I never thought that my service trip would have such a huge impact on me. But when we first trekked downtown to the Emerson School, where we spent most of the week, I was awestruck.
After a long bus ride, we sat down with the school’s visit/field trip coordinator (a job much more complicated than it sounds). She introduced us to Emerson–its history, its programs, its philosophies, and its quirks. Emerson believes that teachers and students should respect each other (which includes the students designing parts of their education), enforces positive discipline (in other words, making the punishment fit the crime instead of arbitrary punishment), and believes the city should be used as the classroom. In short, I was impressed. After only a few hours at Emerson, I wished that I was in elementary school again, just so I could go there. As I was mainly a product of public schools, seeing a school that was so different was shocking–in a good way. I admired the rapport between students and teachers, especially in the fourth-and-fifth-grade class I spent the week in. The teacher was quick to praise and careful in meting out punishment, never making an example of a misbehaving student or being too harsh. I loved watching the students learn new things and finding out what they enjoyed, what they hated, what they excelled at, and what caused them trouble. Nobody laughed or jeered when a student got an answer wrong, and when they got one right, cries of “Good one!” or “That was great!” echoed throughout the classroom.
In between lessons, at lunch, or during recess, the teacher I was working with would sit down with me and my fellow volunteer and give us advice. Her first rule: “Every moment is a teaching moment.” She upheld this maxim by giving us all sorts of tips and telling us about life as a teacher at every possible spare moment–even when she had other things to do. She was a truly inspiring person and teacher, especially because her students adored her–I saw kids getting out of their seats and jumping up and down with their hands in the air because they wanted to answer a question so badly. It was amazing.
Emerson was really inspiring as a school environment, but while we learned about actual educating in classrooms, what we saw outside of classrooms was frustrating. This was the “urban education” side of the trip. Even though Emerson is a charter school, it is still a public charter school–and an urban public charter school at that. Emerson’s class sizes are capped at 24, and students enroll through a lottery system. Even though they would like to create more spaces for students, they can’t, because they don’t have the money to expand into a new, larger building. Their school takes up about a quarter of a city block, and is bursting at the seams (even with only 144 students). Their main source of outside funds is an annual parent auction, which the students were preparing for while we were there, creating art projects and writing poems for their parents to buy. Emerson students walk everywhere they can because the school can’t afford buses most of the time. While they get along fine with this system, it was sad to see–especially knowing that the vast majority of public schools face the exact same hurdles. Overall, my trip to Emerson was an inspiring, albeit slightly depressing, experience. I could spend a week talking about it–and I did, with my fellow Whitties on the trip.
Spring Break Service Trips are just one of the countless amazing programs Whitman puts on for its students. I made friends, learned about real-life problems, and got to interact in an environment far removed from that of Whitman. I’m so thankful to have had this experience, and that Whitman helped put me on my way to it.