STEAMM-powered in Central Falls

Over the past few months I’ve been working part-time as an after school science teacher (or as my employer calls it, a “STEAMM” educator — stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics and Manufacturing) at a Rhode Island middle school

You could say that the first week of teaching was….bumpy. Or a disaster. Or awful. All would work. Each evening I ended up sobbing in my car. One day it was because despite all my preparation, the students didn’t seem to care in the least about the activity. One day it was because I’d had one student joke/threaten other students with scissors on three separate occasions. Another was because no matter what I did, I could not get the class to settle down, and had spent at least half of it waiting for people to be quiet.

It was not what I’d had in mind. I’d had this idea in my head that the students who signed up for this after school program would be ALL ABOUT the science. “Tell me more!” they’d yell as they swooned over the definitions of density and buoyancy. When the class erupted into yells and screams (about their excitement over the days lesson, of course), I would stand the front with a meditative smile on my face and calmly wait for them to calm down. I would be a motivator and a friend. I would be their favorite part of the day.

I mean, yes, a part of me knew this was a beyond unrealistic attitude (especially given the fact my sister has been a teacher for many years and despite being UNBELIEVABLY AMAZING at her job, the kids are still sometimes little jerks). But that part of me that really, really wanted the kids to love ME and SCIENCE on the first day was louder than the logistical quarters of my brain.

So, anyway, the first week was HARD. I had no idea how to handle threats of violence. Planning for class took a lot (A LOT) longer than I expected. The students were all blank stares at me the first two days, probably trying to see what I was made of. Some of my activities fell flat. And man, getting their attention — it was a struggle. I found myself completely losing my cool when I could get, for ten minutes, the students to listen to me try to explain what the activity was. So much for my meditative, inspirational, motivator status. I was a mess.

But I didn’t want to give up. For one, I had wanted to try working for a non-profit, to see what it was like to work for a company whose mission you whole-heartedly believe in. Second, I wanted to work with kids and try out teaching — something my sister does (really, really well) and which has always been interesting to me. And third, i wanted to work in Central Falls, which is widely known to be the “worst” city if Rhode Island — for crime, for poverty, for education, etc.

Central Falls came into being back in 1895,  when the city for split from Lincoln, Rhode Island an set out on its own. Super soon, it was the most populated city in the United States. These days it’s still in the top 25. The median income for a household in Central Falls is $27,000. About a quarter of the population of under the poverty line. Only 6% of the population in Central Falls for over 25 have a bachelors advance college degree. Almost 50% of the population have less than a high school degree. The middle school I’m working at ranked 48th of the 51 RI middle schools in a recent year. In 2010, it was named a turnaround school in the now-defunct No Child left Behind Program. Basically, Central Falls, and my school in particular, has a lot of problems. And the students, for one reason or another, seem to be suffering for it.

If working for the South End News taught me anything, though, it’s that things from the outside often look different from the inside. Things fail for lots of reasons.  I wanted to get an inside look — to understand the community, the families, the students better. And I thought it was possible that with my own unique set of skills — with science, with communication, with explaining things — that maybe I could make a dent of a difference.

I ended up having to take a month-long break to head home to help out with some family things, but when I came back in early November, I hopped right back into the classroom, right back in with the same kids. For a month, their beloved science teacher had taken over in my stead, and now I was back with tons of science and experiments for them to do.

Now, one of the things my sister warned me about from the beginning was that as an after school teacher, I’d face some unique challenges, number one being I was expected to teach science at the end of the school day. When the kids are already tired and their brains have been battered and all they’d really like to do is relax and zone out in front of the TV or video games or computer for like ONE SECOND. Challenge two was that I may be teaching them science, but it also always needed to be FUN–of the flash-bang-BOOM variety. Kids can drop out of the programs you teach if you’re not interesting enough. At the school I was teaching at, there was also dance, karate, a cape verdean group, an arts program and more. The options were plenty, so if I wanted to keep my class, I had to do things that interested them.

