I completed my community service project by volunteering at my local elementary school, Valle Verde, over March Term. As a child, I attended Valle Verde Elementary School. Like most children, my time in elementary school has impacted my life in countless ways. To this day I still keep in touch with my two best friends from elementary school. I have many childhood memories of PE, lunch, recess, playing tag with friends, being teased, going to fifth grade camp, and all of my teachers–both good and bad.
I hoped that coming back as a junior in high school that I would be able to give extra support to a teacher and give the students an opportunity to get one-on-one help. Budgets for public schools are tight in my district, and schools rely heavily on volunteers to provide reading help and make art and drama programs possible. Class sizes at Valle Verde, like a lot of other schools, have been getting larger in past years, making it hard for teachers to provide one-on-one help to students. I worked in Mrs. Positigo’s transitional kindergarten class – for students who were 5 years old and slightly too young for kindergarten. The class was divided into early birds and late birds, with around 14-15 students in each group.
On my first day, walking back through the school was very strange. Everything seemed much smaller than I remembered. I met up with Mrs. Postigo and she gave me a tour of the classroom. I learned all the children’s names fairly quickly. They all called me “Miss Anna,” which sounded very strange to my ears. The kids were very grateful to have somebody to help them put on their jackets, open their lunch boxes, complain about school yard teasing, read books, and talk to. When I would arrive each day, some of them would run up and hug me or want to hold hands. It was very touching.
One of my favorite experiences was reading with the students. They had very mixed reading abilities. A few of the kids could read all of the books in the classroom with little difficulty, while others had trouble recognizing their letters. All of the children, regardless of ability, were very excited to read books. They would come up to me at all points in the day holding books, desperate for me to read to them. This experience made me realize just how important it is for kids to have individualized reading help. I always tried to make myself accessible so that they could ask questions about what a word or letter was. I tried to encourage some of the more fluent readers to read out loud with their friends, so that the other kids could benefit from hearing the story and seeing the words on the page. It made me sad to think that in a few years many of them would lose their enthusiasm for reading.
One of the kids I got to know the best was a girl named Kate. She spent all day at school, going to the onsite daycare before and after school. She was very bright and told me proudly that she could read in both Russian and English. Throughout the day I saw her get discouraged by the lack of challenge, and complain to me that it was ‘too easy.’ I tried to find fun ways to make the activities more challenging. Instead of writing out letters on the white board, I would suggest she write sentences about her life or read a more challenging book. It was difficult to balance helping kids like Kate with giving extra attention to the students who were struggling.
The most challenging part of my work was trying to keep a large group of little kids behaved. I learnt a lot from Mrs. Postigo, who was firm and consistent while giving directions and reprimanding students. It was hard not to laugh when they misbehaved in adorable ways. Eventually, I learned to control myself and get them to stick to the rules of the classroom.
I’m so grateful to have had the chance to meet all of these children and help them. I volunteered the week before California schools were shut down due to Coronavirus. I find myself wondering about how all the little kids are coping with this new reality of life at home. As a junior in high school, I underestimated how much ‘online schooling’ would affect the quality of education. Looking back at my experience volunteering has made me realize just how important interpersonal connection is in school, especially for elementary school students. The majority of the learning I observed came from their interactions with their friends, classmates, and teacher. I hope that they aren’t lonely at home. Some of them told me they were only children. They were all really sociable and I hope they still have a chance to play, chat, and run around. Overall, I’m very grateful to have had this experience.