Lively After-School Program Makes Remote Activities Work

Lively After-School Program Makes Remote Activities Work

Some of the best times I had as a student were during after-school programming. Whether at my school or at a local nonprofit agency, they provided me with a safe place to get my work done, spend time with friends, and participate in activities unavailable during the traditional school day.

Rann Miller (Courtesy photo)

I now serve as director of a 21st Century Community Learning Center for a school district in southern New Jersey. Most of the students we serve are economically disadvantaged and are Black and Latinx. I’ve been proud to have the opportunity to contribute to providing a safe and enriching environment for students similar to the places I attended growing up.

This year, though, it wasn’t clear whether the coronavirus pandemic would keep us from helping students. In a normal times, we see 125 to 150 students every day, offering courses ranging from cooking to engineering to college test prep, plus physical fitness programs, such as yoga and intramural sports. Our campus is lively during the school day, but it is even more so after school.

Since COVID has quieted the halls of our building, we agreed to continue our program remotely — not knowing if it would work. Could we provide students with an authentic experience close to what they’d receive in person? Virtual instruction has posed challenges during the regular school day, and we knew it would be a challenge for us as well.

But the virtual mode we’re in has provided us with a level of flexibility that has allowed our program to thrive even under the strain of a pandemic. We adapted, and we’re making it work. Here’s how.

Spicing up our offerings. One challenge we had to overcome this year was our inability to offer any in-person sports activities for our students during the pandemic. In the past, we’ve had several intramural sports programs, in addition to weight training and exercise opportunities. These were our most popular programs.

We’ve pivoted. Similar to master classes offered by celebrities, we now offer students master classes in baking, yoga, survival techniques, public speaking, and drama. During the semester, our students are learning to tap into their entrepreneurial aspirations as well as engage in self-care.

We’ve also added e-sports opportunities. Students have joined an e-sports league and get to play first-person games for prizes and rewards. For those of our students who are more interested in creating games of their own, we started a video game and coding class where they can learn how.

Adjusting start and end times. When held in person, after-school programs begin immediately after school (at 3 p.m.) and end roughly at 6 p.m. However, with many schools running on hybrid or remote-only schedules, there is a chance to start and end a little later, making it easier for students and instructors to participate. If a particular activity is best scheduled from 4–7 p.m. run it then.

This may be particularly beneficial to programs serving mostly high school students, and in remote-only districts, which are more often districts where Black, Latinx, and low-income students are in the majority. While our program has yet to implement this strategy, it remains an option for us.

Partnering with other programs or program sites. Our district runs program sites at two schools. But because the schools are 25 miles apart, students from the schools typically don’t interact with each other after school. However, running our program remotely gives us the opportunity to have students from both schools take programs together and engage with each other. It’s improved the liveliness of our programs and has built camaraderie among the students.

Getting students to attend and participate in a virtual program right now is tough. Students may be dealing with fatigue from all the Zoom calls or Google Meets. So finding ways to change things up and introduce your students to new peers — by collaborating with another site in your district, a school outside of your district, or an organization that hosts an after-school program like the 21st Century Community Learning Center, may be an option worth considering. If you can’t collaborate, just speaking with other after-school providers can offer insight on how you can make your program better during the pandemic.

In normal times, after-school programs help students in all sort of ways — lowering truancy rates, keeping children safe, and keeping them out of trouble, in addition to giving parents peace of mind about their children while they are at work.

Now, students’ and families’ needs might be a little different. But it’s still vital that students have opportunities for leisure, learning, and gathering with each other outside of school in ways that foster good habits. Here is where after-school educators, if we’re innovative and open-minded about what opportunities we offer to students, can keep them engaged, learning, living, and loving.

Rann Miller directs the 21st Century Community Learning Center, a federally funded after-school program located in southern New Jersey. His writing on race, education and politics has also been featured in Hechinger Report, Education Week, and the Grio.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

Lively After-School Program Makes Remote Activities Work

Lively After-School Program Makes Remote Activities Work

Some of the best times I had as a student were during after-school programming. Whether at my school or at a local nonprofit agency, they provided me with a safe place to get my work done, spend time with friends, and participate in activities unavailable during the traditional school day.

Rann Miller (Courtesy photo)

I now serve as director of a 21st Century Community Learning Center for a school district in southern New Jersey. Most of the students we serve are economically disadvantaged and are Black and Latinx. I’ve been proud to have the opportunity to contribute to providing a safe and enriching environment for students similar to the places I attended growing up.

This year, though, it wasn’t clear whether the coronavirus pandemic would keep us from helping students. In a normal times, we see 125 to 150 students every day, offering courses ranging from cooking to engineering to college test prep, plus physical fitness programs, such as yoga and intramural sports. Our campus is lively during the school day, but it is even more so after school.