Third, I had to lug around equipment, picking it up at the non-profit’s office, bringing it to school, carrying it to the third floor, cleaning it off, bringing it back to the office, etc…

Fourth, and this is somewhat unique since I work for a non-profit that places teachers in schools around Rhode Island, I had to answer to a lot of people. In addition to answering to the students (and their parents), i had to answer to the teacher whose classroom I borrowed for the period. I had to answer to the counselors and employees at the school i worked at. And, additionally, I had to answer to my educator manager, the materials supplier and the director of the non-profit that hired me.

it was a lot of eyes on me. a lot of people watching to see if I was hitting the mark.

and finally, in the last two weeks, i have been. It’s been a bit of the battle of the wills with the students – who will break first? sometimes, it’s still me. But, increasingly, it’s them. And increasingly, they seem to like it. Lots of the students who I had behavioral issues with have started to like me, so they’re more likely to try to keep their behavior in check. Lots of students who weren’t applying themselves have started to, at least putting in some kind of effort to participate. And the students who have been awesome to begin with — I’ve been able to focus more on them, helping them learn more of the science and delve deeper. More often, now, the students are delightfully funny. They ask great questions and they get excited.

in the process, i’ve found that “bad behavior” often has a good cause, something i should have known from the start. One kid, after interrupting me for literally 10 minutes straight, said the reason he was upset about making a poster was that he just made one in another class and he was bad at drawing, anyway. at least that’s understandable! another student who wasn’t participating well in a lab eventually hinted that the reason they weren’t trying was because the didn’t think they’d be successful anyway — now I could actually address the real issue! another student who just wouldn’t pay attention finally told me that they had a headache — so I let them put their head down. One girl who would never answer my questions, or would answer them without even trying, finally mentioned she knew she’d get it wrong because she was bad at science, so why try anyway? After I helped her get one or two questions right, she started participating more and seemed more willing to be wrong.

These revelations have humbled me, and brought me back to the reason I wanted to work with these students in the first place. We all have things that hold us back — either things we’re actually not good at, or stories we tell ourselves about things we aren’t good at. All day long, we hunker down deeper into those stories. Part of wanting to teach these students was me feeling like science (or writing, or theatre, or hiking or ANYTHING) could be the avenue down which they find self confidence. If you prove to someone that they can do really cool science things that they understand, they may start wondering — what else can i do that i thought I can’t? If someone thinks they’re not creative, find a way for them to be creative and then praise them for it. If someone is afraid of being wrong, PRAISE them for trying when they are, because that’s what matters.

Over the past few weeks, i’ve found that the students and I have started to click more. I find myself looking forward to (instead of dreading) coming to teach them. They share with me when they get kissed on the cheek by their new boyfriend. They tell me their favorite Thanksgiving food. They constantly interrupt when they have something they’ve thought of to say. The girls and I have sung along to Taylor Swift while the boys groan (i think they’re faking it). They ask me questions like “If a person can be legally blind, can a person be ‘illegally’ blind?” I’ve been able to have heart to hearts with a few of them. I’ve proven to some of the students, at least for a moment, that they don’t ‘suck at science and math.’ I’ve sat with a few of them and their parents while they eat dinner, hearing about the rest of their lives. I’ve connected with some of them.

It’s not all roses, of course. They do still suck pretty hard sometimes, to put it bluntly. They’re too loud. Disrespectful to me and others. They don’t pay attention. They complain incessantly. “But WHYYYY?” they ask. It’s maddening and I still get too angry sometimes. i still lose my cool. But I also, more often these days, I remember that it wasn’t so long ago that I was the disrespectful student. I remember not listening, thinking the teacher was way too serious, that I had better things to do. So, when I can, i try to keep their bad behavior in perspective, to remember people generally act well when they can, that generally people want to be good. that there’s a reason for their behavior and compassion, not frustration, will work best.

When I head into the classroom with them, I try to be my best self, I try to find their best selves, I try to get them to believe the story that they can do anything.

And — as much as I can — I try to teach them some science.

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