“If someone has identified a need, I should address that need.” A look at Emily Mattesky and her work with the Banneker Peace Program

If you are a somewhat affluent human being and have lived in New Orleans for a period of time post-Katrina, you probably have heard that New Orleans has one of the worst public school systems in America. You’ve probably also had a conversation or heard the drama about the influx of charter schools in the city. In the past couple of years, the implementation of charter schools in the New Orleans has become a popular means of trying to improve a school’s low education status. It is a very controversial topic, and depending on who you ask, some people believe that charter schools are beneficial while others see many problems. My internship is at Benjamin Banneker Elementary School- a charter school located on the corner of Burdette and St. Charles Avenue.

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Banneker is a high-needs school. In my opinion, there are two issues: the school is poorly funded and strong leadership is lacking. I started at Banneker by working in the For The Children Tulane Reading Room. This is a classroom at the end of a hall on the third floor where Tulane students are paired with ‘reading buddies’ with which they interact on a weekly basis. These reading buddies are selected to work with a Tulane student based on their high need reading comprehension status. This means they are at least one or two years behind the average reading ability for their respective grade. Each Tulane student’s role is to facilitate reading/discussion interactions with their buddies and encourage the students to increase the amount of time they spend on reading. In this program, each reading buddy is taken out of class for an average of one hour to work with their Tulane buddy and then return to class to resume the day. My knowledge of the program and of Banneker is based upon my observations, informal discussions and immediate experience working with four buddies – Andrenique, Khalil, Trinity, and Chris.

Often times, the Tulane students working in the reading room are there to fulfill their 20-hour service requirement. Since my internship requires a lot more time, my role as a reading buddy is a bit more extensive. I do “leap intervention.” I explore all subjects with my buddy and try to find gaps in their learning. For instance, through exploration, I found that Khalil never really memorized his multiplication timetables or learned long division. As a fourth grader, those two skills are necessary for him to complete any math exercise. As a result, I spend a majority of my time with Khalil practicing those two rudimentary skills and then apply them to some of the more difficult math problems he is currently learning.

I really enjoy leap intervention; it’s an interesting process for both the student and for me. Because my role in this situation is to re-teach as opposed to tutor, I have developed an understanding of what it is to actually teach a skill. This entails a set of skills, an understanding of the material, and a view of how a student learns that is beyond what I have experienced in the past. By talking to teachers and Tulane mentors, I’ve been given a good deal of advice about what it is to really teach.  I am still in the process of learning this skill.

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To switch gears a little bit, I wanted to talk about my final project and how I came to the idea. Before I started at Banneker, I had a concept of what I wanted to do there. I’ve always been intrigued by the ways in which public schools teach young students about morality and promote conceptual thinking in the absence of religious/spiritual studies. In my opinion, a religious/spiritual study of any kind challenges students to assess or orient themselves within relationship circles beyond their immediate families or communities. In a way, I believe it educates to a critical consciousness that enables students to look beyond themselves and analyze or reflect on the values of living in a community of moral justice. I ultimately wanted to study and observe this critical consciousness in action, to see how students link these concepts together based upon the curriculum. Even more so, I wanted to see how the school promotes and allows for this kind of critical thinking.

When I arrived at Banneker, I jumped right into the swing of things with the Tulane Reading Room and leap intervention. One day, my Banneker advisor, Mrs. Jane, told me that she had spoken with a post-grad volunteer about my ideas. She explained to Mrs. Jane that she was interested in collaborating and that she wanted to meet me. So we got together, and with the encouragement of Mrs. Jane, we created a program named The Banneker Peace Program.

For the past couple of weeks, we have worked together on writing a proposal and on several lessons plans. After meeting with the principal and two fourth grade teachers to discuss our ideas, we received approval for the program. As of this week, the Peace Program is in full swing. Here is a brief overview the program’s philosophy:

The Peace Program is a whole learning critical approach to fourth grade. The goal of the Program is to provide a space for students to focus on peacemaking, critical thinking, and conversational and analytical skills. It achieves this by expanding upon their previously learned public school humanities curriculum. Through various lesson plans and exercises, the students are given a chance to reflect on certain values of living in a just world, bringing together their life experiences with what they have learned in class and their future ambitions. The hope is that the program will help students to gain personal awareness, to develop a strong commitment to learning, and to understand global issues impacting their communities.

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Even though we are just beginning, the program has produced positive feedback, particularly from the teachers. I think they appreciate our big picture goal and how it is not only serving the students but the community of the school. The most interesting advice I have received thus far while in this internship was actually from Professor Huet. She told me that if someone from the school has identified a need, I should address that need. I think I will probably take that idea with me always, no matter what service I do in my life. And I hope that this program will fulfill gaps/needs of the school in more ways than not.

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