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“Why I Serve” Series: Deisy Ramirez, Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School

Liz Warden, Corps Member

Deisy Ramirez was an honors student all throughout middle school. It only makes sense that she was placed in an honors-level English class her freshman year of high school.

But, there was a minor issue: She only spoke Spanish.

“My friend was trying to translate everything as fast as she [could] so I [could] keep up,” Deisy said, thinking back on her first day of class.

Deisy enrolled two weeks late at Fremont High in South Los Angeles; the only open classes were all honors.

After learning about Ramirez’s language barrier, her English teacher – Ms. Bessler – never doubted her ability to succeed.

“She said ‘don’t worry about it, you’re going to be okay,” Deisy recalls.20111105-151043.jpg

“They never made it seem like an impossible thing…[they would say] just do it!”

Ms. Bessler set time aside every morning at 6 a.m. to read Dr. Seuss books with her. Mistakes to Deisy and Ms. Bessler just meant they had to work harder and practice more by repeating words and reading aloud.

“Every month I would change books, but for the first month I had eight books I would read over and over again,” she said.

Because her teachers believed in her and surrounded her with positive reinforcement, she quickly learned English and stayed on the honors and Advanced Placement track for the rest of high school.

Five years later, she is now a proud graduate of the University of California at Berkeley.

To prepare for a career in teaching and give back to the community she grew up in, she currently serves with as an AmeriCorps member with City Year in a 3rd grade classroom at Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School in Watts.

Some of her students are at a Kindergarden-first grade reading level. Others remind her of herself when she transitioned from Spanish to English.

She has been using the same techniques her high school English teachers use with her to help her students with their English and reading comprehension. She makes her students repeat and repeat until they enunciate or spell a word right.

Deisy hopes to be as inspirational and motivational as her teachers at Fremont High during her year of service with City Year and continue to be in the future as a teacher. If she could make it through, she knows her students can, too. Her teachers told her over and over again to, “just do it.”

“I tell my students now, ‘but why are you asking questions? Just do it. Once you finish you realize you can do it,” she said.

“It’s such an overused phrase, but it has so much meaning.”

This year, Deisy wants to expand on what she learned in college as an education minor and what she observed as a former teaching assistant at a Los Angeles elementary school.

After spending two months at Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School, she knows her passion lies in the students of the community she grew up in. After facing the challenges she overcame, it’s time for her to reciprocate through City Year and give a similar classroom experience that her high school teachers gave her.

“I am living proof that if you have at least one person pushing you, you can accomplish anything,” she said

“It doesn’t matter if you have an army behind you pushing you or one person. It can get better…[the students] can do it.”

Tagged as: AmeriCorps, Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School, Why I Serve


After-school is over: It’s time to clean up kids

Just another day at Markham Middle School.

Week eight: we’re all in this together

On Friday, it was our turn to serve breakfast for all the teams in the South Los Angeles Never Doubt pueblo. We made pancakes, bacon and eggs “family style” because at Markham, we are like a family.

We accidentally introduced the breakfast theme as “Markham in Bed,” which got a good laugh going.

My roommate and teammate Marissa came up with the idea and put it all together, so props to her!

During team time on Friday we had had an open discussion about the past two rough, rough weeks at Markham. This Wednesday, five fights broke out at 7th grade lunch. The cops had to break it up, handcuff some students and escort them out. I wasn’t at the lunch because I attend 6th grade lunch, but apparently it was like a mini-riot. We can’t say that what we’ve gone through in the past weeks is the worst because instances like this will keep happening. It’s only the beginning. We’re all in this together. A teammate said that each one of us reminds him of someone from his family. Coming from a not very family-oriented background (divorced parents, no siblings and minimal contact with other family members), I can say that I get the family feel I’ve longed for from my team. It was the same feeling for me with my summer camp team (miss you guys). I find family in my teams and friends. They give me that cohesive unit I lack with my blood relatives. Family helps you get through the worst of times and that’s exactly what the Markham team will do for each other. Our program manager told us we’re all at Markham for a reason (like personal strengths), but not because we would have all got along well. It just came together like that, which makes this team as strong as it needs to be for this particular school.

And although we can’t control what happens outside of the school or the gang presence at our school, we CAN control what our students do in the classroom.

A lot of the work we have been doing with our students so far is just homework and in-class work help, which helps the students at the moment, but does not get to the root cause of why they are having trouble with the work. Most of the time it is because students do not have the fundamenal blocks to build on, like knowing alphabet sounds or the multiplication table.

