Thursday, January 31, 2013

Challenge Day

Sometimes I forget that my some of my students' lives are so crazy out of school because in school, they are just like everyone else (kind of...).  What I see is students who are working hard sometimes, want to talk and hang out with their friends, and are still trying to figure out who they are, which is just like any other high school student.  Most of the time, they don't really talk about their home life, or if they do, it's never anything negative. It's a mention of their brother, sister, aunt, uncle, mom, dad, etc. or talk of what they did that weekend.  It's rare that they bring up their struggles, mostly because they just want to leave it at home.

That being said, yesterday was completely different. Yesterday was Challenge Day at Jackson and it was such an eye opener.  Our day started in the gym.  All of the adults (about 25) who were volunteering met before the students arrived just to go over the logistics of the day and get organized before the students arrived.  As the students entered the gym, we formed a tunnel that the students walked through. There was music blaring and a lot of the students danced their way through the line.  The first part of the morning was a lot of dancing, running around and games.  They would say things like "You have 30 seconds to hug as many people as you can...GO!"and everyone would get out of their seat and run around. Or, they divided the group up into two large groups that faced each other and had to keep a huge ball off of the ground.  The morning was more focused on community building within the group.  It was mostly juniors and seniors, so I didn't know any of them. I had seen them around, but it was good to just engage with them and set a tone of community at the beginning of the day.

After a couple of hours of community building, things got more serious.  We were put into small groups and then brought together as a community. We did this activity called "If you really knew me..." which was featured on MTV.  When we were together as a whole group, the facilitator from Challenge Day shared her "If you really knew me story."  She talked about how her father was an alcoholic and her parents divorced early on.  She went on to talk about how once her dad got engaged, the fiance decided she didn't want kids around, so the facilitator was ostracized from her father, not by choice.  The other facilitator shared about how he grew up in a rough neighborhood. He was one of four boys and his three brothers had all been killed or committed suicide. Having them share their stories really set the tone for us to share our stories.

We then broke up into our small groups. I had two girls, a boy and another Corps Member in my group. I'm so thankful that Katherine, the other corps member, was in my group because I feel like I really got to know her on a deeper level. Thankfully, I had heard that this was an emotional activity and I knew that our students dealt with a lot of "stuff" at home and outside of school, so I was as prepared as I could have been before hearing these students share.  Here is what the three of them are dealing with when they go home.

Girl One:
Her mom wants a divorce from her step-dad but isn't sure if she can financially support her two children as a single mother.  She's worried that she would lose her kids if she were to get a divorce because she wouldn't be able to support them.  The girl's brother has been in a lot of trouble recently and hardly goes to school.  He recently came out as homosexual and their step-father isn't okay with that.  Lots of times, he isn't allowed back in the house and the girl can hear him throwing rocks at the window, hoping the sister will sneak him in. Last night, he called her because he was stranded and didn't have anywhere to go.

Girl Two:
She said that if we really knew her, we would know that the one person she loves the most is her dad. She used to live with her mom in Miami, but last year, was able to move in with her dad in Jacksonville and was really excited.  A few months into her new home, her dad told her to get in the car.  He drove her back to Miami and told her he didn't want her to stay with him anymore.  She still lives with him now (I didn't want to push the details of that), but that they are just two people living in the same house, not like a father and daughter.

The Boy:  It was interesting because, while  the girls were very emotional, they were very open about their lives and talked a lot about what it was like to be them.  The guy, on the other hand, was more resistant.  He simply said,
"I don't have a daddy.  He's been in jail my whole life.  I have to be my own daddy."
and while that isn't as detailed as the girls' statements, it's equally as powerful.

After this activity, we had lunch and could take some time to regroup.  It was extremely emotional for everyone, adults and students alike. I was really impressed with their ability to open up to people they were not that close with or had just met.

When we came back from lunch, we had equally, if not more, emotional activity. I have participated in "Cross the Line" before with my peers, but I had never done it with students.  In case you've never heard of this activity, here's how it goes.  There is a line of tape that divides the room in half.  Everyone stands on one side of the line.  The facilitator reads out statements such as "cross the line if you have ever been abused."  If the statement applies to you, you cross the line. It's extremely powerful activity, even though it's completely silent.  The students (and adults) became emotional quickly as the statements resonated with ourselves and each other.  When the statement "cross the line if you have ever lost an immediate family member or close friend," one male student completely broke down.  He was bent over and stomping his feet until he eventually collapsed. It was so moving and emotional.  Throughout the entire activity, there were so many different incidences of emotional rawness.