Since COVID has quieted the halls of our building, we agreed to continue our program remotely — not knowing if it would work. Could we provide students with an authentic experience close to what they’d receive in person? Virtual instruction has posed challenges during the regular school day, and we knew it would be a challenge for us as well.

But the virtual mode we’re in has provided us with a level of flexibility that has allowed our program to thrive even under the strain of a pandemic. We adapted, and we’re making it work. Here’s how.

Spicing up our offerings. One challenge we had to overcome this year was our inability to offer any in-person sports activities for our students during the pandemic. In the past, we’ve had several intramural sports programs, in addition to weight training and exercise opportunities. These were our most popular programs.

We’ve pivoted. Similar to master classes offered by celebrities, we now offer students master classes in baking, yoga, survival techniques, public speaking, and drama. During the semester, our students are learning to tap into their entrepreneurial aspirations as well as engage in self-care.

We’ve also added e-sports opportunities. Students have joined an e-sports league and get to play first-person games for prizes and rewards. For those of our students who are more interested in creating games of their own, we started a video game and coding class where they can learn how.

Adjusting start and end times. When held in person, after-school programs begin immediately after school (at 3 p.m.) and end roughly at 6 p.m. However, with many schools running on hybrid or remote-only schedules, there is a chance to start and end a little later, making it easier for students and instructors to participate. If a particular activity is best scheduled from 4–7 p.m. run it then.

This may be particularly beneficial to programs serving mostly high school students, and in remote-only districts, which are more often districts where Black, Latinx, and low-income students are in the majority. While our program has yet to implement this strategy, it remains an option for us.

Partnering with other programs or program sites. Our district runs program sites at two schools. But because the schools are 25 miles apart, students from the schools typically don’t interact with each other after school. However, running our program remotely gives us the opportunity to have students from both schools take programs together and engage with each other. It’s improved the liveliness of our programs and has built camaraderie among the students.

Getting students to attend and participate in a virtual program right now is tough. Students may be dealing with fatigue from all the Zoom calls or Google Meets. So finding ways to change things up and introduce your students to new peers — by collaborating with another site in your district, a school outside of your district, or an organization that hosts an after-school program like the 21st Century Community Learning Center, may be an option worth considering. If you can’t collaborate, just speaking with other after-school providers can offer insight on how you can make your program better during the pandemic.

In normal times, after-school programs help students in all sort of ways — lowering truancy rates, keeping children safe, and keeping them out of trouble, in addition to giving parents peace of mind about their children while they are at work.

Now, students’ and families’ needs might be a little different. But it’s still vital that students have opportunities for leisure, learning, and gathering with each other outside of school in ways that foster good habits. Here is where after-school educators, if we’re innovative and open-minded about what opportunities we offer to students, can keep them engaged, learning, living, and loving.

Rann Miller directs the 21st Century Community Learning Center, a federally funded after-school program located in southern New Jersey. His writing on race, education and politics has also been featured in Hechinger Report, Education Week, and the Grio.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

It Takes a Village to Support Students

It Takes a Village to Support Students

Video Courtesy of TEDx Talks


Some years ago, as he was concluding his sermon, my pastor asked us in the audience to take that Sunday’s message out into the world and “do life together.”

My pastor’s call was a reminder that we do not walk this human journey in isolation. We do so as members of communities created around our faiths, our hometowns, our families — and our schools.

The most powerful of those communities are created through daily actions that show care and develop connection. Not all blood relatives are family, and not all students and educators are, either, though it’s something I hear teachers say all the time.

It seems to me that whether teachers and students are family depends on the extent to which they’re “doing life together.”

I’ve thought a lot about this as a former teacher in Camden City. When I was teaching there, my students saw me in Camden City. I got my hair cut in Camden, I went to church in Camden, I ate at restaurants in Camden, and I worked with high school students in Camden during the summers. It didn’t hurt that I was from Camden, too. A student may have seen me at the barbershop in East Camden or pulling up at my grandmother’s house in Whitman Park.

While it’s true that my students saw other teachers at the mall or the movie theater, those spots are in the suburbs. It’s not the same as being on the home turf of your students.

That’s not to say that strong bonds between educators and students don’t happen within the walls of a school. Nor do strong bonds develop just because a student sees a teacher patronizing an eatery or attending a church service in the municipality where they live. I am not naïve.

But deeper connections happen between educators and students when they do life together. For teachers who teach Black and Latinx students in low-income communities, doing life together means making a connection with the community where you teach students. Doing life together means more than just going to work to teach Black and Latinx children.

This kind of connection is often misunderstood. Early in my teaching career, some teachers sought my advice on how to strengthen their relationships with students. Others were clearly jealous of my relationships with students. I got the sense that they thought my relationships were stronger than theirs because I am Black, and they are not.

