I had a pair of outside eyes come observe the literacy program yesterday because they were curious to see what exactly happens at the after school program Read for Life that I coordinate with a core of retired elementary teachers.
Upon her arrival I showed her the two first grade classrooms where she observed nearly every first grader of the 22 first grade students with a one on one tutor. The students were actively engaged with their tutor doing a wide variety of activities from singing poems to "in the saints go marching in," a sound blending activity with a penny, or a comprehension activity involving using context clues to discover what the hidden word could be based off its first few letters. I showed her the different sight word games, letter bingo, flashcards, and various library books we use to support the first graders. We have plenty of things to keep them busy!
I explained to her that the majority of our volunteer tutors are retired elementary teachers or have some sort of extensive tutoring background with literacy, but of course there are volunteers from the community with no background in literacy training who want to be part of this type of service. We support those volunteers by pairing them with someone with more experience so they can bounce ideas, tips, and explain any questions in addition to me and the committee I work with.
Next I showed her the second grade room which has 14 students and nearly that many tutors. The second grade room is different from the first grade rooms mainly because second graders are SO much more mature than first graders. They can handle much more structure and don't need to take a break for the bathroom etc and can easily work through the whole hour we have them.
She asked why we only focus on first and second graders and I explained to her that there's another after school program pointing down the hall towards the cafeteria and gym where they take the 3rd through 5th graders till 5:15pm for students who have not passed the Michigan state test up to state standards. That program I believe is funded completely though the school district with grant money they receive through that. The students in that program get a hot meal too, which is astonishing when you consider how many students in this area live in food insecure homes. Students take the Michigan state test in the fall in the beginning of their third grade year, so really this test designed for 3rd graders is basically testing students with a second grade knowledge base. There is no way students already behind in second grade are going to pass this test, which is where the program I work with comes in.
She then stuck around to see some of the parents come pick up their kids. At one point she turned to me after a student left and whispered in my ear surprised, "that little boy has holes in his shoes the size of my fist." First of all, I was not surprised; second of all, I did not even notice. Like I have said so many times before, a lot of the things most people do not consider 'normal' have become super normalized for me. But it still bothered me that I didn't notice and I mentally kicked myself saying "Amanda! You have the resources/know the right people to easily get that boy shoes, how come you haven't noticed this before."
When I went home that night still pondering the shoe thing I suddenly realized why I didn't notice. At the end of the program I am busy passing out fruit to students for them to take home and helping parents sign out their students. There are roughly 10 students who I am always super concerned/aware of and I am doing everything in my power given my position to make their lives just a little bit easier and the way I approach this is by giving them fruit to eat. You just intuitively begin to figure out where the need is by the way the children approach you asking about food and I always ask those students how many children there are at home and send them with that amount of oranges. You just never know, that piece of fruit may be dinner for that child and their siblings that night. Of course, not every child in the program lives in a food insecure home, but a lot of them do... and when their guardian comes up to you and gives you a hug and whispers in your ear thank you, you know that the need is there.
As for the student with the shoes, he is not one of my 'most-urgent-need-to-tune-into' students. I hate to say it that way, but he is a very happy kid, has a great, caring, and loving guardian, and has made HUGE leaps in our literacy program and really has come a long way. Plus, he lives a few houses down from me and I see him around the neighborhood and can say at the basic level he is well cared for.
So simply said, food > shoes.
However, now that I am made aware of the shoe thing I will be on the look out for shoes.
When the lady observing left she said, "wow you are really doing great things here with this program. The need is definitely here you can see it...." then she trailed off for a second holding back tears and then said to me "I'm sorry the wheels are turning in my head. I need to get going." I told her "alright, thanks for coming! I'm sure I'll be in touch with you."
It's nice to hear that from the outside and then to see that someone 'gets it'. Sometimes I get so used to what I'm doing that I'm like.. I don't even know if this is making a difference or even matters to people outside this community. Not to mention how emotionally difficult this sort of work is and the poverty you see on a daily basis.
It's the type of work that grabs your heart, rips it out from under you, tears it into shreds, and then reconfigures your whole inner workings and worldview and completely changes you.
That's exactly what this year has been like for me, but I wouldn't have it any other way.