Advice from My Students (Part II): Being a Volunteer — The Real Deal & the Real Hope (by Guest Blogger Derek Lamson)

Let me first share my new mantra that I use with all of my community-based learning courses:  while these 10 weeks of working in the community are beautiful, valuable, and important, living an entire life committed to being informed and supporting our community is more important and more valuable.

Throughout my weeks teaching community-based, education-focused Capstone courses at Portland State University, I have the privilege of reading my students’ journals as they reflect on their volunteer work and their learning about education issues.  I actually enjoy my final grading of these courses because I learn so much from each participant.  This week, I asked a participant in my Youth Enrichment Capstone if he would be willing to share his final discussion posting here.  He very graciously accepted this proposal.  Here are some thoughts on the volunteer experience from Derek Lamson, who recently found out that he has been accepted to the 2012-2013 GTEP Program at Portland State University.  What lucky students you will have, Derek (his words appear below in teal)!

In [Susan] Neuman’s introduction to chapter eight [of Changing the Odds for Children at Risk] she calls for “a new way of doing business…one based on evidence”.  Further she says there are “seven essential principles” (of interventions) “for children from families who bear the burden of multiple risks” (and these include) “high quality instruction delivered by trained professionals, not by aides or volunteers (Neuman, p. 180)”[1].  Italics mine. 

I’ve been a “Nice White Lady” three mornings a week for the last 6 weeks or so at an area high school.  It’s been an interesting experience.  The assignment I accepted as a volunteer was to help student writers write better.  It’s a good idea.  It’s not working real well, yet, but it’s a good idea and it’s new and maybe they’ll build enough traffic to justify everybody’s time and effort.  My reception from students and staff has been coolly polite.  My take on the culture out here is that it’s either a little shy around strangers, or maybe the stand-offish feel I get from folks has more to do with their previous experience with people with “Visitor” stickers on their lapels.  By definition, we’re ‘short-timers’ – and if you’ve ever been really socked into an institution, you know you don’t put too much into short-timers.  Why should you?  They’re here and enthusiastic – or not – for a little while and then they’re gone.

So what’s this mean?  Well…   if I want to know anything, I have to ask about it.  I’m not important enough to get briefed on the players or the program – except for my little tiny volunteer piece of it.  It means things like people don’t greet you when you’re the only two adults passing in a hall.  It means you can sit quietly in the counsellors waiting room at 8:30 a.m. and do your homework for an hour; and though a dozen people may walk in and out of the room, no one will ask you your business or if you need help.  People blow off appointments, don’t return phone calls.  You have that ‘Visitor’ sticker on your lapel.

All this is forgiveable, all this is understandable.  I think this high school is really like a battlefield:  you’ve got battle-scarred infantry seargeants, hopeful first lieutenants fresh out of West Point, and a mid-level officer corps working their butts off to keep the whole thing moving forward.  (Sorry – at least I didn’t use a football metaphor.)  NCLB is the enemy artillery, poverty and racism the trench in which the students and teachers labor.  With tremendous dedication, they’ve brought their graduation rate up…  … to half. At this point I’m not valued, because my contribution is not considered part of this effort.  I think this is understandable, and I mostly don’t let it get to me.  At this high school, I get it that I’m not even a green recruit – I’m like a Red Cross observer or something.  In fact, until I prove myself, I’m pretty much irrelevent. 

I suspect the principal at this high school would agree with Susan Neuman.  I know if she was paying me $45,000 a year to teach Social Studies I’d have been invited in for a chat and a cup of coffee by now. 

            I will stay at this high school through spring term; I feel like I have projects I need to finish; and students with whom I am starting to build relationships – but on balance I think my experience is more for me than for them.  It’s to help me answer questions like:  Do you really want to teach high school?

[1] Neuman, Susan. Changing the Odds for Children at Risk. New York: Teachers College Press, 2009. 180. Print.

This particular volunteer placement has been a challenging one from which we have all been learning things, although not the things we expected when we began this work.  My students taught me about dedication, patience, hope, despair, anger, and energy.  They have taught me to learn from the unexpected, to stay put and wait something out if there’s hope, and to go elsewhere if your energy could be more productive in another type of volunteer placement.  They’ve revealed some things about how programs succeed and fail, why assessment and accountability are actually important (not just buzzwords), and why incentives might just be the best thing since sliced bread.  And they’ve inspired me because those who are about to enter graduate teaching programs, despite what they know about the challenges they will face, are completely dedicated to being amazing teachers.  And I know they will be.  

Today’s Recommended Readings: Graduation Rates, Inequitable Discipline Measures

Today’s recommended readings go well with a cup of coffee (black, no cream).  You may want to include a scone.

