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May 14, 2008

The last day...

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Today was my last day volunteering at Minnesota Internship Center and I have to admit... I am rather sad to leave. The students were just finishing up their animal projects, so it was cool to see their posters (which they have been working on for several weeks now) finally coming together. I helped them put on the finishing touches, gluing and cutting, and listened while they rehearsed their written lines. They start their final presentations on their research tomorrow and I am disappointed that I won't be there to see them in their moment in front of the class.

I am going to try to volunteer again at MNIC, but it is sad because I do not know if I will ever get to see these kids again. Chances are that I won't ever be in the same classroom as any one of them. There is still so much that I don't know about them and am so anxious to discover, so much beyond what their names are and what homework they need help on. I have been fortunate to have a few outside conversations with a few students, but there was not much time to do so. And in those short, fleeting moments, I have uncovered so much about their personalities, characters, and the diverse backgrounds that they come from. My service learning at Minnesota Internship Center has truly been an awesome experience...one that I can't wait to continue next semester!


(Image from http://www.davidfairhurst.com/more/goodbye_files/goodbye.jpg)

May 7, 2008

Problematic Posters

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Volunteering today at MNIC was good as always. As soon as I came into the classroom, the students were anxiously asking me questions about their animal projects. After they have gotten all the information about their animal group (what they have been working on lately), they next have to visually present what they learned on a poster. That was the task before most of them today.

It is hard at times because it seems that all the students want to ask you questions at once. I will be trying to help one student but there will be another student standing right next to me calling, "Teacher! Teacher!" What most of the students want to know is where to find a specific answer or what they "should write" for a specific question. For example, today, I was helping one student work on a question about describing the life cycle of his animal group (arachnids). He kept pointing out sentences in a book about spiders, but I kept trying to explain that he could not write just about spiders, but had to include other creatures from the group. I told him to read some of the pages and then summarize what he read. He looked at me confusedly, and then asked what sentence he should write. I told him that there was not an exact answer written out in the book, but that he had to create his own. He did not seem happy about my response and kept searching for the answer, asking me if certain sentences were correct.

I was talking to the teacher after class and I told her about students looking for one specific right answer in the text and she also voiced this observation. She said that in another of her classes, they were given a similar group project. Some students worked well, she said, but others decided that they didn't know what to do so they just sat there and did no work. When the grades came out, and those students received low scores, she said that they complained to her. They told her that they would rather just do book assignments instead so they could look and find the answers. They just wanted to see the question and look directly for one sentence from the text to answer it.

She said she wasn't sure if it was laziness on the part of the students that drove them to avoid the higher level thinking required by the group projects or if it was just a lack of understanding of the English language that pushed them to pursue the black-and-white questions and answers. I guess I am not really sure either. To some extent, I think it is both. I think the students are often frustrated with the confusion and just want to easily do the assignments correctly. I am not convinced that the students learn much this way, however. When I think back to my childhood, I know I probably did this. I am sure I asked a million questions because I wanted to make sure that I did the problems right and did well on the assignment. This is the same scenario, except these students are not young 7 year-olds - many of them are older than me.

I sympathize with them because I know how difficult it is to learn another language. I took Spanish for a few years in high school, and am starting up again next fall. I am sure that I will be inquiring quite often on conjugations and pronunciations. But I feel like by at least attempting to develop "higher thinking skills" in Spanish, I could learn so much more than I ever could seeking out answers plainly stated in a text.

(Image from http://www.eskimo.com/~lsatin/images/triangle_fire_medium.jpg)

April 30, 2008

Arachnids, amphibians, and mammals, oh my!

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These past few weeks have been quite interesting. The students had a big test on classification and kingdoms, etc., and are now starting to work on a new assignment: animal projects! The projects take the form of an informative poster that each student has to create. To begin, they are required to select a certain animal group (mammals, for example). Then, they are to answer specific questions about them (such as whether they are vertebrate or invertebrate) and then state five characteristics of their group that makes them different from other groups. To find these characteristics, the students have to look in library books in the classroom. This is what I helped them with today. For the most part, it was easy to find the information, but it was difficult to explain that they needed to find characteristics of the ENTIRE group, not just one animal in it. One student was studying arachnids, but he kept pointing out facts just about spiders, not really considering the other members of the group, like scorpions and grasshoppers.

It's hard because I can see that the students are very, very intelligent, but they just have a hard time understanding English. When I come in before class, I always have conversations with the students, and they always ask me questions about college, the upcoming elections, etc. I know they are very bright and inquisitive kids on every level. However, I can see how difficult it is for many of them to digest English readings and comprehend them enough to answer questions about what they read. The teacher in the class does an amazing job explaining things so that they understand, but I wish I knew how I personally could make things easier for them...

(Images combined in photoshop from www.flickr.com)

April 18, 2008

Yay! Volunteering!

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If I had to choose one thing that I liked most about volunteering at MNIC, I would have to say it is the people and the students. Every time I walk into the classroom, all the students say hello and are very friendly. These past couple weeks have been no exception. I greatly enjoy getting the chance to learn more about the students as individuals and to understand their personalities.

