Tags: americorps, literacy, NEO Literacy Corps, service, volunteer
This week I interviewed my mentor for a Literacy Corps assignment, and the conversation – along with the short break it represented – came none too soon. I chose a professor to whom I’d been really close during my undergrad. I knew him as his student, knew what he thought of all kinds of books, how he writes, and what he thinks about the conflict between Israel and Palestine, but until this interview, I never knew much about his own path to teaching or his personal service philosophy.
While we talked, I listened to his messages about teaching: to keep asking questions, particularly how I could do something better, to keep trying to challenge people. As he spoke, I thought of little things that have happened throughout my service, and I asked him about the bad days. How does he cope? What keeps him coming back? When I asked these things, I mentioned what had happened at the after school program the previous day: a student who had been acting out and behaving defiantly had, eventually, to be physically restrained as he threw all of the contents off of a desk. It had been a bad day.
My professor looked concerned but didn’t falter. “You need to do your best and do all of the things I was saying before,” he said, “but you also can’t let it swallow you. There’s a whole life outside the classroom, and while we need to know that when we’re considering the behavior of students, there’s nothing wrong with stepping back sometimes and admitting that there are certain things over which you have no control.”
I remember growing up in an Evangelical Christian community – a group of which I no longer feel a part – and learning that, despite the constant emphasis on spreading a message and “getting people saved,” that there was really nothing I could do to save anyone. Whatever happened to folks’ souls was mystical and largely out of my control, and the truth is, it’s not so different here. During the several week build-up to the desk-destroying incident, the little boy in question was given warnings and behavior contracts. He was asked to participate and sometimes allowed to be separate. We had talk after talk with his parents. But in the end, with his particular set of circumstances, we weren’t able to accommodate his needs. On the day that he trashed the desk, we had to ask for him not to come back.
I struggled and am still, to a certain extent, struggling with this. Turning someone away, even when they’re distracting other kids and making an environment unsafe for themselves and others, goes against something that’s been ingrained in me since childhood – a kind of evangelical approach to life. Thankfully, though, my mentor interview came at just the right time. To bring the kind of humility and willingness to learn that I want to bring to my AmeriCorps year, I know I must also bring an understanding that it isn’t my job, nor is it possible, to save anyone.
– Written by Lydia
Tags: americorps, Lake Erie Ink, literacy, NEO Literacy Corps, ohio
As my year of service begins a trudge through the winter, I’ve spent some time thinking about the best moments of this Fall. And while there are a lot of small ones – brief moments of growth or connection with some of the kids – one is a little more obvious.
Lake Erie Ink ends each of its quarters with the release of a culminating anthology of the students’ work. This year, each anthology release will correspond with a performance and cd release for the one-day-a-week digital media project as well. This Fall, I was charged with compiling the students’ work, designing, laying out, and ultimately publishing the anthology. And while it was stressful for me at times, pouring through the work the kids chose to include was one of the most meaningful things I’ve been allowed to do this year. It was an exercise in allowing them to have the ultimate creative control. They didn’t always pick the pieces I would have picked for them, but rather, the ones they liked the most, the pieces they felt represented them, the ones they had the most fun telling.
And then anthology release day came, and handing over the anthologies took some of the same practice of giving over control. Some kids immediately took to the cover like a coloring page: filled it in with marker, wrote their name across the carefully drawn fire image in bright red. Part of me cringed, but another part recognized that no gesture could be more perfect. The anthology is not mine (not except for the pristine one sitting on my drawing board at home). It is a collection of their work and an acknowledgment of their responsibility for their own words, their ownership and control over their own voice. What simple act represents that better than 35 anthologies, each with a different name written loudly across the cover?
After the anthologies were passed out, the kids were given the opportunity to read their work. We had plenty of other opportunities for sharing over the course of the quarter: moments at the end of the day, an afterschool program advocacy event, and a “camp fire” to culminate our storytelling month in November. None, however, were as charged and excitement filled as when the kids read for the anthology release. Kids who hadn’t before been willing to read were raising their hands, going to the front of the room, announcing the page number and sharing a piece. And seeing them grasp those anthologies in their hands, scribble their names across the front, and then put their work out into the world in front of their peers was by far my favorite moment from Lake Erie Ink’s Fall quarter. There was nothing so meaningful as seeing the kids I’ve worked with all semester take ownership over their own words.
– Written by Lydia
Tags: americorps, Heights Observer, Lake Erie Ink, literacy, NEO Literacy Corps
Check out this story published in the Heights Observer on January 2, 2013 about Lake Erie Ink and a writing project led by their AmeriCorps Member, Lydia.
Foam houses, each displaying a student’s work, sit on the lawn at Lake Erie Ink.
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A week before Halloween, students at Lake Erie Ink’s Ink Spot after-school program were asked to write a description of a house on three-dimensional foam panels. The goal was to teach the concept of personification, giving human traits to nonliving objects. The results surprised the staff.
The project was the idea of Lydia Munnell, an AmeriCorps volunteer with the Northeast Ohio Literary Corps stationed at Lake Erie Ink, a Heights-based nonprofit co-founded by Amy Rosenbluth and Cynthia Larsen that provides writing opportunities for young people.
