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English Program Aims to Change More than PG High Schoolers’ Writing

Northwestern High School students in Hyattsville are buddies with University of Maryland students working to change their perceptions about college.

English Program Aims to Change More than PG High Schoolers’ Writing
Capital News Service

Northwestern High School in Hyattsville sits in the shadow of the University of Maryland.  But to many of its students -- less than half of graduates go on to enroll in a four-year college -- it might as well be hundreds of miles away. 

Students in an English class at the University of Maryland are working to change that.

Every Wednesday, university students in the “Writing for Change” class travel four-fifths of a mile to Northwestern and act as “buddies” to the high schoolers in an effort to change their perceptions about college.

“Many of these high school kids have been ignored or been told that college is not an option for them,” said Heather Lindenman, a University of Maryland English lecturer and doctoral candidate who teaches the class. “We have the ability to change that philosophy.”

A former employee of Teach for America and then a teacher at Cesar Chavez High School in Washington, D.C., Lindenman said she realized service learning was an excellent basis for a class, and decided to look to high schools for a partnership.

“There is something infinitely hopeful about high school English,” Lindenman said.

The course is designed to overlap with the high school curriculum. The goal is to introduce high schoolers to university students and the idea of college as a possibility, building confidence in the process.

“I just want [the high school students] to realize that these college kids at ‘intimidating’ University of Maryland are human and normal people,” said Carly Finkelstein, a ninth grade English teacher at Northwestern who helped create the syllabus with Lindenman.

Working in groups of two or three, the students collaborate on performance pieces centered around social issues -- skits, monologues and spoken word presentations. At the end of the semester the high school students will perform their projects -- with a focus on bullying this semester -- at both the high school and the university.

Jaylin Miles, a Northwestern freshman, said she was nervous about performing, but was slowly overcoming her fear.

“I’m excited for the performance, but I’ve never been in front of so many people,” she said.

The course does not have the college students serve as tutors for the high school students, Lindenman said. Instead, the two groups work together as equals.

“I want there to be a shared goal for everyone involved to achieve,” she said.
Tutoring creates a power structure that detracts from the overall goal, Lindenman said, which is to have the students (both college and high school) develop intercultural communication skills and broaden perspectives on life.

Kevin Kim, a freshmen at the university who is in the class, said he related to the community building. 

“Our two classes are expanding each other’s communities,” he said.
“Community cannot exist without communication, and through that communication we bridge our two worlds, which really aren’t that different.”

Pat Belson, who took the university course last spring, works for Metro D.C. Reading Core, which provides reading and writing tutoring, and was recently accepted to be a teaching resident for KIPP Academy.

Before taking the class, Belson said he had never thought about working with at-risk students. But “Writing for Change,” which he described as the “most influential class I’ve ever taken,” changed that.

After working in classrooms for the last eight months, Belson said he liked the importance the “Writing for Change” course placed on confidence development in the students.

“With such an overemphasis on data points and test scores, a class that focuses on another aspect of high school students -- confidence -- is a great change,” Belson said.

Lindenman and Finkelstein said that the intangibles the class emphasizes --different perspectives and confidence building -- is just as important as testable knowledge.

“Going against the state standards and focusing on personal connections is much more valuable for the students,” Lindenman said. “I’m hoping to be the catalyst for a few kids’ academic careers, but if they develop confidence from something other than doing well on a quiz, that is just as successful.”

The problem with aligning a university course with a high school class? Time. Meeting only once a week for a couple of hours is not enough, Finkelstein said.

“Unfortunately, the most you can do is make minor changes in a high schooler’s life,” Lindenman said. “The course may stick with a couple high schoolers and they’ll move on to the next grade and possibly enter honors or AP, but there are always several relationships that fall victim to the minimal contact.”

For Fredy Mejia, a freshman in Finkelstein’s class who is working closely with Kevin Kim, the class has brought up one question: “Maryland is right down the road; can I just go there now?”

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