by Jess Hylek, City Year New Hampshire AmeriCorps member, serving as a Service Leader on the Beech Street Elementary School team generously supported by Dartmouth-Hitchcock
Last year, I wrote a blog about serving with City Year in a 4th grade classroom in a Manchester, NH elementary school. By serving for a second year with City Year, I had the opportunity to not only serve at a different school, but also move up a grade. It is amazing how much change can occur in a child’s development in just one short year.
What is it like to be in a 5th grade classroom? Students are becoming more self-aware and peer-aware. They are developing an identity and sense of self. They are beginning to challenge authority and the status quo. They are questioning more, evaluating more and second-guessing more. They want to get the answer right. They are more embarrassed if they get it wrong. They assert themselves in the classroom and make sure their voice is heard, and they are hyper aware of how they look to their peers. Working in the 5th grade is challenging, rewarding, heart-breaking, inspiring, frustrating and empowering all at the same time, in the same day.
My classroom is a whirlwind of fun and learning, and it has many different, strong personalities. Some of my favorite moments in 5th grade have been helping my students get excited about and understand the material, as well as helping them to develop their individual voices in a positive and productive manner.
I’ve had these moments in different scenarios in my classroom. I have a student who is very apathetic when it comes to school work. She doesn’t appreciate why the work is important or what she is doing it for (especially when she could be talking to friends in class instead!) She lacks an intrinsic motivation to learn and it is hard to tell whether this is due to peer-pressure to act a certain way, or genuine disinterest. However, there was a moment in math class when we were in group and she started getting the problems correct and her friends around her were complimenting her. This positive peer pressure was transformative. She started asking me for more problems than just what the teacher was writing on the board. She wanted me to make them harder. I could see the confidence growing inside her as she got more and more excited every time she got another problem right and she even burst out in a smile, saying, “Wow! Math is fun!” It was infectious and the rest of the group caught on too. Seeing this change in her attitude was incredibly inspiring. It just goes to show if you give some students that undivided attention, they really shine when given the opportunity. To also see her friends give her that positive reinforcement was really encouraging. I could just see them with her in middle school doing the same thing and pushing her to be even better.
I had a similarly inspiring moment in my “50 Acts of Greatness” session at lunch group- a group meant to inspire leadership and positive socio-emotional behavior in students on our focus list. I asked them, “What can we do to promote kindness in our classroom?” Opening up the floor to these 5th grade students empowered them to use their voice and strong opinions in a positive way and provided them with the opportunity to showcase their creativity and potential. Immediately I got a flood of ideas: “Let’s do a raffle,” “What if we gave out prizes when people were nice?” “How about we put tallies on the board and mark how many times someone does something nice for someone?” We discussed all the ideas one at a time and finally decided on “Kindness Certificates.” We decided what we should put on them and what they should look like. Now every Thursday, we start our “meetings” by discussing who in class earned a kindness certificate for that week and why. Each person goes around the table and states their case as to why the person they chose should receive the award. We narrow these options down to two, and everyone has to agree on the finalists. It is a great opportunity to hear students’ voices and also create a dialogue around what it means to be nice, to be a role model in the classroom, and most importantly, why it matters. The students then present these certificates on Fridays, when City Year AmeriCorps members are not in school, to the whole classroom. My teacher has even provided a space for a “leadership board” so we can showcase all the students who have earned one in class.
I love 5th grade because it provides ample opportunities to encourage students to use their voice and showcase their creativity and leadership potential. Being a Service Leader with City Year is nice, but being able to empower students to positively lead each other through a long, dark and scary unknown tunnel of school and social life is a much greater privilege and why I come back every day ready to do it.
If you or someone you know is interested in joining City Year, click here for information about the application process. The next application deadline is April 13th.