The afternoon ended with everyone writing letters to someone. You could write it to a family member/friend who you wanted to show your love and admiration for, or you could use this letter as a mode of forgiveness, acceptance, etc.  Then, they asked anyone to share that felt comfortable.  A student wrote a letter to a teacher thanking her for supporting her through an abusive household. Another was to a student's daughter telling her how much she loved her.  The last was the most powerful, though.  A student had written her cousin a letter forgiving him for molesting her.  To see her emotion and her strength was so inspiring. Her friends and almost everyone the room surrounded her and supported her.

This whole experience was awesome and I am so glad that I got to experience it. I always knew that our students were going through so many things at home and had issues that I am lucky to have never experienced, but to put a face to all of them was a whole new thing.  I don't want to think of these students as victims.  Instead, I want to see them for their strength and their perseverance.  They are some of the strongest people I know.  The fact that they make it to school every day is a feat in itself.  I am so proud and honored that they chose to open up to me and the rest of the City Year team.

I'll close with something a student said yesterday.  It's such a simple statement, but something I know I take for granted everyday.  I am so thankful that I grew up in a household where the words "I love you" were said multiple times a day and giving hugs was as frequent as going to the bathroom (which for me and the world's smallest bladder is very frequent!).

"I just want love. That's all." -a student at Challenge Day yesterday.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

These kids are wild (in a good way...mostly)!

What a week.  My outside life has been pretty calm. I finished dogsitting and joined a gym, so I've been going pretty frequently which is nice. It's a really nice distraction and just alone time, which is hard to come by. City Year, though, has been extremely eventful. Mostly good things, but some disheartening things as well. I don't even know where to begin, so I'm just going to list things that have happened.

1. Monday, I was talking to a group of students I was working with about new year's resolutions. It's a little late in January, but it's a fun topic that is great to talk about with students, so I've been dragging the topic out.  Anyways, I was asking the students what their new year's resolutions were and they were sharing. One of them was to stop talking as much, which was great for this student who is a constant talker.  I was saying how my resolution was to go to the gym at least three times a week.  The student who said he wanted to stop talking said "It's okay Ms. Russo.  Some people are just thicker than others." hahahaha I just laughed.

2. We hired a new staff member for CYJax!  Her name is LaKeshia and she's our new Operations and Development Coordinator.  She's a CY alum and went to grad school for social work.  She seems really nice and awesome at her job. I think I'll probably be working with her a decent amount. I think it'll be good for the organization.

3.Wednesday,during third block, I pulled a student out who is notorious for his bad behavior.   He is constantly out of his seat, talking and not doing his work.  Adrienne pulled him and another student last time and he spent the entire time just bugging the entire student.  So, today, when my teacher asked me to pull him, I was not excited. Somehow, he has in his mind that Adrienne and I will all of the "trouble makers" and it'll be fine. After lunch, my teacher handed the student a scholarship warning, which means the student has a D or an F in the class.  The student got mad and was like "How are you going to give me the scholarship warning the day before the quarter ends?" (I agree with the student...they have to give them out a week before).  My teacher then proceeded to lecture the student on his attitude. I would have an attitude, too, if I was that student.  My teacher doesn't tell the students their grade on anything, so he had no way of knowing.  Anywayssss,  I told the student that I would work with him in the library since that's what my teacher had asked originally and obviously having him in class wasn't working. When I took the student down to the library, he sat down right away, wrote a really great essay and then asked for make up work to bring his grade up! I was so impressed and so happy to see this student doing well.  I don't think that he's perfect, but I think he needs to be given the chance to do well. I was a very proud corps member that day.

4.  While I was working with that student in the library, a lot of other stuff was going on in the classroom.  Before the students left for lunch, I saw a student (John) go up to another student (Devon) and talk to him.  It wouldn't be weird, except that these two students have never interacted to my knowledge.  John is a pretty friendly kid, so I didn't think much of it.  My teacher was sitting right by Devon's seat though and overheard the conversation.  Apparently, John said something along the lines of "Hey, is everything good to go?" and Devon replied "Yeah, it's all set." My teacher looked over and saw a plastic bag sticking out of his shirt.  When the students were released to lunch, my teacher followed them downstairs and saw Devon, John and another student go into the bathroom.  My teacher alerted the assistant principal.  When the students got back from lunch, John and the other student were gone.  Devon was back, though, and the assistant principal came and pulled him out of class. When Devon was asked to empty his pockets, five dime bags of marijuana were found.  Devon was arrested and escorted off campus in handcuffs.  So sad. Devon had a lot of issues all year and wasn't even in school most of the time.  When he was, he was having nervous breakdowns, hallucinations and always seemed to be high. It seemed like he was getting a little bit better, but I guess not....

