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Students Turn Around when Community Cares

"They were so turned on by this experience, and had gotten so much positive attention and support, it was hard for them to leave the program." - Zora Tammer, SYP teacher

When Zora Tammer walked into the classroom on her first day of the Summer Youth Program class in Berkeley, California, she was met by a group of young people who did not want to be there.

"They dragged their feet and were generally very resentful, because it was summer and they had to be in school for six hours," she told us.

Zora taught five classes each week for the 70 students who participated in the program, and by the end of the eight weeks, things looked very different. Some of her students didn't even want to leave.

Susan Kraemer, Program Director of Berkeley Adult School Career Center, and coordinator for the academic enrichment portion of the Summer Youth Program, talks about the vision she had for the program: "We wanted to integrate academics into real life, to integrate academic enrichment into career curriculum. This meant math, reading, and writing skills all needed to be woven into a program that was career-based and focused."

Susan was more than able to accomplish her goal. Reading from some of the student evaluations, she quoted: "The program helps you make choices in the future," and, "It teaches you the facts about jobs and real life," and lastly, "I learned how to think."

"I believe we achieved what we set out to do," Susan said. "I feel good about the variety of activities we provided, and I think variety was the key in working with the youth."

Engaging Students

Providing the variety was Zora's job, and with her imaginative and creative approaches, she had an impact on the youth that extended far beyond the classroom.

Arriving at class on those summer mornings, one of the first things Zora did was get students actively engaged doing different warm-up, or "icebreaker" activities. She found that if she could get them involved in anything during the first part of the day, the rest of the day would go a lot smoother. Group exercises, games, debates about relevant social topics seemed to work best. One morning, a lively debate ensued when she asked students to discuss how they would define a "real woman" and a "real man." Another activity had them brainstorm 20 different professions, rank them in order of how much prestige each was perceived to have, and then discuss why and how they arrived at their decisions.

Occasionally, the class would listen to tapes brought from home, discuss the lyrics, and tell why they liked or disliked the songs.

"We talked a lot about them - their feelings and things that happened to them - and life in general," Zora explained.

Once the energy of the class was activated, Zora introduced literature selections from the Possibilities anthology, sometimes reading a poem out loud, such as Langston Hughes' "A Dream Deferred," or "Mother to Son." Students would then discuss or write their own poetry as they listened to music. They also had time for their daily journal writing which was based either on the readings, or on some significant event in their lives, such as a trauma or a success.

Guest Speakers a Favorite Activity

The highlight of the day came after the lab, when students were treated to a different motivational guest speaker on the subject of careers each day. "We had more than 20 speakers, and the kids loved every single one of them," Zora reports. "Speakers were culturally appropriate, being African-Americans like most of the kids, and they knew how to relate to young people in a very personal and real way."

Many gave their personal stories of how and where they started, such as a one-time bank teller who had risen to Branch Manager. Another speaker from the Personnel Department of a major hospital told the class how she had started out as a "temp" and worked her way up. Some had very practical advice to give: An Assistant Vice President with Community Outreach and Urban Development of American Savings Bank talked to the students about filling out job applications.

"Many of the speakers handed out business cards, and opened themselves up to the students, even coming back a second time," Zora reported. "Some students actually visited these people later at their homes and businesses, getting advice and help. For them, the lasting impression was that there's a real community out there that cares about them and is willing to offer support."

After lunch, students did activities from the Career Choices textbook and the Workbook and Portfolio. The activities they enjoyed most were those with worksheets to fill in, such as "The Values Survey." Zora tells us: "This was relaxing for them, and gave them an easy structure, since they had done their `hard' thinking in the morning."

Students Turn Around

By the end of the summer program, everyone in Zora Tammer's class was noticeably transformed. At a good-bye pizza party, the same students who had dragged themselves into her class, were now giving enthusiastic testimonials about what they thought of the program, what it had done for them, how they felt about their classmates, and what things they enjoyed about the course.

"Several of our guest speakers came to the party," Zora reports. "One was so moved, he started crying. The kids did such a great job, because they had been very affected by the speakers. They thanked all of us who had put on the program, teachers, everyone. But what they said they valued most was having met people in the community who truly cared for them. They were so turned on by this experience, and had gotten so much positive attention and support, it was hard for them to leave the program. And in addition, they had even gotten paid!"

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