By Fionn Shea, Guest Writer for City Year New Hampshire
Ever wondered what a day was like in the life of a City Year AmeriCorps member? Join us at the McDonough Elementary School and see how Cadence and teammates, Mary, Jess, Allen, Devon, Sinead, Jackie, and Sravani spend a day in service.
Cadence’s alarm beeps vehemently. First things first, Cadence downs a cup of coffee, dons khakis, zips up the bright red City Year jacket, and gets to work.
Eight Corps members arrive at McDonough Elementary School in Manchester, NH, their hoods pulled up against the morning mist. Mary and Jess, equipped with red jackets and smiles, greet the fourth graders as they line up for a field trip to Strawberry Banke. Sinead and Devon are located at another door, Sravani and Jackie at yet another, all doling out high-fives as early birds trickle into school.
Cadence and Allen, seeing the kitchen could use some extra hands, load up snack bags. Each contains an apple, animal crackers, and a spoon for cereal. “There’s nothing better,” Allen quips as he loads the bags onto a cart. A pair of eyes peers over the counter and Allen reaches towards them. High five. He cheers.
Feet patter outside; many hands are high-fived by corps members. “I’m always late but I didn’t want to be late for the field trip!” the pink-clad girl replies to Mary’s high five. Today she’s first in line.
It’s still 20 minutes before the start of school, but the halls are bustling. A handmade banner advertising Fifth Grade Career Day welcomes everyone at the door. A hundred kids finish breakfast in the cafeteria. The band warms up their saxophones in the gym.
“One Nation, under God, Indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.” The third-graders in Mr. Molloy’s classroom recite the Pledge in a variety of accents. Chairs are shuffled, 28 pairs of eyes are trained on their teacher. Today they are continuing with multiplication.
Cadence — Ms. P., with short hair and bright eyes that are always laughing — kneels down beside a girl who sits apart from everyone else. The pair chat in low voices about the math problem on the board. Head in hands, the girl is unwilling to engage. She’s a “focus list” student: a child who is off-track of where she should be academically, attendance-wise, or socio-emotionally. But Cadence’s confidence doesn’t waver. They encourage the girl to give it a try.
She does, and her eyes brighten. She points to her answer.
What is the answer to 8x6 and 6x8?
The girl Cadence has been working with raises her hand. A broad smile spreads across Cadence’s face as they watch the student correctly solve the problem on the whiteboard. Prancing back to her seat, the little girl is beyond ecstatic. “We did it!” she whispers.
The feeling of victory is mutual.
Snacktime: a flurry of excitement. The ‘crickets’ and the ‘fireflies’ are the first to retrieve their snacks. While they eat, Cadence talks with them about home, about how the kids are liking school, about friends and family. To the kids, it is a fun conversation with an understanding adult. To Cadence, it is important information.
“Our communities” is written on the whiteboard above Mr. Molloy as he tells the kids about the Declaration of Independence.
“What do we know about the Declaration?”
A blue-eyed boy waves his hand in the air. “It was written by colonists!”
The enthusiasm in the room is palpable. Cadence gives answers alongside the kids, a reminder that no matter how old you are, you always have more to learn. Cadence sits in the back with two kids, explaining details that the kids may have missed.
Mr. Molloy holds up a picture. “What do you notice about this painting of the Founding Fathers?”
Silence as heads lean forward.
“They all look different?” asks a small voice from the back. “And their hair is weird.”
“They’re wearing wigs,” Mr. Molloy says, igniting a storm of giggles. “What else do you notice?”
A girl with blue beads in her hair furrows her brow. “They all look the same!” she said, agitated. “They all have the same color to their faces.” She pauses. “Not like us. We’re all different.”
In the back of the room, Cadence gives a smile. The kids are learning to notice.
The kids are back in their seats. Cadence moves through the room, answering questions, helping with spelling, repeating information, giving praise. A City Year member’s presence in the classroom is clearly calming and helpful for kids who need someone to turn to.
Clambering around tables and chairs, the kids line up at the door. They wave to Cadence as they proceed down the hallway to “Special" — today, art class — where Cadence isn’t needed.
Back in the classroom that the City Year team uses as a base of operations, Cadence opens a laptop. The table is strewn with tubes of glitter, washable markers, games, granola bars. Wedged between lunch-boxes, Sinead reads. Jess writes in a journal. In the hallway, the pattering of feet signals lunchtime.
Cadence breaks out a peanut butter sandwich with about forty five minutes of free time, time guarded carefully and spent well. Today Cadence focuses on an upcoming presentation about gender identity for a leadership training of 70 City Year members. Gender identity — and the vocabulary surrounding it — can be a difficult thing to engage with, Cadence explains, especially in the school system. “How do we get them to engage with it?” The answer is that of a teacher: “Deliver information that’s important through humor.”
“Even when you’re having a bad day,” Sinead explains on the way out to recess, “one of these kids always makes you laugh, or does something ridiculous."
It's easy to see how. Even on this cold November day, the kids are thrilled to be outside. Sinead plays two-on-two basketball. Cadence is dragged into a game of jump rope.
