Sunday, January 9, 2011

Charlotte Alternative Winter Break - Part I

Last week, I traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina on an Alternative Winter Break trip. Essentially, these trips are designed for about six-ten students to travel across the country or abroad to volunteer with social issues that interest them. This was my fourth trip, but it was the first that I have done over winter break. This first post will be about all of the volunteering experiences, and Part II (to come later this week) will talk about everything else we did in Charlotte.

Day 1
Six of us went on the trip, and two volunteers were at three different schools - Vance, Garinger, and KIPP Charlotte (Knowledge is Power Program). Zhu (originally from China, has been in America for 6 months) and I both worked at Vance High School, which was quite the experience. All of these schools are in low-income urban areas, so the demographics, behavior, and size were much different than what I was used to.

Vance High School
This school had about 1,900 students. I was informed by one senior that out of 500 seniors only 150 will be graduating this year - a crazy statistic! The "campus" was rather large, and you had to walk outside from time to time to get to class. The high school was new and fairly high-tech, which was great.

The first day, we helped a TFA (Teach for America) teacher in her Algebra 2 class. They were reviewing for an End of Course exam administered by the state, so we were going over worksheets and helping students when they encountered problems. It was definitely a good review for Zhu and I, using the quadratic equation, factoring, completing the square, graphing parabolas and circles, and my least favorite--synthetic division, which I cannot remember how to do.

Algebra 2 Teacher

Then, we helped grade some chemistry tests, and I also helped prepare a "mystery solution" chemistry experiment involving Dr. Pepper, water, boric acid, vinegar, and bleach. We then picked our classmates at Garinger up and headed to KIPP to help out for the rest of the afternoon.

KIPP - Used to be a Church
 Day 2
We wanted to see what the classroom experience was like, so we sat in on an Algebra 2 lecture. Kids spoke out of turn, often disobeyed the teacher directly, and generally did not understand a lot of what was being reviewed.

After that was over, Zhu and I headed to an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher's class to help out. It was a much smaller class with only 8 kids (7 from El Salvador and 1 from Ethiopia). I spent most of the period teaching phonics with flash cards to a student who had only been in America for two months. To make things worse, he could not read Spanish very well either, which complicated things further. Later in the day, I also helped tutor two of these kids in math, where they were adding matrices. For a seemingly simple topic, it was very difficult to get the process across to them, even though I tried using both English and Spanish.

ESL Teacher
Day 3
This day involved very little volunteering. It was not a "day off", as I was helping deal with a pretty complicated situation involving our rental van. I did manage to help out some at KIPP, where I graded part of an reading comprehension exam. More on Day 3 in Part II....

Day 4
We spent this entire day with Zhu's host, who was a science teacher. The interesting thing about TFA is that the teachers do not have an educational background. This teacher, for example, majored in Political Science in college. The teachers, who have a two year commitment, take a summer-long crash course on teaching. He was only one year older than me, and it was difficult trying to picture myself sacrificing my next two years to do what he is doing.

Blogger is Extremely frustrating when rotating pictures, but this is Zhu's host

In his class, we went to the library to help students with an Internet-based assignment. As all good high school students do, they were often distracted by other things on the Internet and often drug their feet when it came to actually doing the assignment. However, for every student dragging his feet, there was always an extremely engaged one who was eager to learn everything, which was definitely inspiring.

Day 5
This day was extremely interesting because the first block Zhu and I were teaching two autistic kids. I was trying to teach my student addition, but he often forgot to carry his one, which obviously was a problem. He finally began to understand what I was teaching, and we moved on to multiplying. After a long period of time, I was able to get across that any number times zero equals zero and any number times one equals itself. However, multiplying by twos was a whole other story that was never resolved. One of the major problems with autistic kids is that they have difficulty thinking for themselves. To help with this, I had some fill-in-the-blank sentences for my student to complete. He was definitely enjoying it and making me laugh frequently. My favorite was the sentence "My uncle has a _________", to which his response was a "wrist, a right wrist". I also had some difficulty explaining that the sentence "A ______ has four legs" cannot be completed with the words "boy or girl".

The rest of the day, I helped the ESL students with a computer assignment and sat in on an AP Science class, which was a much different experience than the other classes. The kids were all eager to learn and respected their teacher always.

Thanks for reading some/all of this. It was really an incredible experience that is difficult to capture in a blog post, but I hope you got a picture of what we did during the week.


  1. I'm so proud of you for giving up a week of your break to work with these kids. What a learning experience for ALL of you!

  2. Teaching is hard isn't it Kyler?!? Glad you had fun and learned a lot. Those teachers are fortunate to have students like you helping out if even for a couple of days!

  3. Awesome experience! And no...boys and girls don't have 4 legs.