The Markham team is going to focus on individualized intervention plans for our students that pin-point exactly what fundamentals the students are struggling with. For example, one of my students has an extremely hard time spelling so I need to have lesson plans that teach the sounds of the English language.

We got our first five students from our focus list on Friday. These are the first five students we will be planning interventions for and spending a lot of time with them this year. I agree with most of the students City Year put on my focus list, but they left one out that I’ve been working with a lot. I petitioned to put him on my list because I know he wants my help and can benefit greatly from it (he is the student I’ve recently mentioned that has a very hard time with spelling). Moreover, one of my “little buddies” is on my list. I call her my “little buddy” because she comes to the front of English class every day and always has to sit with me. She’s a very motivated student and a lot of fun to hang out with, but once again, she needs help with her English writing.

What is frustrating me the most about this process is that I also have to focus on math with my students. This isn’t because I hate math (or feel like crying in frustration when I can’t understand how to list fractions on a number line), but because there are other students in my English teachers other class that NEED my help in English. This ESL class could really benefit from having two City Year corps members in the classroom. However, I’m probably going to be stuck in my math class. Most of my students are good at math and the ones that are scoring poorly on tests are doing so because they rush through their work or are lazy and just circle multiple choice answers. I know this for a fact because this is what my students have told me. For the students that really are having a hard time with math, I honestly think it’s because math isn’t their thing. Math for me was always challenging, no matter how many different ways my dad tried to help me with it. So, why focus on math when it might not help them when I KNOW focusing on English WILL help them?!?!

Now that I have a little less on my plate, I’m using the time to start reaching out to staff at Markham about getting a student newspaper started. I talked with one of the teachers, Ms. Webster (who is also an Annenberg j-school alum, rep it!) and she gave me the idea of making a digital newspaper that teachers can print out and post in the classroom. Moreover, they can also pass the newspapers out in class. I would host the club every Tuesday after-school for any student that wants to join. The first step, which I will be completing on Monday, is putting a letter in all the teacher’s mailboxes about the club.

My students are starting their expository writing unit next week. I’m super stoked for that because it’s my kind of writing!

Another club I’ve been working on with two of my other teammates is an environmental club. Right now, we’re decorating boxes with students before school that we will later distribute to classrooms for recycling. We want to then collect and cash-in cans. We’ll use he funds to host an environmental awareness day or week next semester.

Another initiative I hope to work on soon is addressing gang violence. A corps member at Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary, the elementary school down the street from our middle school, brought in an intern from the Gang Reduction and Youth Development program to her school. He had the students discuss how they felt about the recent gang violence in the neighborhood. One of the students at her school was a sibling of our seventh grade students that lost their father two weeks ago. A lot of them said they are tired of the killings.

I want to work with her and create a gang awareness day or week at her school, Markham and the other elementary school, Compton Avenue Elementary, that is across the street from Markham. I would love to get a former gang member, probably someone from Homeboy Industries, that went to Markham Middle School. I can assure you there must be at least one homeboy or homegirl that did.

Next week is the time to really buckle down and start planning interventions for our students. Apparently there’s a huge manual that has specific issues students have (for example, confusing Es, As, and Us) and different interactive lessons that can be used with the students.

I’m in a really weird funk this weekend. It’s not that I’m discouraged, but just have been thinking about a lot. I was taking with one of my roommates this morning (yes, at the crack of dawn, I can’t sleep in anymore) about these past few weeks. We’re both serving in ESL classrooms. Most of our students have high expectations and want to attend college. They know that they have to do well because their parents want to give them the life they didn’t have (most of my student’s parents work two jobs and did not graduate high school). But even if these students have their mind in the right place, it doesn’t mean that they have the skills to attend UCLA or USC (the two schools everyone wants to go to). Point blank: they’re behind. One student out of two of my English teacher’s classes is at a sixth grade reading level. The rest are in the third-fourth grade range. College is getting even more competitive, especially public California schools because of funding. Will these students make it over all the competition? The competition of all the Los Angeles students that can afford private schools and don’t live smack-dab in the projects?

This is America. Aren’t we supposed to be a leading nation in education? Equal rights? Equal access to education? We thrive off of these ideals, but they were really true, then why would I even be thinking about this? I guess it gives me just one more reason about why I’m at Markham. I want to give these kids the skills they need to succeed in the future how they want to.

On a side note, I started reading “That Used to be Us” by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum today. It’s about America’s declining role as a superpower in international politics.

One quote I got from it that I liked was said by US Sec. of Education Arne Duncan:

“We are like the 40-year-old who keeps talking about what a great high school player he was.”