Recommended Reading 1: The Oregonian recently reported that Portland’s increased graduation rates reported earlier in the school year (a lauded 5%) were really the result of (a) losing track of students the year before and thus reporting a decreased level of graduation and (b) finding those students again (in private schools, other states, other countries, etc.) and reporting the number of students in the district accurately.  Portland did see a 2% increase in graduation rates, but this situation calls attention to the rusty tracking system in PPS and our quickness to celebrate when there is so much hard work to be done in this area to actually bolster graduation rates.  Why is it important to know about this?  I think that community members should be aware of the true need in our local high schools so that we can advocate for high schools, volunteer with high schools students, donate resources, etc.

Recommended Reading 2: NPR just aired a story called “Questions Grow Over Race Discipline Report.”  This story reveals the complexity of understanding the crisis in our public schools.  Russlynn Ali (Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in the Department of Education),  does an especially good job of revealing the various meanings of each statistic that the report cites.  For example, she points out that the fact that teachers in lower income schools (with higher percentages of students of color) get paid less is not really because teachers are paid less in those schools across the board but because teachers in those schools have often been teaching for much less time, have fewer certifications, etc.  And this has everything to do with bigger issues of how to attract strong master teachers to teach in the students with the most need.  An interesting read!

Recommended Reading Collection:  I just stumbled upon this excellent collection of resources titled “Issues of Race & Racism in U.S. Schools” on the Ithaca College website.  This entire list is “must read,” but you might want to spread out your reading over the next few months.

This rainy week is perfect for reading…read up, and let me know what you think!

What Does “School Choice” Mean? And Who Really Gets to Choose?

My mom texted me two days ago that a story on school choice was going to be on the OPB Program Think Out Loud.  While the interview style often strikes me as a little stilted, this is still one of the best programs to listen to if you’re trying to keep informed on local issues.  As I was feeding my children a breakfast that was stretching into its second hour, I listened to the school choice piece and couldn’t help but madly gesturing, furrowing my brow, and trying not to say anything that I wouldn’t want my children to repeat in good company (Vera is in the copy-everything-anyone-says phase of being two years old).

Why did this particular show make me irritable?  It presented the school situation in the area as full of abundant and diverse choices for each individual student so that he/she may thrive in the perfect learning environment that is suited to him/her.  While I will not deny that there are many, many good teachers in Portland AND many, many schools that have solid programming, I would not say that all students in the area have abundant options and choices.    We do not have equitable public schools, and many students in the poorest performing schools (and those with fewest resources) do not have the same choices and options as their peers in other neighborhoods.

The Portland Metropolitan area is going through some fairly major changes to transfer policies and with new open enrollment laws that will allow students to apply or lottery in to a school outside their district.  We also have a fair number of charter school options in addition to private schools placed in communities throughout the Portland area.  But just because a few hundred students may have parents who find a way to go through the process of applying for a transfer to a different district or charter school OR scrape up enough money to send their child to a private school does not mean that we have an equitable system where all students can learn and grow.

We’ve been talking about this issue a lot in my classroom at PSU, and many of our discussions lead back to the same place — charter schools, transfer policies, vouchers, and open enrollment policies do not fix the root of the problem, especially for those students in the most need.  We need to focus our energy and resources on creating a strong, thriving public neighborhood school in each neighborhood so that even students whose parents choose not to bus them out of the area, to place them in a themed charter school, or to apply for a scholarship for a private school will have the education they need and deserve.

Okay…stepping off my soap box.  I think that all of the education issues that I’ve been teaching about are coming more vividly to life as I think about school options for my own daughter.  The struggle to find a beautiful, thoughtful, strong, affordable preschool program alone has driven home the fact that not all of us really have the choice to send our children to bilingual school, to an art program, to a wonderful music class…and that these options really should be open to all.


Empowering Youth & Celebrating Strength: Inspiration from the Field (by Guest Blogger Jaydra Wolfheart)

 Challenge #8: Read & Be Inspired

Inspiration from the Field by Guest Blogger Jaydra Wolfheart

I took Zapoura’s Enhancing Youth Literacy Capstone a few years ago just as my interest in working with youth was developing. Volunteering in a public school for her class was at once frustrating, empowering, enlightening, motivating, and discouraging. Complicated. But I learned so much- that I didn’t want to work with very young kids. That I felt powerless in the face of the huge institutional barriers keeping teachers and kids locked into crappy situations. That I loved working with youth just the same. That I didn’t have to take on the whole system- I could find my place working in concert with others making small, yet meaningful steps toward education and equity for young people. Knowing public school might not be the place for me, I went searching for another place where I could be an advocate. Further coursework and volunteering led me to Portland YouthBuilders, an organization that does phenomenal work with marginalized youth ages 17-24. I volunteered there as a GED tutor and mentor for an academic year and it was there that I found my place in working with youth.
Last fall I was hired as a case manager for a new program serving youth 17-24 who have been involved in the juvenile justice system. The program is called the Civic Justice Corps and we provide job training, GED and college academics, social and life skills, and personal support to our youth.

