Sunday, November 22, 2009

How can you help?

(Guest post by Jaremy's favorite Aunt Katie)

I'm sure that many of you have been reading this blog and wondering what you can do to help. Well, we have the answer. As Jaremy has mentioned previously on this blog, this school is located in the lowest performing school district in the lowest performing state in the nation. Most of his students come from the poorest of circumstances and hope for much better. They can not afford to buy their own supplies, and when Jaremy supplies them they don't seem to make it back to class. I am currently organizing a few different groups that are putting together supply kits for each one of Jaremy's students (130 total) and was hoping we could get all of you, Jaremy's friends, involved. I have talked to Jaremy and identified the basic supplies needed to help him teach these students better. We are going to put the supplies together into kits that will stay in the class room for use there. Our hope is that this project will not only supply the kids with things they need to learn, but also show them that there are people out there that care about their success.

(my kids, Max and Afton, holding a completed school kit)

We have already put together a few kits and found that each one costs about $10.00. My hope is that every one of you will sponser 1 student by donating enough money to purchase the supplies for 1 kit. I know that money is tight for most of us, but think of what you could give up this month in order to help with this project: 1 lunch at Cafe Rio, one night out at the movies, I'm sure we can all think of one thing we can skip this month. I know, I'm starting to sound like one of those infomercials 'for the cost of just one cup of coffee a day you can feed an entire village'. We have done this as a family and have already completed 25 kits and hope to do another 60-70 this Thanksgiving weekend. But that still isn't enough. Wouldn't it be awesome if we could make up the difference with a little help from Jaremy's friends?

So, if you feel like you can help out there are 2 ways we can do this: You can send me the money and I will purchase the supplies for you, or you can contact me and I'll give you a detailed list of what needs to be in the kit (it is very important that the kits be exactly the same) and you can get them to me. You are welcome to do more than 1 kit if you'd like. This would be a great FHE tomorrow night! Or maybe you know of a group or family that is looking for a place to make a donation. We really want to have them all done by next weekend so Jaremy can take them back with him after Thanksgiving. That isn't a lot of time so if you can help contact me asap! If you live in the Utah County area you are welcome to join us assembling kits on the 28th at noon at Jaremy's house. It's gonna be a blast so I hope you will all help out as you can.

(our family after completing 29 kits on Saturday)

Thank you all so much for your continued support of Jaremy!!

Aunt Katie

PS. It would be great if all of Jaremy's friends could post a link to this on FB and twitter so that friends that aren't aware of this blog can be directed to it... let's make sure everyone has a chance to get involved. We can certainly use all the help we can get!

UPDATE: I have set up a paypal account that you can donate through if you would like. I'm new to paypal, but I think you just select the 'send money' tab and then enter my email address ( and the amount, be sure to mark it as a gift so there won't be any fees, and send it. Should be pretty simple. Let me know if you do this so I can make sure it comes through. Thanks everyone... we are up to 80 kits!! Only 50 more to go!!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