What they didn’t understand was my Blackness didn’t earn me blind loyalty from Black students. My Black skin at the front of a classroom may have elicited good feelings from students on the first day of school, but those feelings would have dissipated if I could not teach, if I was unfamiliar with my content, and if I did not treat students with respect.

I could teach. I was familiar with my content. I treated students with respect. And I also was doing life with them, in Camden. That’s something any teacher can do.

What that looks like is home visits to share good news about students. It looks like attending a city council meeting to advocate on behalf of your students on an issue affecting them and their families. It is also supporting Black- and Latinx-owned restaurants, bookstores, pharmacies, bakeries, and corner bodegas. It’s volunteering in the community where you work. It’s bringing your family to the community you work to see fireworks on the Fourth of July or to watch the lighting of the municipal Christmas tree.

Doing life together isn’t meant to be taxing on the mind, body, and spirit. But it does sometimes require you to step outside your comfort zone and become vulnerable.

For White teachers who work with students from cities like Camden, it requires that you sometimes choose to become a minority in a world where a similar experience is all too familiar to your students and their families. That experience is a lesson in and of itself. And that’s what doing life is all about — learning to live together as brothers and sisters, rather than perish together as fools.

Rann Miller is the director of the 21st Century Community Learning Center, an after-school program in New Jersey. He also served as a school administrator in Camden and taught high school social studies for six years. He publishes an education blog called the Urban Education Mixtape. You can follow him on Twitter @UrbanEdDJ.

It Takes a Village to Support Students

It Takes a Village to Support Students

Video Courtesy of TEDx Talks


Some years ago, as he was concluding his sermon, my pastor asked us in the audience to take that Sunday’s message out into the world and “do life together.”

My pastor’s call was a reminder that we do not walk this human journey in isolation. We do so as members of communities created around our faiths, our hometowns, our families — and our schools.

The most powerful of those communities are created through daily actions that show care and develop connection. Not all blood relatives are family, and not all students and educators are, either, though it’s something I hear teachers say all the time.

It seems to me that whether teachers and students are family depends on the extent to which they’re “doing life together.”

I’ve thought a lot about this as a former teacher in Camden City. When I was teaching there, my students saw me in Camden City. I got my hair cut in Camden, I went to church in Camden, I ate at restaurants in Camden, and I worked with high school students in Camden during the summers. It didn’t hurt that I was from Camden, too. A student may have seen me at the barbershop in East Camden or pulling up at my grandmother’s house in Whitman Park.

While it’s true that my students saw other teachers at the mall or the movie theater, those spots are in the suburbs. It’s not the same as being on the home turf of your students.

That’s not to say that strong bonds between educators and students don’t happen within the walls of a school. Nor do strong bonds develop just because a student sees a teacher patronizing an eatery or attending a church service in the municipality where they live. I am not naïve.

But deeper connections happen between educators and students when they do life together. For teachers who teach Black and Latinx students in low-income communities, doing life together means making a connection with the community where you teach students. Doing life together means more than just going to work to teach Black and Latinx children.

This kind of connection is often misunderstood. Early in my teaching career, some teachers sought my advice on how to strengthen their relationships with students. Others were clearly jealous of my relationships with students. I got the sense that they thought my relationships were stronger than theirs because I am Black, and they are not.

What they didn’t understand was my Blackness didn’t earn me blind loyalty from Black students. My Black skin at the front of a classroom may have elicited good feelings from students on the first day of school, but those feelings would have dissipated if I could not teach, if I was unfamiliar with my content, and if I did not treat students with respect.

I could teach. I was familiar with my content. I treated students with respect. And I also was doing life with them, in Camden. That’s something any teacher can do.

What that looks like is home visits to share good news about students. It looks like attending a city council meeting to advocate on behalf of your students on an issue affecting them and their families. It is also supporting Black- and Latinx-owned restaurants, bookstores, pharmacies, bakeries, and corner bodegas. It’s volunteering in the community where you work. It’s bringing your family to the community you work to see fireworks on the Fourth of July or to watch the lighting of the municipal Christmas tree.

Doing life together isn’t meant to be taxing on the mind, body, and spirit. But it does sometimes require you to step outside your comfort zone and become vulnerable.

For White teachers who work with students from cities like Camden, it requires that you sometimes choose to become a minority in a world where a similar experience is all too familiar to your students and their families. That experience is a lesson in and of itself. And that’s what doing life is all about — learning to live together as brothers and sisters, rather than perish together as fools.

Rann Miller is the director of the 21st Century Community Learning Center, an after-school program in New Jersey. He also served as a school administrator in Camden and taught high school social studies for six years. He publishes an education blog called the Urban Education Mixtape. You can follow him on Twitter @UrbanEdDJ.

