This year was my year. Contacted in early February, I volunteered again to work with elementary kids for a week in June to help improve their reading and math skills. I took vacation to do it. I looked forward to it for months. I thought I was ready.
I was not. Having worked in this county previously with the Inservice Center of the University of Alabama and with the University of West Alabama, I truly thought I was prepared for this amazing opportunity to share God’s love in a way that would make a difference to these kids and this community. I understood that there was poverty. I knew there were many students who were grade levels behind in reading and math. I appreciated how different things would be in Hale County just thirty miles south of Tuscaloosa. I was wrong.
Since I had not been at Sawyerville for the first three weeks of the session, I had a steep learning curve on my first Monday morning. We started the day in the lunchroom with the kids after they finished their breakfast and cleaned their tables. We took our first group to our classroom. First mistake—I didn’t have my list of kids with me, but, thank goodness, another teacher told the kids who usually went to Ms. Callahan to go with me. Next mistake—I tried to pronounce their names using my knowledge of phonics. The creative spellings threw me for a loop. Nope, I had to ask them to say their names for me. Mistake number 3 was that I gave out the workbooks they had been using for the previous weeks without knowing what they could and could not do. I asked them to turn to the last page they had completed and to explain to me how they got the answer to the problem 70-39. Everyone had 21 written down, but not one student all day could explain how they got that. This all happened before 9:00 am. I knew it was going to be a long day.
Because of my job as an education consultant, I often have to prepare for a lesson on the fly. This skill served me well at Sawyerville. I quickly abandoned the workbook plan and found ten frames and counters in my math box of manipulatives. (cards with ten boxes and circles with red and yellow sides See picture).
We started again from the top. What was 6 + 7? They counted on their fingers. I asked them to use the cards and counters to figure it out. They obediently put 6 red counters and 7 yellow counters on the card and still counted on their fingers. Because I am a teacher, I revised my directions. First, we did the problems by counting on our fingers (so the sum couldn’t be more that 10); then, we used the counters. For some kids, this still did not make sense. The teacher in me kept trying to show students ways that the numbers made patterns. Since I had five groups, I am sure by the time group five got to me just before lunch that I had at least figured out a better way to teach them math than going through the workbook.
After lunch was creative writing and art, both of which I love. I was sure I could engage them in a fun lesson. I used a sentence frame for my first writing assignment:
My favorite superhero is _________________________ because _____________. And then they were to draw a picture of the superhero.
It broke my heart when they didn’t know any superheroes. I had to make a list on the board. I hoped that once they saw the list they would have a better understanding, but no. I realized that these kids didn’t have Disney+ and hadn’t been to the movies in over a year. I was disappointed in myself that I didn’t think the assignment through. However, the kids had fun writing their sentence and drawing their superhero. All of them wanted me to come admire their drawing. I marveled at the Superman, Batman, and even Captain America drawings, but I was sad that these kids didn’t know Black Panther or Wonder Woman. This made me vow to make better connections between content and background knowledge whenever I am working with students in the future.
Um - are we done with Monday yet? No, not yet. The other activities that my students did with me in my room were computer games for reading and math. They were using two sites that I gave out to teachers over 20 years ago—Cool Math and ABCya. Now, I know there are good things about these sites, but there are so many more engaging sites out there. I helped them get logged on to the computers and find the game they wanted. That first day, two boys challenged me to a jet ski race that had addition facts. I took the challenge, but just barely won, because my reaction time for finding the correct answer was not as fast as theirs. They were impressed that I won, so then other groups of kids challenged me. Ending the day with friendly competition was fun.
Exhausted as if it had been my very first day of school in 1991, I drove back to Tuscaloosa and took a two-hour nap. When I woke up, I called my friend Kay, a retired elementary teacher, and said, “I am coming over because I need help.” I had printed some handouts that I thought were on the correct level (2nd-3rd) grade; however, Kay nixed some of those because they were too hard or had too many problems. We talked to our friend Beth, who loves teaching math, and she gave me some good ideas for using the ten frames, cards, oral problems, word problems, and more. I felt better prepared for Day 2.