Breaking Ground: My Experiences Teaching an 8th Grade Summer Program

Athena Perrakis   Director, Humanities Initiative
University of Southern California

ast March I received a phone call from a colleague at El Camino 
College, who had taught English part-time at the college with me 
in 1998.  She had now become director of the English as a Second 
Language program.  After catching up on our recent transitions and 
experiences, she asked if I had plans for the summer.  A position had 
opened for an English instructor in the Early Start Program - an 
outreach project designed to promote college interest and eventual 
enrollment among 8th grade students from some of Los Angeles' most 
troubled school districts.  I told her that my only teaching experience 
was at the university level and that I was most likely unequipped and 
unprepared to teach middle school kids.  She convinced me to apply 
anyway, and before I left USC for spring break, I had been hired by 
the director of Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOP&S) 
at El Camino.  Little did I know how much this experience would 
forever change my perception of secondary education.

On Monday, July 10th, eighty special young people entered my life.  
These kids - who had just graduated from middle school and were about 
to begin high school - came to me with a myriad of abilities, interests, 
needs, and deficiencies.  On the first day of class, I used several 
class activities to assess their skills.  I left that day feeling both 
optimistic and disheartened: some of my students were very intelligent, 
but had received a poor education from teachers who did not invest time 
or energy in their work; others could barely compose sentences and had 
no familiarity with basic English grammar; still others were admittedly 
unmotivated to succeed prior to the program, and had come here for 
remediation.  Of course, most of the kids fell somewhere in between 
these three descriptions, with average abilities and limited learning 
skills.  To teach disadvantaged young people how to appreciate English 
language and view learning as fun - this was my unique challenge.

We set to work the very next day.  I provided spelling and vocabulary 
tests, cut up little index cards for them to review words with at home, 
created group projects on leadership and literary analysis of music 
lyrics, taught basic parts of speech and punctuation, and showed the 
tried-and-true "Grammar Rock" video as a form of visual reinforcement.
We ended the four-week long, intensive program with lessons on how to 
write a five paragraph essay, which is the basis for more advanced 
critical writing they will likely do in grades 10-12.  I was amazed 
when, on the last day of class, many of my students explained how they 
came to the Early Start Program with no knowledge of English grammar, 
structure or usage, and left with the skills to write a brief but 
coherent essay.  More to the point, however, is that we bonded with 
each other and had a great time learning and growing together this 
summer.  Whatever impact I made on their learning, they made an equally 
profound impact on my growth as a teacher and human being.

August 3rd was our graduation ceremony.  One of my students brought 
me flowers with a card attached, which read "Friendships multiply joys 
and divide griefs.  Thank you for being the wonderful person you are."  
The coordinator of our program saw the note, winked at me, and said 
"Better than a paycheck, huh?"  Indeed.  My lesson to learn from this 
experience is that education can change lives if it is received with 
enthusiasm and transmitted with compassion.  The other lesson I learned 
is that disadvantaged should not mean disenfranchised.  Each one of us 
can make all the difference to a child who needs attention, care, and 
support to succeed.  Before I left our reception last night, after 
saying good-bye to all of my students and posing for pictures with 
their families, I took down the display posters and projects and said 
to the director who hired me, "I plan to keep these, to show them as 
examples next year - hint, hint."  I hope to teach English again in 
2001 for this program, which is celebrating its 8th anniversary (and 
many past successes) this summer.