I began my service year with the Washington Reading Corps in October, at Olympic Middle School in Auburn. Many aspects of my life were new at that point: new town, new apartment, a new job requiring new skills. It was scary at first, and I spent the first couple weeks trying to find my way around. I felt a little displaced. I was the new guy at school—just like in sixth grade, when my family moved from West Seattle to a tiny town called Kenmore at the north end of Lake Washington. Okay, maybe the experiences weren’t that similar, but I made the connection nonetheless. Suffice it to say, I had a feeling of un-belonging in both places, of wandering adrift.
But things at Olympic quickly settled down, and I began to sense a rhythm to my work. My days begin in the classrooms, with three wonderful reading teachers: Seraphine Gerber, Karri Millican, and Jill Barrett. In each class are different students, different teachers, different classroom dynamics, and often different teaching material. Depending on the day, I will work with small groups of students to co-teach a lesson, or provide one-on-one assistance during individual work time. I especially enjoy teaching vocabulary to the kids, because words fascinate me. Sometimes the teachers ask me for definitions of words, and my tendency to answer unerringly has led to a rather bookish nickname: the “Walking Dictionary”. Sometimes I am recruited to help administer the reading fluency tests that monitor the students’ progress throughout the year. This I enjoy as well, because I can often hear, from across the table, actual improvement being made. I am immensely grateful to the teachers for allowing me into their classrooms. Each day, I can only hope that I am enriching the experience in class, for all parties involved.
The Washington Reading Corps (WRC) places tutors in elementary and middle schools where literacy—defined as the combination of reading fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary—is flagging by state standards. As a member of the WRC team in the Puget Sound Educational Service District, I have more than sixty colleagues working in schools all around the South Sound area, doing more or less what I do at Olympic. All told, we have so far worked with and recruited 687 volunteers (for a total of 7,200 hours served), tutored 1, 869 students who needed assistance, and led 180 activities for our respective schools and communities. These are numbers gleaned from our monthly reportage, and they speak to the caliber of service we provide as a team.
I would be remiss to describe my acclimatization to Olympic without giving due credit to Stacie, my site supervisor and director of the afterschool program, CASP. Stacie has mentored me from day one, introducing me to the school staff, easing me through the paces of the afterschool program, and generally providing really great advice for any situation I happen to find myself in. Her skills as a facilitator are as instructive as they are effective. I now feel comfortable and competent with groups of kids in my care, thanks mostly to Stacie’s guidance.
In CASP I am given the opportunity to plan activities that I personally find interesting—for if the tutor is passionate about the subject, the tutee is more apt to learn. My activities thus far have included Lexicology (word-based games and challenges), Egg-speriments (science experiments with eggs), Chemistry in the Kitchen (cooking with a scientific bent), and the Science of Cycling, a month-long project delving into the physics and mechanics of bicycles, ultimately culminating in the restoration of a number of donated bikes. All of these activities are carefully written out and scrutinized by the staff, and changes—if (when) needed—are made on a day-by-day basis. If something doesn’t work out, we troubleshoot and adapt. If there is one overarching theme to my experience in CASP, it is this: Expect the unexpected, but prepare for everything.
Working at this position has opened my eyes to the world of middle-school teaching. Each day I see the successes, the not-quite-successes, and the “not-gonna-try-that-again”s in the classrooms. I see the trials and triumphs of the teachers and students, and increasingly I feel like a part of this pivotal stage of their lives. The kids constantly surprise me with their intelligence, humor, wit, ribaldry, and craftiness. I have to give them credit: Every day of this job brings something new, and they’re the source of it.