My Stanky Leg

I worked my first football game this weekend and in the back of my mind I am convinced that is why they lost 8 to 21. They were playing our biggest rivals, who clearly take football much more seriously. They came to our stadium with a full marching band, cheerleaders, and a much more prepared team, complete with back up dancers. Needless to say, we were categorically shamed on our home turf. The game, however, was not the most interesting part. Half time definitely stole the show as the marching band took the field complete with three different "dance" groups. Now I am not sure that you can call what they were doing dancing, as much as gyrating with anger. Each of the dance groups would take their turn shaking their butts as fast as humanly possible, until it was time to be relieved by the next dance group. I was honestly very surprised by the sexual undertones of the dancing, and intrigued by the fact that the dancers did not seem to view it that way. At one point I found myself believing that this was the only logical way to move to marching band music. It was as if booty shaking was merely a cultural dance equivalent with modern day Indians engaging in a rain dance around a bonfire. I was also immediately impressed with the intensity of the performers. These girls could literally have snapped their spinal cords in two with the deliberate intention behind their movement. As a people they do not do anything half way, including dancing. The grand finale began as the drummers all pulsed their hips in a forward motion each time they hit their drums, while the dancers went into a complete frenzy until they all ended up lying on their backs. Even though we were completely outdone, the audience could not help but clap for the ostentatious fashion in which is was accomplished.
The dance that followed the game was another highlight of the evening. Each of the students made their way to the dark gym that was complete with a makeshift D.J. holding a microphone up to a boombox. I was surprised to see the number of elementary school kids at this function, and even more surprised by the manner in which they were dancing. These 4th and 5th graders could literally move their backsides in ways that will not be invented by club goers for another 20 years. Their rhythm and the sheer ability to move is literally astounding. I have never been to a dance before where people were literally dancing with as much intensity as they possibly could, and I have never felt more at home. I know the feeling of needing to move so intensely to get something out. At one point I couldn't hold back any longer and joined in with a common dance called the "stanky leg." I have to say that my students were pretty impressed at just how stanky my legs could get! On a side note, Chiquita found me at the dance and said she will be back from the learning center in 45 days. I am mildly sure she was only speaking to me because here friends wanted to meet the guy from High School Musical, but I am glad that I was able to tell her that I miss her. It was clear that she was by far one of the best dancers in the entire school. I think we may have found a way through to her. I have to admit that I was very concerned with the amount of students I was convinced were either drunk or high. Now I know that this may not be totally uncommon for high school students, but the openness of it all is what caught me by surprise. Many of the students did little to hide the fact that they were intoxicated, in fact I had a conversation with one of my students about protecting his brain from marijuana that I'm positive he won't remember. Apparently drug use is very common in this county. One of the kindergarten teachers mentioned that she was a witness to her 5 year old students rolling "doobies" the other day in class. Once again, I am just trying to be an observer and not judge the situation. I know there is a whole host of reasons that drug use runs rampant in these extremely poor communities.
On the upside I actually had a wonderful day with parent teacher conferences. At the risk of showing my own prejudices, I will admit that I did not expect many parents to show up. That hope was quickly shattered because I was literally in conferences from 10am until 4:30pm. The parents and students I spoke with were also surprisingly concerned about their grades. This was also another aspect of the conferences that I did not expect. There is an urgency here, because many of the parents have witnessed first hand what happens when you squander an education. There was one mother today that had to have her daughter sign her name. I now understand their fear because many of them do not understand what their children are learning, but know that the only way their children will have choice in their lives is if they are privy to a quality education. That is what it all comes down to...choice. The one thing I took away from today is that these parents love their children fiercely and wish nothing more than their success. They also mentioned that they want me to call them so they can "whoop" their kids if they get out of line. It is a great relief to know that I have so many parents standing behind me...with paddles :)

P.S. I wanted to include some more pictures, so here is a picture from the day that 2 of my students poured ethyl alcohol on a pile of salt and started a fire in the lab!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Farewell to Chiquita

I learned today that Chiquita was sent "down the hill." Now I am not entirely sure of what this means, but I do know that it is for the worst of the worst students. These are the students that spend more time in ISS (in school suspension) than they actually spend in the classroom. They call this place the "learning center," although I would be very interested to see what kind of learning is actually taking place there. One of my roommates informed me that his students were passed on in English from their previous teacher because he would give them A's for a dollar. I also hear that this particular teacher now teaches at the learning center. Maybe I should have sent Chiquita with some dollars. I have to admit that I am not the best teacher, because a part of me wanted Chiquita to go there. Whenever she was in my classroom she would fight me on the smallest requests. She spent an entire day standing outside my door because she refused to put her backpack under her seat. This was when I thought that she might actually get more learning done at the Learning Center. I haven't been able to get her off my mind since that incident. Until now no one has been able to get through to her. I just want to take her by the shoulders and shake her until she realizes that she is sealing her own fate. Whatever problems her home life is creating that affect her behavior at school, they will continue to be there for the rest of her life unless she can open up opportunities through education. She will forever remain the "the girl from nowhere with too much attitude." I have to admit that she intrigues me and that I wish I had a deeper understanding of what she struggles with. I watched her pick a fight with a boy twice her size in homeroom today, and then watched a completely different side of her light up when they asked for volunteers to dance at the homecoming assembly. I kind of perked up when I saw this reaction, because I realized that dance may be the one thing that will get through her impenetrable exterior. However, it was right after she volunteered that she was called down to the office, only to disappear down the so called hill. I hear she might be back in 45 days and hope I will have another chance with her. A part of me is grateful that the students in that class will now be able to learn uninhibited by Chiquita's baggage.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