5. Today is the National Day of Service and City Year sites across the nation are doing service either today or on MLK day on Monday.  In DC, the corps members painted an elementary school and had two special guests...the Obamas!! How cool! Photo: President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama join a school improvement project on the National Day of Service at Burrville Elementary School in Washington, D.C., Jan. 19, 2013:

I hope you're all having a great three day weekend!

“Everybody can be great...because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

-MLK Jr.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

dog sitting adventures

World, meet Sampson.  I've been dog sitting this little pipsqueek of a dog all week.  Well "dog."  I'm not sure that you can count something that small a dog, but that's beside the point.  I've been staying at his owner's house all week and she doesn't have cable or internet, which has been interesting.  Anyways, Sampson has been a lot of fun.  He's very sassy and likes attention, but he's so cute.  That thing in his mouth is the toy  that we spend all night playing with.  After we're done playing fetch, he gets on the bed and just rolls all around. It's the funniest thing. He's so cute.  I would never want a dog that the same size as a cat, but he's been a lot of fun to spend the week with.  

In school, the week went relatively smoothly.  It's still as struggle every day with my teacher, but I guess I'm learning just to do my own thing and just accept that he's not that great of a teacher.  It's frustrating, but he's not going anywhere, so it is what it is. The students have really taken to City Year, though, and they want to know all about us.  For example, here's a conversation that took place on Monday. 

Anthony: Ms. Russo, you got a boyfriend?
Me: Why? Do you have a girl friend?
A: No I don't like any girls at this school. Is his name Jonathon? His name is definitely Jonathon.
Me: No, not Jonathon.
A: So you DO have a boyfriend! Is his name Matthew? 
Me: No, but you're close
(another student, Josh, comes in)
Jason: Is he asian? (hahhahaha I laughed at that one)
Me: No he's not asian
A: He's white isn't he? 
Me: Yeah he's white
Jason: Does he have crazy hair? (Josh had a mowhawk at one point this year)
Me: No he has a buzz cut. He's in the navy.
Jason: Okay Okay (and nods his head in approval)

Speaking of Mike, his sub got in a little "fender bender" on Thursday.   

Luckily, no one was hurt and the sub wasn't really damaged. When I first heard, I figured this kind of stuff happens and it wasn't even something to worry about it. I didn't even think it was that big of a deal until other people started texting me and asking me all about it.  Luckily, it sounds like it was just a little "bump in the night" as the article refers to it. I haven't really gotten to talk to Mike even though he's in port. I hope I can talk to him soon!  

Have a great week!  

"If ever there comes a day when we can't be together, hold me in your heart, I'll stay there forever."-Winnie the Pooh

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Back in JAX

I arrived back in Jacksonville on Wednesday and, already, it's been an eventful few days.  The first day back at school was a nice transition.  Because our first day back was on a Thursday, we were only in school for one day before having our Friday at the office.  It was actually the perfect set up because it was a nice taste of real life before having a weekend to recover.  I make it sound so bad, but dealing with tons of ninth graders after having two weeks of peace and quiet can be overwhelming. The first few blocks were good, although I was reminded how frustrating my teacher can be.  A "rowdy student" walked in and before this student had a chance to do anything, my teacher just threw back his head and rolled his eyes. It was frustrating to watch because I knew this student didn't stand a chance. Luckily, all of the corps members got called out of class to hand out t-shirts in the afternoon, so we weren't even in class.

We were handing out tshirts because (drum roll please) JACKSON IS NOW A B SCHOOL! In Florida, the state grades schools based on letter grades, A being the highest and F being the lowest, just like in school. Previously, Jackson had not only been an F school, but it was the lowest performing high school in the state of Florida.  Then, over winter break, school grades were released and Jackson got a B!!! So exciting! I wish City Year could take credit for this, but this was based on last year's performance. The students and faculty were all excited.  I think that everyone has received enough grief for either teaching or attending Jackson in the past that they were beyond ready to defy the stereotypes.