I agree. America is arrogant. We boast about our educational system because it used to be top in the past, but look at it now. I see how it’s declined every single day.

My roommate told me my life just sounds sad when I describe all I do is, “eat, sleep, blog and sit on the couch.” It is pretty true. Therefore, I’ve made a list of personal goals for the year:

1. Read the LA Times and international section of the NY Times daily.
2. Read The Economist weekly.
3. Read one international-related book monthly or bi-monthly (hence my book choice I just mentioned).
4. Blog once a week (hahaha).
5. Try to run every week.
6. Text or call friends at least once a week.

I have to take some time to invest in the other things I’m interested instead of constantly thinking about my students and City Year.

I’m getting lunch with my best friend from college tomorrow, who I haven’t seen in ages, so that should be another good non-City Year event to help me get out of my funk.

I really should stop blogging, since that’s practically my life. It’s time to go enjoy some Los Angeles sunshine.

Here’s a few pictures from our Staff Appreciation Breakfast we hosted on Wednesday, which turned out to be a great success!

Picture LOL of the week: my boss Damien playing ultimate rock, paper, scissors at sixth grade lunch


Oh, and to add to our lockdown tally. We’re now at five lockdowns. This Pueblo Friday, however, the lockdown was at Gompers Middle School. Gompers is the other middle school in Watts.

I just got an iPad to replace my broken computer, so I should probably also apologize for all typos in advance. A real keyboard > touch screen.

Happy Halloween!

“Why I Serve” Series: Daniel Pierson, Markham Middle School

Liz Warden, Corps Member

One 45-minute bus ride got Daniel Pierson’s mind rolling about how he can help others and be an advocate for those he know can succeed. During their sophomore year of high school, Pierson was heading over to a Mariners baseball game with a friend, Michael, who shared a common interest of sports. The small-talk on the bus wasn’t just about whom they thought would win the game, but lead into the troubles Michael was having at school and home.

His father had passed when he was younger and since he was 13-years-old he had been living on his own and started to follow the path of some at-risk dropouts: abusing drugs and disregarding school.”I started helping him with his homework a lot and trying to get him to do well in school,” Pierson said.”I kind of realized that not everyone has such supportive parents and so many people advocating for them like I did.”

The next three years Pierson was Michael’s advocate. He later graduated high school alongside him. Today, he serves as an AmeriCorps member with City Year and says he’s an advocate for his 6th grade English and math class and the rest of the students at Markham Middle School in Watts.

City Year focuses on getting to know the student on a personal and academic level, inside and outside of the classroom, which Pierson was able to do with Michael.

“We’re in a unique position because we get to see different aspects of the kid’s lives” he said.

Pierson hails from Seattle, Washington and recently graduated from Western Washington University. He joined City Year after he talked to a recruiter at a job fair on his college campus. He had a “gut feeling” that City Year was the right program for him.”I hadn’t had felt that instant connection to anything before. It was a call to action in a sense that I was needed in LA,” he said. Pierson attended public schools in north Seattle throughout his childhood. He believes in the power of the public school system and that all students – regardless of where they live – can succeed if they are motivated. Or, as Pierson and the Markham Middle School team would chant, based on the school’s mascot, the eagle, “soaring, so high!”

He’s challenging himself this year to give his students similar stability that his parents gave him when he was in middle school.”For students who are inherently motivated, it doesn’t matter what school they attend, they’ll succeed anyways,” Pierson said.”Maybe for those kids who don’t have a support system … it may be really hard for [them] to be self-motivated.”

Pierson knows that he will stay within the education sector after his City Year to still advocate and be a positive role model for all those students that he wasn’t able to meet and impact during his year of service. Although he doesn’t have specific plans, he’ll know when the time is right to act on his next move in education because he’ll get the same gut feeling he got when he applied to City Year.

“It’s about laying perfect bricks,” he said. “Obviously we’re not going to create monumental change in a day, week, or even a month, but what I try to do through every interaction I have with the kids or the community members I meet is bring positive energy.”

Who’s who?

The kids often mix up Ms. Charlotte and I and Mr. Daniel and Mr. Dylan. They think Charlotte and I are sisters and Daniel and Dylan are brothers. Charlotte prints out Hello Kitty and DragonBallZ coloring sheets for the kids and gives them out at lunch. I can’t count how many times kids have come up to me asking for coloring sheets. We always tell the kids that “Ms. Charlotte wears glasses and Ms. Liz doesn’t” as a way to tell us apart.

So… we decided to play a little game.

Can you guess who’s who?