On their turf

I had an incredible experience after my disappointing day yesterday. I was on my way to another town to pick up a few supplies, and I saw four of my students get off the bus coming from football practice. I decided to turn around and pick them up, and ended up driving each of them home. It was such an eye opening experience. I have never been so involved with poverty at this level. Each of them live in run-down trailers with only blankets covering the windows. The yards were littered with all manner of debris and I could barely even drive down the poorly paved roads. All of the sudden I came to a fuller realization of what my students are up against. Up until this point I viewed their poor behavior merely as a nuisance to myself. However, I am quickly learning that the behavior expected from them in a school environment, is very different from the expectations they receive at home. I want to make it clear that I am trying not to judge this situation in any way. I am only attempting to describe what I am learning as I observe this foreign culture unfold around me. I was able to stop and converse with many other students that I did not expect to see, and felt a twinge of joy because they seemed genuinely happy to see me. On my way out of the town, I also felt somewhat frightened as I drove through numerous groups that all seemed to stop and question my motives for entering their community. Many of the people refused to acknowledge me as I nervously waved to ease the tension. This reaction only further seemed to prove the undercurrent I have felt coming from my students since day one. It seems to say why are you here, and why should we care? News traveled very quickly the next day that I had made the trek onto their turf. Many of the students seemed genuinely impressed that I would come to visit their meager surroundings. I approached the day with a newfound understanding for my students, and even though I refuse to lower my expectations because of where they're from, I can now stop punishing them for it. Instead I will teach them how to act in this environment, and how to be successful in many other professional circles.
I also had quite a few breakthroughs with my students today! Robert who usually sits in the corner and laughs incessantly, told me today that he now knows that water forms hydrogen bonds. This is a huge leap for Robert, because until this point he would stare at me and mumble something that always ended in a chuckle. Now I do not always understand what he says to me, so I began assuming that he found either me trying teach or learning in itself hilarious. However, I now know that he is very capable of learning, and it helps if marshmallows are present. I had the students make water molecules out of marshmallows and bond them together today. Most of the students were more concerned with eating the marshmallows than actually "bonding" them with anything that could potentially get them dirty. I don't think they are getting very much to eat, because I ended up feeling sorry and letting them eat all of the marshmallows we didn't use. I am truly coming to love these kids.
I learned today that some of my 9th graders are reading on a 2nd grade reading level. No wonder those students refuse to write anything on the board, and usually spend most of their time running around my classroom. I will have to find a new way to get through to them, although we are working on literacy daily in the classroom.
Finally, I will begin a dance club next week. I know this will be a great opportunity to get through to the kids. They have such a natural feel for rhythm and dance, and I can't wait to tap into it. The young man who was just voted most popular in the school will actually be the president of this group. Imagine that a young man who loves to dance can be accepted in this culture as one of the "cool kids." I know my high school experience would have been much different :) He told me today that he wants to complete a dance minor in college, but that he has never had any formal training. Even if he is the only one to come to dance club, I know that it will be worth it. Our first calling is to put together an egyptian dance for the homecoming presentation. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The first fight

I need to take a break from describing the history of this situation, and express the emotion I am feeling. I had my first fight break out in the classroom today. It was during 3rd period, which is honestly the period that gives me a daily knot in my stomach, and I finally realized that things cannot get much worse. I tried to run between them and break them up, but the more I pushed, the harder they fought. Now I guess I can't say I didn't see this coming at all, because I felt myself losing control of the class progressively throughout the period. They insist on talking to one another and whisper all kinds of remarks anytime I try to get them to do anything. I spent a lot of time carefully planning a laboratory exercise for them to complete today, but instead we spent the time talking about how I could be a better teacher. Their main points were that I make them take too many notes and that I'm too nice. I am not quite sure how to respond to that, except that it is clear that I am going to have to get a lot more creative with my teaching strategies. The only thing most of these students are competent at is copying. They will copy from the book or the board, but don't ever ask them to think about what they are writing. For instance, if the question is not multiple choice, they don't even bother doing anything but copying down the question. I can see why many other teachers resort to having them copy so much, because it keeps them occupied until they leave their class. But I don't want my students to just be occupied, I want them to learn. Some days this job is too heavy. I am literally fighting them to learn something. My feet are sore, my voice is hoarse, I have completely worn out all 4 of my dry erase markers, and the thought of doing this again tomorrow is too much. I asked them today if they were learning, and they said they were. The question still remains as to whether it will be enough. The more I look at the statistics of this county and how far these students have to go, I am not so sure that we are fulfilling the creed of the school district: "preparing students to leave here college ready."