The record number of jumps is 74.
Back in the third-grade classroom, the kids are hardly seated when they’re back in line for iReady, an online program that assess students’ competency on Common Core math and reading skills. Cadence waves them off for a second time, then heads downstairs to help prepare for after-school activities.
Back at home base, beside a tube of glitter, Sravani downs a bowl of cheerios. This is her break between 6am and 6pm, when she’ll return home to Nashua where she’s from and lives during her service year. She debates over whether her milk will still be cold at the end of the day.
Ms. Ersick’s fifth-grade class has a science test tomorrow. This is a smaller group than Mr. Molloy’s third-graders, but Allen — Mr. M — a bright-eyed college grad with a kind voice, has his hands full. His role in the classroom is noticeably different from Cadence’s, as he acts as more of an aide to the teacher than a supplement for the kids.
“If you don’t know the answer, where can you find it in the book?” he asks the kids as they review the material. Hands flip through textbooks. They jump at the opportunity to find the answers on their own.
Study buddies are chosen, and Allen chats with a boy in a yellow sweatshirt about the freezing and melting point. (Fun fact: they’re the same.) The boy is confused only for a second, his worried look turning to elation as he conquers the problem. A girl with an orange bow in her hair chews on her pencil, deep in thought. Two kids talk slowly in sign language. A boy in a Michael Jordan jersey emblazoned with a pin that reads, “I Am A Junior Firefighter” watches Allen closely.
“I can tell you all about Mr. M,” he says cheerfully. “He stays after school and plays basketball with me because my mom can’t pick me up until late.”
Allen waits until each kid is out of the classroom before leaving. A flood of red firefighter hats pour from classrooms into the hallway, all clamoring excitedly. The City Year team regroups to discuss the after-school program. On the chalkboard, Sinead changes “hangman” to “birdhouse.” Mary and Jackie tell the group about the field trip — a particularly difficult one, between behavioral and attention issues among the kids. Sravani rolls up the poster she’s made for the FIRST LEGO League, a program that strives to engage kids with STEM concepts through LEGO robots. The City Year FIRST team — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — will meet today after school. Sravani grins as she waves to her team members on the way out the door.
With fifteen kids sprawled on the floor of the music room, Sravani sets up the board for FIRST while Jess and Allen help the kids with their homework: spelling words and narrative stories.
A little boy crawls under a desk to get away from the noise, and Allen squeezes in the space with him. “You have to engage with him on his terms,” Jess says quietly. Literally on his level, knees and forearms on the floor, Allen does just that.
“Clap once if you can hear me! Clap twice if you can hear me!”
Sravani brings the kids’ attention back to the front of the room. “Here’s the challenge for the day — I want you, collectively, to come up with five things you all agree on that you’d want if you were stranded on a desert island.”
The challenge isn’t as easy as it seems, especially when Sravani tells them to narrow it down to three things. Ideas are shouted out.
“No, we wouldn’t have a plug!”
“How about water? Not ocean water, fresh water.”
“What about the medicine kit?”
Eventually they agree that they would take the medical kit, along with food and clean water. Impressed, Allan writes the list on the board. “Now how did you get there?” he asks. “You had disagreements, so how did you get past them?”
The answers range from a democratic vote to arguing to explaining their choices to each other.
We learn through a game of the ever-popular hangman (“how do I explain to them what gallows are?” Allen jokes) that this year’s FIRST theme is “Animal Allies.” After a quick discussion of what ‘allies’ means, the group brainstorms ideas on how animals and robots can work together.
Backpacks are gathered, coats are found, hugs are given. The kids parade out the door to reunite with their parents. By the front doors, Jess and Sravani high-five every child.
The team greets each other with tired smiles. It’s the first time they’ve been in the same room all day. Joshua — the Impact Manager — gives them each a stack of placemats for their kids to color the following day. “Give yourselves a pat on the back,” he says as the corps members seat themselves around the table for the debrief, “You all did a great job today.” He then hands out updated lists of kids for the corps members to focus on, and asks for a team building exercise.
“How about Roses and Thorns?”
The Thorns — difficulties, sorrows — are varied. Some corps members had trouble with kids being mean to each other, or to them; others had rowdy kids who made lessons impossible.
The Roses — joys, victories — came in a flood. “The field trip was actually ok, overall,” Jackie admits, and Mary adds that, “some of the kids apologized for being mean.” There were the kids who worked hard and succeeded, there was the FIRST meeting, there were appreciative parents, and Allen felt good about his kids’ chances on the science test. The rain held off for recess. A little girl conquered a math problem.
Roses and thorns aside, ask any member of the team what they most look forward to in their day, they will all give you the same answer: “the kids.”
Their smiles are contagious as they stand to break off. They are tired, they are thrilled. All hands pile to the center of the team unity circle, and a shout goes up.
Tomorrow they’ll come in early, ready to serve another day, and double-down on the high-fives. For now, they dole out hugs, zip up their red jackets, and head home.