Working as an AmeriCorps VISTA means a lot of indirect service, i.e. sending a lot of emails, recruiting volunteers, compiling databases and reports, and generally spending too much time in front of a computer. Those rare moments of direct service are therefore a welcome change of pace–especially when the volunteering involves working with kids.
Yesterday I paired up with a spunky and precocious third-grader named Haley at the East End Community School for the 2010 MLK project piloted by the ever-creative VISTAs from University of Southern Maine and the staff of Learning Works. I hardly caught Haley’s name the first time she said it because she spoke so quietly and she quickly informed me: “I’m shy.”
Truth: Sometimes third-graders lie. Haley quite willingly talked my ear off for most of the hour that we worked together.
Together, we listened to MLK’s speech and followed along with a copy of the text. I asked Haley to underline the words that stood out to her as we listened and was fascinated to see her underline words like “dramatize,” “independence,” “history,” and “withering.” We went back through the words after the speech had ended and, after I explained the words that she didn’t know, she declared, “My favorite is ‘dramatize’–because I do that a lot.”
The classroom facilitator then laid out a series of photographs loosely related to MLK, Jr. (pictures of drums, people marching, hands and feet, etc.) and asked the students to each choose one that they liked. Haley, alas, took too long to decide which one she wanted and had very few choices left in the end. So few, in fact, that she eventually just refused to pick one because she didn’t like the choices that were left! I finally coaxed her into letting me pick one that we could talk about together.
I have an affinity for pictures of feet, so I chose one that showed a pair of legs and feet pointed towards a well lit window (sorry, couldn’t find a copy to share). Haley was astounded. “Why’d you pick that one?! It’s freaking me out! It just makes me think of smelly feet!” Oh good. That’s inspirational.
With some prompting, I was able to get Haley to look at the photo again. “Okay,” I said, “can you tell me what you use your legs and feet for?” She thought a moment. “Walking. And running.” I asked if she thought her feet would get smelly if she walked a long way or ran a long way. Yup, that seemed right to her. So I queried, “Do you think people walked a long way to listen to this speech? Why would they do that when they knew their feet would get so smelly?” Haley, a kid who has grown up surrounded by talk of global warming, answered: “Because it doesn’t hurt the earth to walk and they were doing a good thing for the earth. Because Martin Luther King was doing a good thing.” Whoo hoo! She got it!
To finish off, I helped Haley compose a 6-word narrative to describe MLK’s work based on the words and photo we talked about. She counted off on her fingers “some people walked some people ran.” We raced into the line to write our narrative on the board and have our picture taken. Perfect, I thought as she wrote the words with a precise hand on the white board. Some people walked and some people ran to hear the “good thing” that this preacher was doing for the world. Absolutely perfect.