Have a good night!
Yours truly,

Ms. Charlotte

Week seven: if it bleeds, should it lead?

Today, my first post for was published. The theme of it was the conflict-driven education story told in the mainstream media and my transition from that to actually working in a classroom first-hand. I’ll be writing monthly for My stories will be due the 1st of every month. A CYNY corps member will have a deadline on the 15th of every month. The series is called “A City Education” – so definitely check it out!

The theme of this post made me think of the other concept we’re taught so often in j-school, aside from the several news values: If it bleeds, it leads. Broadcast is caught in this trap more than print, but if a story features an intense crime, it automatically attracts the human interest value of a news story and will be placed at the top of the news hour or on the front page. Humans are social beings. They gossip – especially when it’s about something so atrocious that “they can’t believe that happened.”

Naturally, I gossiped with my friends back home about how crazy this week was because we had our fourth lockdown (we’ve decided to keep tally of lockdowns). This time the lockdown lasted for 2 1/2 hours. My friends responses ranged from, “The worst thing that happened in middle school for us was like two of our friends stealing from a gift shop on Main Street” (gotta love small town problems). Another said, “Wow, you’re on the frontlines of reality.”

After we heard a helicopter flying over our campus over and over again last Wednesday, we knew it was going to be serious. Luckily, most of the corps members that work in sixth grade were on break and got to just relax in the CY room instead of trying to control restless students that sometimes try to leave the classroom during a lockdown.

After they had announced that “THE TITLE ONE OFFICE IS NOW CLOSED,” one of our teammates, Chariya, was lagging. She was walking back from a fast food restaurant close by and came back to the CY room after they had announced the lockdown. She told us that she saw 20 or so cop cars by our school and a SWAT team.

A few minutes later we saw a couple of cops casually walk by the CY room. Oh, I forgot to add: They were carrying what looked like 8-inch guns.

The story behind this intense lockdown was that a suspect that shot or murdered someone close by fled to our campus. He jumped the fence to hide his gun. Then, he ran from the police on campus again and they found him in a house a couple of blocks over from our campus. A SWAT team bordered the house and forced him out. The police and police dogs found the gun and our campus was back to being good ol’ Markham after that. The lockdown went past school hours, so each teacher had to escort the students to the front of the school and the ones that usually walk or bus home had to wait in the library for someone to come get them. We still got in about 30 minutes of our after-school program. We played some fun and interactive games to get the kid’s minds off of what had just happened.


I found myself focusing more on the crime in this story by telling my friends about it, but understanding that it’s not just about the human-interest theme in a story like this. It’s what these students have dealt with their whole lives. Therefore, we have to understand that even if a student won’t do work or listen in class, there are millions of other things running through his or her mind that can even relate to incidents like this or last week’s gang shooting. Anyways, shouldn’t that be the real story? Not the quick and easy crime story?

The team debrief after the lockdown summed up to this: This is just another STRONG reason why we’re needed at Markham.

On Monday, there was a sub in my English class who proceeded to send both of my trouble students to the counseling office. The first student hit another student in class because the student “told the whole class that he had a girlfriend when he told him not to tell anyone.” The sub told him she was writing him up, so he decided to cuss, throw his book to the front of the room and storm out of the classroom.

I found him in the principal’s office and couldn’t help but laugh after he told me it was over students talking about how he had a girlfriend. Wait for it: This little 6th graders girlfriend is in the 7th grade. That killed me. I just said, “Why are you embarrassed that you got a girl? You should be showin’ that off! AND she’s in the 7th grade?!”

Instead of sending him to the counselor, the principal just made him hang out with him the rest of the day, which I think was a very good response to what had happened. This student doesn’t need more people yelling at him, just someone who’s there to listen and have a LOGICAL conversation where adults aren’t raising their voice when dealing with him. The principal knows this student and treats him like an equal and respects him. The student responds well to this and gets himself together when people talk WITH him and not DOWN to him.

The next day he gave me a hug in first period and said, “Thanks for supporting me yesterday.” He doesn’t have much of a soft-spot, so this really got to me. He sees that I do care about him and like him still – no matter how much trouble he can cause. I’m coming up with an accountability/discipline plan for him tonight that will have incentives. I will get through to this kid if it’s the last thing I do because I KNOW he’s smart and could do something if he tried and didn’t ditch class (side note: we were cracking up about this the other day, what is there even to do when you ditch class in middle school? Chill behind a wall? C’mon kids…)

Onto the tutoring portion of the week, I’m putting my feelers out for how to work with one of my students who has a really, really hard time spelling. He comes up with great ideas, has awesome reading comprehension, but when it comes to spelling… it’s another world. He can speak sentences that construct a coherent paragraph, but can’t correlate that down into writing.