My experience with MNIC has really made me stop and consider my future. About the time when I was in second grade, I decided that I really wanted to be an elementary school teacher (before that, I wanted to be a custodian...long story....). Of course, things have changed, but I have to admit that a little piece of me is re-considering that option. I don't know if I would be good enough or would have enough patience to be a teacher, but I love having the opportunity to help people. At the same time, however, I don't know if I could ever be good enough to be a good architect or designer. I am having a tough time picturing my self doing anything career-wise. I like a lot of things, but I don't know which path to seek. I really wish I was one of those people who passionately knew what they wanted to do. At any rate, I know I will continue with MNIC through finals week and as long as possible. I sincerely hope that I will be able to volunteer here next semester, even I do not have a service learning class.

(Photo from http://www.cstrainingcenter.com/classroom1.html)

April 6, 2008

The things I have come to learn...

I apologize that my volunteer updates have been rather sporadic. Our spring break and MNIC's spring break did not coincide, so I missed two weeks. In addition, I volunteer for just an hour every week as opposed to 2 hours every other week like most people do, so I've been trying to combine my journaling into longer narratives. This way, I feel I can better sum up the work I have done and I can look back at what I have experienced in perspective every few weeks or so.

Lately in class, the students have been working on learning about cells and body systems (nervous system digestive system, ect.) and are now moving on to learning about the classification of organisms and taxonomy. I have to admit, it is a good refresher for me as well. It has been quite some time since I learned and used this kind of scientific information. I was slightly worried at first that I wouldn't remember the content and wouldn't be able to help the students. It is funny, though, how you can suddenly remember things you thought you had long forgotten when need arises.

Throughout my lifetime, I have said on many occasions, "Man, I would hate to have English as my second language." This is because I have always thought that it would be extremely difficult to learn. I mean, I am in college and I STILL could not tell you the proper usage of "who" and "whom" or the correct spelling of recieve (receive...? This one gets me all the time...I know its "i before e, except after c" but I also know that this is not always true...). Anyways, I always speculated that English would be exceptionally hard to become fluent in. I hadn't really realized how true that was until I started volunteering at MNIC.

Kids ask me frequently about the meaning of certain words, and quite often I end up confusing myself. The English language is tough...really tough. On one occasion, a student asked me to explain to him what the nervous system was. So, I broke into an enthusiastic description, telling him about the brain sending messages through your nerves to various parts of your body, telling your arm to move or your legs to walk, etc. However, when I finished, he had a completely blank look on his face. I asked him if he understood.

"What does it mean, nervous? To be nervous?" he asked.

I realized that he had mixed the two contexts of "nervous," so I tried to explain that they were different concepts. One was an emotion and one ("nervous system") meant a physical anatomical structure in you body. All in all, they are somewhat related, but they are still different.

"How is nervous spelled?" he questioned again.

"N-e-r-v-o-u-s."

He stared at me. "How is other nervous spelled?"

"Umm...well....it's...spelled the same...but it is a different thing," I stuttered.

I could tell he understood, but was confused why one word, spelled the same, could mean two different things. In all honesty, I was a bit, too.

A similar case evolved when I explained to another student the difference between "produce" (to make or create something) and "produce" (vegetables, fruit, etc.). She understood, but was also confused as to how one word could mean two different things. Just imagine for a moment that you are an immigrant, in a foreign country, and you hear the sentence in a strange tongue, "I produce produce on my farm." How confusing would this be?? I know that other languages have different meanings for the same word, but I feel like this fact in the English language, combined with all our grammatical rules, makes it extremely tough to learn.

I have such deep respect for the students that I work with because of this, among other things. Of all the students I have talked to, most of them have cited wanting to learn better English as one of their top reasons for attending school. And they have such a passion to do so. When they see a word they do not recognize, they always ask me its meaning. Then, they'll make little notes in their readings so they can remember it later. I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to try to learn a completely new language, all the while trying to learn subjects like math and science being taught in it.

There is one additional event, clear in my mind, that I know I will never forget. At the beginning of class today, a student who I work with quite often came in, looking rather sad. He smiled at me and sat down, saying "hello" and the usual greetings. He paused for a moment and then asked, "How is school?"

The students know that I attend college at the U, so I told him that I had pretty busy day and that I had a bunch of tough homework to do later.

He smiled, laughed a little, and said, "It is tough, your school?"

I told him honestly that at times it was very tough, but mostly it was a lot of hard work. He nodded his head, looked away, and then looked back at me.

"Yes well...it is much more difficult for us. For us immigrants...to understand english. To learn."


He didn't say it bitterly, more sadly, with an obvious hint of frustration. I was kind of taken aback that he had said it, but I really appreciated that he did. In college, we have our complex assignments. We have our research papers, our group projects, and our scholarly readings. But can we say that our work is more difficult than that of these students, living away from their home countries, going to classes and learning english while trying to learn other subjects and graduate from high school? I am really not sure that I can.