This is enormously challenging work. Our youth come with so much trauma. They have endured poverty, abuse, drug addiction, school expulsion, gang life, racism, and of course, the alienating and often violent experiences of being incarcerated. They are withdrawn, defiant, surly, angry. I have been lied to, screamed at, ignored. So what makes it worth doing?

The times when they do open up. When you can see that a relationship of respect and trust is building and you are suddenly let in on their fear and pain. When someone says please or thank you or asks for help. When you can empower a young person to speak up for himself. When you can acknowledge who they are as whole people and celebrate their strengths while so many others in their lives have focused on their weaknesses. The struggles of working with this population make the small, yet meaningful successes that much more powerful.

I absolutely love my job, and I would not be doing it if not for all the valuable time I spent donating my time to youth and organizations in the community. Without that foundation, I wouldn’t be as in tune with what the real needs of our youth are and the barriers they face to employment, housing, education, and wellness. I would have never found out where I fit in. If you are struggling to find your place in education/youth advocacy, keep trying. Public schools absolutely need our help and support, perhaps more than any other institution, but if your inner advocate is leading you elsewhere, there are still plenty of organizations that need help. Don’t forget that while you might not be able to solve the big problems, you can do your part as a tiny subversive force, perhaps gathering momentum with others, and definitely changing the lives of young people in need. Volunteering, attending meetings, joining groups- these are the little things that add up.

If you are interested in working with older youth, our organization is seeking GED tutors Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and Friday mornings. Portland YouthBuilders, POIC, the Black Parent Initiative, and countless other organizations fighting for our young people need you too. Consider sharing your unique gifts however you can- it’s truly awesome work.

Budget Cuts Squash Dreams: What’s Wrong with This Picture?

I’ve been meaning to post this for days.  Over the weekend, I was reading the newspaper (a rare occasion since I now tend to read newspaper articles online) at my parent’s house and came across this striking section of the paper.  For some reason, this image is sticking with me.  We celebrate the hard work of community members on the MLK holiday and yet the $27 million budget cut wins out and appears to be taking over the dreams that so many worked hard to support with their volunteer efforts.  Just another example of the tensions here in Portland as we face more budget crises while still trying to do good work to support local schools.

Update on Occupy PSU: And 2nd General Assembly Meeting Scheduled for 11/21

If you want to follow what happened at Occupy PSU, here are a few articles:

The second general assembly meeting is scheduled for Monday, 11/21, at 2:00 in the Urban Plaza.  If you’re interested in the message of the movement, engaging with other students and faculty in Occupy, etc., check it out, and report back!

If you attended the rally on 11/16, post here to describe your experience.

“Make It Happen” Monday: Walk-Outs, Teacher Assessment, and Boundaries, Oh My!

If you’re feeling inspired by the many social movements that have been happening as part of the Occupy protests, think about taking on one of these small actions that will help support education in your community.

  1. November 16, 12:00 p.m.: Participate in the PSU student walk-out.  Here’s a link to the Portland Coalition to Defend Education website with information on the walk-out.   Here’s a link to some commentary on the walk-out from a PSU student.
  2. November 15: Email the State Board of Education your thoughts on the proposed teacher and administrator assessment.  If you know how important teacher quality is to the education of each student, you will want to take a look and weigh in.
  3. November 15: Go to the Rigler School meeting on possible boundary changes in PPS (6:00).
  4. November 16: Go to the Scott School meeting on possible boundary changes in PPS (4:00).
  5. Read about the previous boundary meetings, parent feedback, and proposed solutions here.
These are all little things that can make a big difference.  Make it happen!

Portland State University Student Walk-Out Planned for Wednesday, November 16

A former student of mine recently emailed me as part of her research process gathering information for a planned P.S.U. student walk-out planned for Wednesday, 11/16, at noontime in solidarity with the Occupy Portland movement.  Is the lack of affordable, equitable access to higher education on your radar?  How do you feel about walk-outs as forms of protest?

Check out their blog at www. for more information.  And think about the ways that you take action to support the education issues that are important to you…what could you do more of?  What are the specific issues you can take on?  And do you need additional resources or ideas about how to make action possible?