In order to celebrate the school's new letter grade and rock the t-shirts, there was a pep rally on Friday with the whole school.  They brought in a DJ and the entire school and faculty to celebrate the occasion.  A news crew even came to check out the scene! The DJ made it a real party and there were lots of students dancing and having a ton of fun. One of my students, especially, was going wild.  He was dancing in the stands and just going crazy.  It was so funny to watch and he was having so much fun.  It was great, especially because he's one of the quieter ones in class, so to see his true personality come out was awesome. I'm so glad that we decided to go before work on Friday because it was a ton of fun and definitely well deserved.

 Joe, Adrienne and I stayed up waaaaaayyyy later than I've ever stayed up just hanging out and catching up on Friday night.  We called it our "debrief session" of the year so far.  City Year likes to debrief EVERYTHING which can sometimes be a little obnoxious.  Friday night was a lot of fun though because we just hung out and caught up.   Quinci comes back tonight and I don't think anyone is especially excited about it.  I mean, Quinci's great, but when he's here, it's all about Quinci.  Either that, or he's really negative and just brings everyone else down. I think we all realized how nice it was without him on Friday night and how different it would be if he had been there.  Oh well.  Maybe he's completely changed over break.

The rest of the weekend was pretty uneventful.  Joe woke up on Saturday with the flu.  Adrienne took him to the emergency room because he wasn't feeling well.  We spent all afternoon on Saturday waiting for him to call and say he was ready to come home. Unfortunately, he was there for six hours!! Joe is already a kind of impatient person, so sick Joe was not having it.  I know he was sick, but his stories of the ER were hilarious. Apparently, there was a guy in room next to Joe who came in and ended up needed a prostate exam.  He had no idea what a prostate exam entailed until they got ready to perform the exam.  Joe overheard the conversation and was laughing so hard he went into coughing fit. Poor Joe Joe. I hope he feels better soon. And that I don't get the flu.

Oh and last thing.  My uncles in DC are fostering this adorable dog named CareBear (the name can be changed...).  The dog needs a permanent home and my uncles would love it if someone adopted CareBear soon.  If you are interested (especially if you live in DC/NOVA area) or know someone who is interested, let me know! CareBear was with us for Christmas and she was so sweet and extremely well behaved.  She got along with other dogs and a lot of people.  She was around teenagers and didn't have any issues.   You can let me know or you can follow this link with all of the contact information.  Either way, help out a very cute and loving dog who needs a good home!

Have a great week everyone!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2012: A Year in Review

The week before winter break, I was with my IJ group and we were reflecting on the year (gotta love City Year for all of the reflecting that we do).  It forced me to stop and think about everything that had happened in 2012 and I realized, sitting on the floor of our office, that 2012 had been a REALLY good year. Here's why...

  1. City Year Boston: My year in Boston was life changing.  The school I served at was amazing, the people I met were inspirational and the organization, despite our ups and downs, helped me grow as a person.  I also have realized that CYB is different than other sites and while I'm sure they're doing great things, I can't imagine having done City Year anywhere else.  Despite a few sour apples, the people at CYB are amazing and have got the whole City Year thing down to a science. Plus, the memories I have of the students and my team are priceless. I love each and every one of them.                              
  2. Anna and Mike's Wedding: My first friend wedding!! I felt like we had been talking about this wedding for years (well, actually, we had) and it finally happened.  I know some people complain about having to go to weddings for people they don't really know, and I'm sure those are a little boring, but when you're best friend gets married, it's a TON of fun! Being in the wedding was awesome and definitely memorable.  I am so happy for the "married couple" as I like to call them and am so thankful that I got to be a part of their wedding
  3. Moving to Jacksonville: In a matter of three weeks, I interviewed, got accepted and moved to Jacksonville! Needless to say, it was not planned, but I am so thankful for this experience. I don't plan on staying in Jacksonville and I don't think I'll ever do start-up again, but I have learned so much from this year.  Professionally, it has been so great to get to see a lot of the behind the scenes of City Year.  When I got to Jacksonville, there wasn't a CY office.  We were working out of a hotel and built the site from the ground up.  It's so cool to see it growing every day and be able to say I was a part of that. 
  4. This guy: Despite the fact that he lives 6000 miles away, is on a boat where the only communication is through email, and I won't get to see him until April or May, he makes me happier than a lot of people combined. I can't help smile when I think of him and he makes me want to be a better person.  He makes the distance worth it.  He's the best!

There were a ton of other amazing things that happened this year, but these four were by far the biggest and the best.  Most people really struggle transitioning out of college, but this year has been unexpectedly incredible.  If this is what struggling is like, I'll take it! I loved 2012 and can't wait to see what 2013 brings!

"Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow."  -Albert Einstein