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How City Year’s AmeriCorps members are closing pandemic gaps

The other day, I told one of my students to please remember to put periods at the end of his sentences. He turned to me exasperated. “This is too much,” he said. “You’re asking for too much.” 

I am an AmeriCorps member with City Year Boston, supporting students in a 6th grade English and Language Arts class at TechBoston Academy. I work with my partner teacher, Ms. McGill, to ensure our classroom is a welcoming environment where kids feel comfortable and able to learn. Half the time, this means swooping from student to student, tutoring, and helping them during class. The other half of the time, I listen to their problems and offer advice. With students returning to in-person school for the first time since they were fourth-graders, my job is more important than ever.

Coming off of a year and a half of virtual classes, my students are oddly both addicted to technology and exhausted by it. They are glued to their phones, but always act relieved when we do assignments on paper. They make Tik-Toks during class, but then get upset with each other for things said completely over text. They love to write on paper, but they would choose an audio book over a physical copy any day. 

In many ways, they are behind the benchmarks they should be at by the sixth grade. Capitalization and punctuation are losing battles on a good day. Any assignment that asks for reading or writing, of any length, exhausts them. At the beginning of each class, Ms. McGill has them answer a question in one sentence on a sticky note and turn it in. In September, every answer we got was “I don’t know.” 

To counter this, Ms. McGill and I are helping them practice many of the skills they learned in elementary school. We give mini lessons on sentence starters, help them sound out words, and remind them of basic rules of grammar.

But many of the students are still frustrated.  So, to support those students, every class, I make sure to check in with those who have their heads ducked down, seem distracted, or who have disappeared from the classroom for longer than ten minutes. I take them on walks to get a drink of water, so they have a break from the source of their frustration, or I slide them an energizing Hershey kiss and a few words of encouragement.

My student, Amy, often gets upset and shuts down in the back of our classroom, but I know that if I sit across from her and stare at her long enough, she always starts laughing. Once that happens, it’s easy for her to open up and tell me why she’s so upset. During our extended day program last month, I managed to make her laugh this way, and she explained to me that she has been having trouble focusing because of her grandmother’s recent passing during the pandemic. By providing her an opportunity for one-on-one time and offering to listen to what was bothering her, she was able to communicate why she struggled in our class. From there, Ms. McGill and I were able to build a stronger relationship with Amy that helped to engage her in future classes. 

I firmly believe that my fun, silly sixth graders can conquer middle school with the right support, and that I have an important role to play in helping to get them back on track after a few difficult years.

**Student’s name has been changed due to FERPA rules and respecting privacy. 

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