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Why I Teach for America

I wanted to begin this journey with an explanation of how I found myself in what has been termed "the most southern place on earth." Upon graduation from Brigham Young University, the only thing I was sure of was that I wanted to be involved in something that helped others. My experiences touring with the Young Ambassadors, a performing/service group from BYU, taught me that the only time I was truly happy, was when I was in the service of others. I cannot even put into words the feeling of cradling a small orphan in South Korea and singing lullabies from my childhood quietly in his ear. It was during this moment that I knew the only possible course for my life was to find a path in which I could be of service to others. I had this dream of being the next Mother Theresa, or Father Theresa for all intents and purposes, and providing aid to the underprivileged masses of some exotic country. I do have to say that I have stumbled across a pretty exotic culture here in Mississippi, so maybe my dream will materialize after all. During my undergrad I focused on nutritional sciences because I realized that one of the ways I could have the greatest impact on others would be to become a doctor. I also secretly questioned as to whether becoming a teacher would allow me to have an even greater impact, but was too far into my major to change my course of study. It was ultimately my love for sociology that led me to the staggering truths about the achievement gap, and helped me to find something I could do about it.

For those of you not familiar with the achievement gap, here are a few statistics from the NEA to clue you in:

"By age three, children of professionals have vocabularies that are nearly 50 percent greater than those of working class children, and twice as large as those of children whose families are on welfare.

  • By the end of fourth grade, African American, Latino, and poor students of all races are two years behind behind their wealthier, predominantly white peers in reading and math. By eighth grade, they have slipped three years behind, and by twelfth grade, four years behind.

  • By the end of high school, black and Hispanic students' reading and mathematics skills are roughly the same as those of white students in the eighth grade

  • African American students are three times more likely than white students to be placed in special education programs, and are half as likely to be in gifted programs in elementary and secondary schools.

  • Black students are only about half as likely (and Hispanics about one-third as likely) as white students to earn a bachelor's degree by age 29."

  • It is clear that educational inequality is one of the greatest injustices we face as a nation. Teach for America is an organization that is working tirelessly to increase the quality of education in rural and inner city neighborhoods across the U.S. They do this by recruiting recent college graduates who are inspired by the injustices they see in society, and teaching them to utilize this passion to make up for their inexperience as teachers. I applied to Teach for America on a whim because I believed in what they stood for, and because the application was surprisingly similar to the medical school applications I had already completed. However, it was not until my final interview that I was sure this was the place that would allow me to make the most impact on others. By the end of the interview, the interviewer and I sat silently staring at one another wiping away tears. Now in most circumstances I would advise against this hiring tactic, but it was so clear that this experience could prove to be one of the most empowering moments of my life. I cannot even put into words how frightening and incredible it was to finally find my place after searching for so long. Now I need to point out that my interviewer was not crying because I did such a poor job interviewing, but because the emotion was overwhelming as she tried to portray her experience teaching the children on the West Shore of Hawaii. As I listened to her story and learned of the struggles the Mississippi Delta was facing, I felt immediately that there was only 1 place I could go. Therefore, It came as little surprise when I received the email 2 weeks later informing me that I would be teaching high school biology in the Mississippi Delta.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A plea

Well here it goes. There is so much pent up emotion and so many thoughts in my head that I am not quite sure where to start. I guess I'll start with a plea. Make no mistake about it that this is a desperate attempt, even a last resort to find some help. I thought that I could do this on my own, that once I made it out here I could make a difference. But the realization came on all too quickly that this problem is much bigger than me, much greater than the impact one "bright eyed boy, with a with an idealistic dream" could ever hope to make. It is hard for me to ask for help, and even harder to post some of the events that have transpired. But I do know that if you're reading this you have the ability to help change the course of these young people. People who have never felt opportunity shine on them merely because of where they were born. Children who are involved in an educational program that is failing them, because how can they be expected to learn about electrons when many of them are not sure how they will eat tonight? I am doing this for Annelle, who had to drop out to take care of her grandmother. A young girl with all of the hope in the world and the dream that "one day she could take her mother to Paris." She told me that her goal in life was to become a criminal investigator. Sadly, this is just one more dream she may have to tuck neatly away, because opportunity seems to be in short supply in this place. I am doing this for Sherman, LeMarcus, and Tierra who have so much potential, but may never have the opportunity to reach it. For all of the students who told me on my first day that their only goal was to get out of this place. I promised you that I would help you find a way, but I've realized I can't keep that promise on my own. Last of all, I am doing this because I believe in these students and that the world needs to hear their stories. They are capable of so much more than what they have been handed, and imagine the loss if one of these students was destined to become the doctor to cure cancer or the next black president? What if for once, when it really counted, they were able to succeed instead of being shown that they will never beat the odds? So there's my plea, which marks the beginning of this journey.