March 6, 2008

The DL on the SL

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For my service learning aspect of Architecture 1701, I am volunteering at Minnesota Internship Center (MNIC). The MNIC location that I work at is essentially a charter school for high-school-aged students that are not at a high-school level academically. It serves primarily immigrants, the majority of who are from Somalia. The main focus for the students is to pass the Minnesota Basic Standard Tests (BSTs), which is required to receive a graduate diploma. I volunteered there last semester as part of Design Fundamentals I and when this semester rolled around, I decided to continue at the same location.

This fall, however, I was very nervous about beginning my service learning for many reasons.
1.) I was a freshman – new at the whole college thing. From the beginning, I was stressed over my new classes, activities, environment, and workload. Then, unexpectedly, we were all told that as part of class requirement, we had to take time on our own to figure out a volunteering schedule with an assigned organization somewhere in Minneapolis. It was up to us to find time and figure out how to get there. It was the first year Design Fundamentals was designated as a service-learning course so this announcement came as a complete surprise to most of us. Volunteering has always been a passion of mine, but I always did it through my own will. In a way, I felt that this volunteering requirement was forced upon us. I was already struggling to figure things out and the thought of having to coordinate this was overwhelming for a while.
2.) I was in a huge city coming from a country town – I had no idea where the heck I was going 99.9% of the time. The Metro Transit system and Minneapolis navigation was Greek to me.
3.) As much as I didn’t want it to bother me, I was nervous about working with students from so many different backgrounds. During orientation, we were given a list of different gestures and sayings that we could not use because they could be interpreted inappropriately. For example, the “come here? finger motion is considered vulgar by many of the students. I was afraid I would accidentally say something that would offend them or hurt their feelings, which was the last thing I wanted.

Luckily, once I got into the swing of things, it wasn’t nearly as worrying. However, it was far from being easy. I was placed in the classroom of Mr. Kassim, a grammar teacher of Somali origin. His students were very beginners to the English language. Some of them could string together simple sentences while others couldn’t speak a word at all. It was quite a culture shock my first day as I sat and listened confusedly to nouns and verbs being taught solely in Somali. It was even more of a shock as I struggled to understand instructions given to me with a Somali accent.

As time went on, my tasks in the classroom varied. In the beginning, I was simply there to help students with their homework. Often, I helped them with more than just grammar. Math problems came up frequently. I was also asked regularly about the meaning of certain words or what the word for an object was in English (Answering them proved to be very difficult being that many had a very limited vocabulary. I would explain the concept of a garden hose in English, but I could tell from the look on their faces that they did not understand. Not knowing how to communicate often left me feeling helpless). Sometimes, Mr. Kassim would have me run through vocabulary out loud for the entire class. He explained that he wanted the students to hear the words with “American pronunciation? so I would read and class would repeat what I’d said. By the end of my semester in his class, my role had taken even more responsibility – I was actually teaching. Every day I was there, Mr. Kassim would divide the class. He would lecture one half while I went through lessons with the other. We worked on everything from writing out number words to making sentences using prepositional phrases. One day, I remember explaining to a group of girls the concepts of “aunt and uncle? and “grandma and grandpa.?

I was sad to leave when the semester ended, but was excited for the opportunity to volunteer again in 1701. This time around, I was placed in a life science classroom. The kids in the class are a bit more advanced and can speak English quite well. The teacher, Carrie, is extremely nice and was very welcoming. I help the students with science projects and worksheets, answering questions and providing aid. It has come to be something I thoroughly enjoy and look forward to. Every day is a new experience.

A few weeks ago, the students were working on a worksheet in which they were required to match up life processes they had been studying, like “reproduction? and “gathering food,? to given examples. I was standing off to the side, waiting to see if anyone had difficulties, when suddenly a boy’s hand shot up. I went over to him.

“Teacher, I do not understand,? he said.

I looked at the paper. He was pointing to one of the given examples: “The camel eats grass.?

I asked what he was confused about.

“Do you know what life process that might be??

“No, teacher,? he replied. “I do not understand. Camels do not eat grass.?

I looked at him slightly puzzled. Not knowing what to say, I commented, “Oh…they don’t??

“No.? he said. “In Somalia, camels do not eat grass. They eat the rainforest. I have only seen them eat the rainforest.?

I was quite surprised. I’m sure that when the worksheet was made, no one thought twice about the concept of a camel eating grass. They probably thought it was a simple situation – the difficult part should have been matching the processes, not comprehending the example.

Another day, the class was discussing animals and the questions they had concerning them. The subject turned to snakes and reptiles. A student raised his hand and commented that one morning in Somalia, he woke up to find a giant snake curled next to his bed.

Some time later, I was walking through the hallway. Up ahead I could see strange objects lying on the floor, but could not discern what they were. As I came closer, I saw that they were shoes, nearly a dozen pairs, all scattered near a large door. I looked up and noticed a paper sign taped to the white paint. The words “PRAYER ROOM? contrasted sharply in large black font.

The little things like this are what I love about volunteering. I truly learn something new about the students or about life in general each and every day. It was indeed difficult at first to be pushed out of my comfort zone in such a strange, new, college environment, but I do not regret it. I have learned so much about my self and the world I live in that I would never take it back. I just hope that I have helped the students as much as they’ve helped me.



(logo from http://www.mnic.org/)