Teaching Fellow Tuesday: Sara Smolevitz Reflects

Sara Smolevitz co-taught a second grade class at P.S. 13 in Queens in summer 2016.

The Power of Community in the Classroom

Reflecting on my summer working as a Teaching Fellow with Practice Makes Perfect, I have trouble truly conveying how much I learned over the course of a mere five weeks.  As an education major at Boston University, I have observed and participated in numerous classrooms throughout my four years of college.  However, this summer was a particularly distinct experience, especially in terms of getting to know each of my scholars, both in and out of the classroom. PMP is unique in that it has four program pillars, one of which is community-based. This means PMP ensures that its Teaching Fellows are aware of the community that they are working in, and the environments in which their scholars live.

Our relationships with our scholars began immediately as a result of the home visits that we paid to each scholar prior to the start of the program.  I remember sitting at the PMP office during training week, looking at my co-teaching fellow Clio, and feeling very overwhelmed with what to say to these parents, and how to come across in a positive light.  However, once we began making phone calls (and stumbling through many language barriers), we were able to begin effectively contextualizing each scholar before even meeting them.  We were ultimately able to meet with fourteen out of our twenty scholars and their parents.  Through these brief exchanges, we went beyond just learning our scholars’ favorite book or subject. Instead, we became informed about their familial backgrounds, cultures, personalities, and so much more. These meetings culminated in a stronger sense of community on the first day of the program and allowed for a more trusting learning environment.  

Furthermore, we were able to draw on these experiences over the course of the Practice Makes Perfect program.  At P.S. 13, there is a diverse student population representing cultures from around the world.  Our home visits demonstrated just how proud each of our scholars are of their family backgrounds and cultures, and gave us ideas to pull from in our instruction.  PMP enhanced community-driven instruction even further by designating one of the days of the program as “World Day.”  Almost every one of our scholars and mentors came into school that day with a wide variety of cultural items to showcase, such as clothing, food, and other artifacts.  Even though we were the ones who were doing the teaching, my co-teacher and I came away with a newfound knowledge of each of our scholars’ customs and beliefs that was immeasurably valuable.

World Day

From these experiences getting to know our students’ outside lives, Clio and I could better contextualize our scholars’ academic work. In my opinion, this is one of the most important and perhaps most difficult aspects of teaching.  Getting to know your students, their families, and the school’s community can be an incredibly challenging task for beginning teachers, but it is crucial in order to make the largest impact in each student’s life.  PMP offers a wide range of forums throughout the summer program through which Fellows engage scholars’ families and community, and sets them up for success in the program and beyond.  By building a positive relationship with Teaching Fellows during PMP, scholars and parents will hopefully create a positive association between teachers and schooling. This will encourage students to do their best work and participate throughout their education experience.  This ideology, as instilled through PMP’s commitment to community (home visits, a sharing of cultures, parent workshops, and community service projects), can have unparalleled effects for scholars in the years to come.  Coming away from a summer of many amazing learned experiences, the importance of community-based education is what really sticks with me the most. I have truly gained valuable skills through PMP that I plan to use in order to become a culturally relevant educator.

If you're interested in changing a life this summer as a Teaching Fellow, click here for more information and to apply!