From a black male teacher: Don’t make me the default disciplinarian

From a black male teacher: Don’t make me the default disciplinarian

PHOTO: Karen Pulfer Focht/Chalkbeat

 

My first day in the classroom is one I’ll never forget. I was given a room of curious sophomore students — 43 of them.

I could feel the lump in my throat and every drop of sweat on my body. I was used to public speaking, and I felt good about what I would be teaching. But in that moment before the first bell rang, I actually thought about walking out.

When the bell rang, I called for the attention of the room. Most of the students didn’t even hear me. I called out again, a little louder. Now more students looked at me, but with some side-eye and a few dismissive smirks. Their conversations continued.

I had little to no control over the classroom and it was only the first two minutes. So, I did what any good teacher does who doesn’t know what they’re doing … I acted like I did.

I stepped out from behind the lectern and walked to the middle of the room. “My name is Mr. Miller, and this is research and study skills. I don’t repeat myself, so if you fail to listen, you will fail. If you don’t work in this class, you will fail. If you give me your butt to kiss, I’ll draw a butt and lips on your report card next to your F.”

Some kids laughed, and others rolled their eyes. They knew they were in for a long semester, and so did I.

But through all of the laughs, head-shaking moments, phone calls home, and “come to Jesus” conversations to come, I grew into my role. It was a combination of teacher, mentor, cheerleader, father figure, critic, guidance counselor, advocate, and even social worker. I found that Dr. Brooks, my grad school teacher who encouraged me to enter teaching, was telling the truth — there was a need that I could help fill.

I soon realized that my school’s administration saw another need I could fill: disciplinarian.

I developed a rapport with my students over time and I showed them respect. I earned their trust and collaboration, and that meant I rarely called down to the main office over a student. I did my best to handle things on my own. Being a Black man from Camden, like my kids, didn’t hurt.

But that, being a Black man from Camden, also qualified me for an invisible tax.

I was the only Black male teacher in my building, the high school. Black males made up only 3% of teachers in the schools where I taught at that time; as of last school year (2018-19), they made up only 1.7%. Currently, Black male teachers only account for 2% of all teachers nationally.

Meanwhile, nearly all of the students where I taught, from kindergarten through 12th grade, were students of color.

I now believe it’s why I, a first-year teacher, was given a class of 43 students, often without an aide to assist. The next semester, I was given freshman classes with some of the more “challenging” students. The principal told me she knew I could handle it.

I was a first-year teacher, but it didn’t matter. I was the Black teacher.

I was given lunch duty with more passive teachers. Some days, I was the only teacher. Whenever there was a commotion in the hallways and I was near, I was always asked to see about it and break it up. I did what I could, but I cannot say that I wasn’t frustrated.

Teachers often serve as hall monitors and are often called upon to help out. I understood that, but I was no fool. I knew who the strong teachers were and who the weak teachers were, and I was never paired with a strong teacher for any disciplinary purpose. I saw other adults breathe a sigh of relief when they saw me come around the corner. I am not sure what they all thought, but I was not their savior, nor was I trying to be.

Black teachers enter the profession because they want to help students succeed. Research shows that not only do Black students prefer Black teachers, but that Black students perform better academically with a teacher of the same race, that Black students are more likely to go to college when they’ve had at least one Black teacher, and Black teachers are less likely to suspend Black students.

However, Black teachers often leave the profession because they are seen and overused as disciplinarians while receiving very little support from administrators, among other reasons.

So if you start this school year with a Black teacher or Black male teacher in your building, and you wish to support that teacher and keep them as part of your school community, keep the following things in mind.

Black teachers are not the school’s de facto disciplinarians. They are not the enforcers of the schoolwide discipline policy. They are not the default representative for all Black people. If they go above and beyond for students, that does not absolve others from doing their jobs.

Black teachers do share a collective experience with other Black students, but don’t assume that we are all the same. Use our cultural knowledge to improve the climate and culture of the school community. But don’t abuse it, whether from the classroom or the main office.

I ended my first year feeling drained but accomplished. I grew as a professional and I grew in my craft. I understood that I brought value to my school community. The school community saw my value.

But I continued to be taxed, and I was my entire teaching career. Today, I miss the classroom, but I don’t miss that.

This article was originally published on Chalkbeat.org.

Rann Miller is the director of the 21st Century Community Learning Center, an after-school program in New Jersey. He also served as a school administrator in Camden and taught high school social studies for six years. He last wrote for Chalkbeat about walking his Camden students’ neighborhoods with his colleagues. He publishes an education blog called the Urban Education Mixtape. You can follow him on Twitter @UrbanEdDJ.