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Week 11: changing the world isn’t as easy as it sounds

In my “unofficial” Peace Corps handbook, there’s a timeline that describes month-by-month how you will feel during your service. At the 11-month mark the book describes that you will feel useless and doubt yourself, the government and the program. It describes that you will feel like you just aren’t going to make a difference and the issues in your community are way beyond your control.

Although I’m still in the US and live five blocks where I spent my college days, I feel like I’m disconnected from the world, disillusioned and dealing with my own Peace Corps emotional timeline. We were warned during City Year training we’d have our extreme ups-and-downs. From what I’ve heard, March is the worst month. It’s the time when you expect to see your students meeting their goals and improving, but that doesn’t always mean it’ll happen. But, right about now is the first time I’ve really lost perspective about my service. Changing the world isn’t as easy as it sounds (first said by my roommate and teammate Marissa and couldn’t be more true and timely).

On Wednesday, I took a half-day from work and stayed home to get some work done. I took the time to really start planning my interventions by looking through student work and the California public education state standards by grade level. I was taken aback after I read through the 3rd grade-6th grade standards.

By now, students are supposed to be able to identify the difference between themes in a story (like good v. evil), summarize and compare and contrast reading activities, have knowledge of letter-sound correspondence, be able to introduce a topic, write multiple paragraphs, write an argument, write a paragraph with textual evidence as support, know how to use punctuation such as a comma and quotation marks, and so the list goes on.

I know most of my students are at a 3rd grade reading level, but they also don’t fulfill any of these standards. Only a few of my students can write a flowing paragraph with a topic sentence then details. When I try to explain to them how to write a complete sentence and well-structured paragraph, they often revert back to their old ways. Only a few even know how to use quotation marks. Spelling words phonetically usually creates confusion. Comparing and contrasting – even if it’s reading straight from a textbook – is still a challenge.

I’m not trying to be cynical or even doubt my students, but reading those standards was a slap in the face because they show just how much I need to accomplish with my student by the end of the year. And to top it all off, it seems like time is running short. It’s almost winter break and we live on City Year time (time flies without you even realizing it).

I’m just getting scared that I’m not really going to progress with my students as much as I want to. I chatted with my English teacher about this and she basically told me that I shouldn’t even think about the standards because then I’ll lose perspective. I just have to take baby steps to improving their writing and reading, just like she does. I know they have the right attitude about improving (well, most of them), but six months isn’t that much time.

I understand these students have various outside factors contributing to their success in school like their families, poverty, Watts, gangs and crime, but not ALL students face the same challenges others deal with. So then why are ALL these students so far behind? They all came from different elementary schools, is it because they had ONE bad teacher, multiple, or none of them put that much effort into school?

What confuses me the most about all of this is that I know a majority of my student’s families encourage them to do well in school and have high expectations that they will do so. So maybe is a lack of performance because the students could never receive homework help at home, considering many of their parents didn’t graduate from high school?

This all goes back to the central issue of equality of education for all under the California state constitution. If some of my students were placed in schools in West Los Angeles for elementary school, would they be doing better? Probably. I can’t even use the ESL component of their education as an argument as to why they are behind. One of my teammates, Chariya, immigrated to LA from Cambodia when she was 10. She had to learn English quickly because everyone around her at her school spoke English. She immersed herself in, did well in school and graduated from UCLA. So, what’s the deal? Is it because all of my students were placed with other Spanish speaking students from day one of their educational journey and they placed more importance on speaking their native language than learning English? Who knows.

It’s all a mystery to me. But once again, that’s why I’m serving and am in their classroom every day.

I’m starting with phonetics with my students to help the understand the different sounds of the English language because they often spell based on how the letter sounds in Spanish and not in English (ex: major for mayor, informachion for information). Likewise, se and ce, z and c, e and I, e and a, u and I (basically every vowel sound) confuses them. I made phonetic flash cards of the most common mistakes with the letters and sounds they make. My goal for the students is that by the end of understanding the differences between the letter sounds they often mix up, they will be able to sound out spelling words phonetically (and maybe even bigger words that they don’t understand but can still spell!)

I’ll incorporate writing and reading into this intervention by making them write sentences with words they have to spell phonetically as well as pronounce words they read phonetically.

The reason why I’m starting with this topic is because it will be fundamental of building upon their reading and writing. They will finally be able to use the vocabulary they know because they can spell it.

Other than feeling a little worthless, the week was pretty easy. These past two weeks at Markham have been pretty calm. I’m scared that’s just a build-up for a hell week soon.

20111119-231820.jpg On Saturday, Enrich LA, a nonprofit that plants community gardens in schools throughout Los Angeles, hosted a community service event at Markham. I dug up some dirt (in an outfit that my TL Lauren describes as “going to Hollywood,” although I was just wearing boots!), hung out with my teammates and some of my students and got some work done for America. The community garden will be a great asset to our school.

20111119-231903.jpg I hope this time around the school lets the students use it. From what I’ve heard they had to shut down the community garden last time it was up and running because kids were hiding things in there and smuggling items under the gate.

Next week will be a short week. We have full school days Monday and Tuesday then a minimum day on Wednesday; we have Thursday and Friday off! Apparently we’re hosting someone from the White House on Wednesday, which means I will have to give the person the tour of Markham because that’s part of my position as an outreach coordinator. 20111119-231847.jpg

I’ll have the CYLA director and others from CYLA during the tour so it won’t be too intimidating. It should be a lot of fun and I’m happy to see that the federal government is paying some attention to what we do.

Next weekend is the USC v. UCLA game. I’m going to make a bet with my teammate Ricky (UCLA alum) that USC will win. We pick on each other too much about the rivalry, but it never gets old. It’s all fun and games. Any suggestions on what the bet reward should be? Make it good, because you know I’ll win.


One of my students made this UCLA sign for the garden. Alright, I can’t hate UCLA that much since that’s some of my student’s dream and all… I don’t care where they go to college. The important thing is that they will go to college.


I think I’m back in the game and I’m ready to motivated and FIRED UP to come up with some bomb interventions for these students without thinking about lofty end of the year goals. It’s time to just focus on the present and deal with the future when it comes.

A proud (and at times annoying) Trojan,


One Comment Post a comment
  1. Hi Liz,

    I’m Travis, the guy who wrote that unofficial Peace Corps handbook you mentioned. I found your article on GOOD and loved it. I can see, after reading your articles, that what you are going through is tough but I can also see how big your heart is and how much you care about people. Peace Corps will be lucky to have you and I think you will be an amazing Volunteer. Please let me know if I can ever be of any help to you.


    November 27, 2011

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