What I’ve decided to do with him is have him speak aloud what he wants to write. Then I’ll type it in my blackberry and then I’ll tell him what to write exactly based on what he said. We’ll construct a paragraph together, but I won’t tell him how to spell anything. Then, I’ll go over the paragraph, sound out words for him (Os, Us, Is and Es are death to sounding out the English language – they’re so similar!)

After that, I’ll make a list of the words he got wrong and next week I’ll give him a spelling test on those words. We’ll continue doing this every week. This student really wants to learn, but I’m not sure if he has a learning disability because he can’t connect his spoken word to written word ever. He also has a really strong vocabulary, but just can’t spell a lot of the words he knows. I hope we can really improve his spelling this year. If we can, I know for a fact he’ll be a really good writer in the years to come.

It’s our team leader Brittany’s birthday tomorrow. We had a surprise potluck for her on Thursday during our meeting period because she’s taking the day off on her actual birthday. We decorated the room and all wore black headbands to mimic her every day hairstyle: A black headband with a high bun. Although Brit was sick and had to leave mid-surprise party, it’s still the thought that counts. We wanted to appreciate her for all the work she does for us and for being honestly the best TL out there (and Lauren!) We’ll have to be creative to think of the next surprise for our other TL – Lauren’s – birthday and our PM D-man.

To end off the longest post yet, we had a service day at Markham on Saturday with the Boys and Girls Club. We helped build a community garden for the students! It was great to see some other corps members who don’t serve at Markham, but still came to support.

Oh, is anybody willing to donate to the “Liz Needs a New Laptop Fund?” Living on a ~$1,000 a month stipend is rough.

My laptop, Bumper, who has been through everything with me from freshman year on is on his last life. I’ve dropped him too many times during my frantic moments that his screen now won’t stand-up straight. Now, he’s a little tablet. It’ll cost more money to fix my computer than buy a new one, so I either settle for ANOTHER PC, or use my Apple credit card to buy an iPad. I might as well buy an iPad since I’m already working on a tablet.

How am I expected to keep writing this year if little Bumper won’t even cooperate with me? RIP Bumper, I’ll always love you.

Technology hates me.

Tonight some of the roommates and I are going to carve pumpkins. Well, that is if our food stamps cover buying pumpkins…

Bryan Brown (BTWICE), one of my roommates and our creative house chef, is making Sunday night dinner tonight for the 13 person house. He started prepping at noon. I can smell it from upstairs. Yum, can’t wait!


The Markham team summed up in three videos: that’s what’s up

Finally, some multimedia on this blog! Without having the Annenberg j-school digital lab at my fingertips any day of the week, I am having a hard time editing video and photographs for this blog. I’ve been making do with my PC, but I need a Mac to edit. Shout out to my lovely roommate Bryan who let me use his Mac to edit some video tonight!

I’ve been documenting the Markham team for about a month now with my flip cam and plan to edit together a video of the whole year for the team to watch on graduation night. That being said, with only 15 minutes of footage, I found three 30-ish second video clips that sum up the Markham team in full: Our energy, passion and humor.

The first video is a montage of clips from our first day at our after-school program with our students. It’s an “emergency dance party” where we randomly start playing music, bust some moves and get the kids to dance with us. Today was a rough day for some teammates, so my teammate Melanie decided it was time to have our second emergency dance party to get them team going.

Note: I know the shots are cut off. For some reason, the clips are full and I can see all the teammates heads. However, when I uploaded the files to iMovie it cut off part of the clip. This is reason #9234209842 why broadcast journalism technology and I do not get along. I was also trying to film this with kids trying to grab my camera…

This second video is our call-back. Whenever we are with all of City Year (all 210 corps members) on Fridays, we’ll do our call-back in the morning. Likewise, we do this call-back when the bell rings in the morning to remind the kids to get to class.

Last but not least, another team call-back, which is more focused on an inside joke within our team. One of the teammates Tessa always brings yummy snacks (who can resist Trader Joes?) We call it Tessa’s edible treats.

There you have it: You can finally see the Markham team in all its glory – LOUD and proud – without me having to explain the way we act in written words. As much as I hate broadcast, I’ve got to give it credit. Video does complement any story. That’s what up, as Damien would say.

Good night! It’s an hour past my bedtime (it’s 10 p.m. now – yes, I go to bed at 9 p.m. every night).