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What is the summer slide that many economically disadvantaged kids experience once the school year is over? It is often a predictor of truancy, high school drop-out rates, eventual unemployment and worse.
As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book Outliers, “Virtually all of the advantage that wealthy students have over poor students is the result of differences in the way privileged kids learn when they are not in school….America doesn’t have a school problem. It has a summer vacation problem.…”
Jesse Speth ’13 wants to be part of the solution to that problem. Last summer, Speth served as the seventh-grade teacher in the Horizons of Kent County learning program, which is designed to combat the summer slide. In a programming first, Horizons middle schoolers held some classes on the Washington College campus as part of an initiative by the Horizons national organization to partner with colleges and universities.
Speth’s charges? Four back-talking teenage boys — with both challenges and dreams. One of the kids has 28 siblings or half-siblings and lives in a house with 11 other people. Another, in his hand-written personal biography, indulged in some wishful thinking: “There once was a guy named Kyante, He just met Beyoncé – his future fiancée.” Kyante wants to be an NBA star or a choreographer. The six-week program serves kids from kindergarten through seventh grade. The idea is that they come back summer after summer, building upon what they’ve learned.
“This classroom is a safe haven for these kids and, instead of traditional lessons, what I’ve tried to do is provoke their thinking. When they made their bio boards, I asked: How do we organize the information? What’s the best way to do that? It’s about stopping and talking a lot,” says Speth, 22. “I ask a lot of questions and then steer them in a direction and teach to their strengths.”
Speth, who majored in English and minored in secondary education, used knock-out, a basketball game, to reinforce the boys’ math skills. And by mentoring the first graders during art class, the young teens learned to lead. “Sneaky teaching,” Speth calls it. “As much as they want to act as though they are too cool for it, they love how the younger kids look up to them. That and being on campus has really helped develop a “big kid” feel.”
Speth credits his college internship student teaching at a Maryland high school and “teacher boot camp” led by education professors Erin Counihan, Michelle Johnson and Robert Siudzinski with preparing him for his role as a Horizons teacher.
About the boot camp, he says: “The professors would play the roles of troublesome students. One was a tattooed metal head who wanted nothing to do with me as teacher; another pretended to puke on the desk. They pretty much picked every scenario you might go through as a real teacher and then they put you through the meat grinder. It totally teaches you to think on your feet.”
Speth, currently a special ed teacher in Chicago public schools, has only one regret about the Horizons program: “I just wish I’d had another six weeks.”