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How AmeriCorps & City Year prepared me for the Peace Corps

Back in college when I dreamed of becoming a PCV, I met with a Peace Corps recruiter. She told me that my liberal arts degree only qualified for a community development position, which is a small percentage of Peace Corps Volunteer positions around the world. I wasn’t a competitive applicant.

She recommended that I join City Year, a year-long service program through AmeriCorps. I did so, and became a competitive Peace Corps applicant because I then qualified for education and youth development positions.

City Year targets 17-24-year-olds for a demanding year of service in underprivileged areas in major cities throughout the US. City Year corps members work on a team of 10-16 diverse young adults from around the country.

In either an elementary, middle, or high school, corps members are assigned to one or a few classrooms to serve as tutors and mentors.

Corps members follow those same kids throughout the year and take them out of class for one-on-one or small group tutoring.

Outside of the classroom, corps members put on events for the school, paint murals and really do anything that adds to a positive school climate and falls under school beautification.

City Year and the Peace Corps established a partnership not so long ago that encourages City Year alums to join the Peace Corps and vice versa. The Peace Corps loves City Year. City Year alums are given priority in a group of Peace Corps nominees. Score!

I served with City Year in Los Angeles and believe it greatly prepared me for this Peace Corps journey:

  • City Year exposed me to so much diversity — at my school and within the organization. People I worked with came from all over the country and from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds. They taught me how to work with people different from myself, especially those that exercise different styles of leadership.
  • City Year prepped me emotionally. It’s extremely hard to see the failures of public education and the rampant social issues that exist in our Peace Corps service communities, but it doesn’t eat me alive because I saw a lot during City Year. Kids in communities abroad face some similar challenges to those that live in City Year communities, just in a different setting and culture.
  • City Year gave me the classroom experience I needed to make the next step to become a teacher in the Peace Corps. I basically got my feet wet and learned how to teach students who are far behind grade level and how to implement a supportive learning environment.
  • City Year taught me how “another world” within America operated. Although I was serving in America, I stepped outside of my comfort zone and experienced a culture and neighborhood opposite from my childhood. I gained cultural and social awareness. Now in the Peace Corps when anything frustrates me I am able to decipher problems or my frustrations by looking at the culture, politics and social issues intertwined. Such observation and critical thinking taught me to be resilient, a quality the Peace Corps looks for in its Volunteers. I am calm when working in my Peace Corps village because I can embrace differences and not look at issues from one point of view, but many.

I would recommend this AmeriCorps program for any Peace Corps college hopefuls who either need more qualifications to be considered or think they need more experience before moving abroad. Not to mention, you’ll earn the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award to help pay off student loans.

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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.

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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.

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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,

Liz

“Why I Serve” Series: Min “MJ” Kim

By Liz Warden

From as far back as elementary school, MJ Kim was on his own to take complete ownership of his education.

Coming from a family that immigrated from South Korea, his parents stressed hard work and education, but weren’t able to be much of an influence on his school work.

His mother dropped out of high school. It was a challenge for him to get help on his homework because his parents didn’t know beyond the multiplication table.

Many of his students are facing similar difficulties.

“There’s this one student said to me, ‘mister, I don’t feel like doing [school work] anymore,” MJ said, recalling what one of his students recently told him.

“‘I tried to do it at home, but my parents can’t help me because they never graduated from high school.”

MJ, who now is an AmeriCorps member with City Year at Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in a 6th grade classroom, serves because he doesn’t want this particular student or others to feel restricted like he did growing up. He wants to be there to help them with whatever they need academically, whether that’s homework or pushing them to the next level.

When they know they have somewhere to go for academic help, they will be of top of their schoolwork. The presence of City Year members at MJ’s school, he reasoned, will also help boost the student’s confidence.

“If they need guidance or consistency, if it’s not me, its the fact that City Year is there. That’s a very powerful message,” he said.

As a first generation American and college graduate from the University of California at San Diego, MJ is able to make connections with students that others may not be able to. That’s because a majority of students at his school, Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in MJ’s home neighborhood Koreatown, come from immigrant families.

“Los Angeles is a city of immigrants. I’m sure [many] parents came from different countries don’t speak English,” he said.

“It’s just really hard growing up.”

But when he has someone to share difficulties with, the life of a first-generation American middle school student gets a little easier.

A major role model in MJ’s educational quest wasn’t a teacher, a parent, or even an adult. It was his best friend, John Kim, who also came from a South Korean immigrant family and also serves at RFK Community Schools. John showed MJ, peer-to-peer, why school was important because he was engaged in his school work. MJ then realized that middle school wasn’t just about hanging out with friends.

MJ believes that if he can have an effect on one student, that student will be a positive role model for he or she’s peers for years to come like John Kim was to him.

“If I can turn one student into caring about their life and their future…maybe that kid can influence others around him,” he said.

What MJ appreciates about City Year is that he won’t be attacking this educational goal alone like he was most of his life. Now MJ is working with a team of 18 corps members to get the job done and help middle school – especially those from immigrant families – to take ownership of their education.

“You can give a year and change the world,” he said.

“But you never have to do it alone.”