“I expected spooky houses full of vampires and ghosts,” said Munnell. “What I didn’t prompt or expect was for every description to be a realistic and heartbreaking sketch of an abandoned house.”
“When we broke to write, the kids were quiet and started immediately. I was excited for what they’d produce, but still assumed it would be a bunch of stories about haunted houses with bloody walls. I would have accepted those stories—part of what I feel so strongly about at Lake Erie Ink is that Amy and Cynthia have created a space where kids feel free to write what they want—but I should have known they would go deeper.”
As Munnell moved among the foam houses, reading, a pattern emerged. “Every kid had written a story about a lonely, abandoned house,” she said. “Without even trying, they had co-written the story of a generation of Cleveland kids. It was the fruit of the housing crisis, and it was their real lives. They knew about the shadow an abandoned house casts on a neighborhood and front yards scarred by the constant stabbing of ‘for sale’ signs because these houses are on their streets.”
“They weren’t prompted to write about foreclosure, and if they had been, what came out wouldn’t have been nearly so organic or honest,” said Munnell.
Lake Erie Ink, located in the Coventry School building at 2843 Washington Blvd., provides academic support and opportunities for young people in Greater Cleveland to express themselves through creative writing. To learn more or to volunteer, visit www.lakeerieink.org or contact Lydia Munnell at 216-320-4757 or email@example.com.
Selected student works:
I watch as the children pass me and think about how ugly I am, as I slope down the hill. My eyes are gone and feet are barely there. I wish someone would say ‘Hey that’s a nice house. How about we live in it and make it all pretty?’
I wish someone would move in and spill tea on me, my old, slow petite self. The kids never see me and run into me. I wish they wouldn’t ruin me anymore.
My garden was once lively, but now no more. The weeds spread over me and hide a little of me. Maybe I’m grateful, maybe not.
Oh! Look a new family! Will they choose me? Yes!-Now I am pretty and dearly loved. My life is accomplished. SO now I can drift away forever and ever.
—Sarah M., 5th Grade
I knew they would be leaving soon but I didn’t know they’d be leaving as soon as right now.
Maybe they’ll come buy me, but maybe they will not. I hope they do because I want someone to sleep inside me.
I wish my tongue could reach out and feed the people to me and maybe they might come live inside of me.
I’ve been home so long. I wish I could stand up and be a person, but all my windows see is the grass and the sky and when the tourists come by.
—Tyler G., 4th Grade
My chipping yellow paint and purple falling shutters get covered up in snow. Why don’t the people shovel my way or pick my raspberries? No one ever even rocks on my swing on my porch!
As we were driving down Mulberry Avenue, we came to a stop. This is it! We all got out and ran up to enjoy the pretty swing, colors, and structure. I know it sounds crazy but I’m pretty sure I saw her smile.
You would never believe what’s happening! A nice family of 2 children and 2 adults finally moved in! They fixed up my paint, watered my garden, and made my squeaky swing stop squeaking.
It’s summer now and were picking raspberries, growing flowers and swinging on out porch swing
And finally I feel at home.
—Emma H., 5th Grade
He’s cold. He needs water and needs somebody to blow bubbles in him once in a while.
He remembers when they used to mark the wall with a circle.
He misses the bubbles they use to blow.
I can remember well, especially when they burst.
—Javon Y., 5th Grade
I have lived through many years.
I am small but strong.
Many people have lived in me.
Now I am only home to cobwebs,
spiders, and dust.
—Lily W., 5th Grade
Tags: afterschool, americorps, Lake Erie Ink, literacy, NEO Literacy Corps, ohio
Maybe it’s all the leftover turkey I’ve consumed of late, or all the family and friends I’ve been privileged to see, but I feel like this is a great opportunity to do an around-the-table style ‘What I am Thankful For’ statement. So, here goes: I am thankful for NEO Literacy Corps and for my host site, Lake Erie Ink.
When I talked to my mom a few months back about the decision to leave my full-time cashier job at a chain organic grocery store and serve (at that point only hopefully with LEI) through NEO Literacy Corps, she wasn’t as enthusiastic as I thought she would be. She did, however, encourage me to do the math (which, at $10 an hour, came out in favor of the grocery store) but also to decide which one I would enjoy more — which one would be most beneficial in terms of my personhood and my education. For me that had a lot to do with challenge. Being a cashier is challenging in certain ways: my back was sore every night, and I had to play games in my head to get myself through every 8 hour shift. But I was looking for something that would challenge my ideas, make me think, and encourage my own writing. And in terms of those questions, Literacy Corps won by a landslide.
And now, about 3 months in, I can say that to an extent, I was right. Being afterschool program coordinator and volunteer coordinator at Lake Erie Ink: A writing space for youth is, in fact, challenging in those ways, but that’s only part of why I’m thankful for this experience. The rest is about mentorship. The time and attention that my supervisors, Amy and Cynthia, have given me helps me decide every day what kind of person I want to be and how I want to live in the world. There will always be challenges in working with other people: Sometimes my instincts aren’t right, and sometimes I sabotage myself. All in all, though, they have been patient with me, guided me, and taken extra time to talk to me about whatever it was that needed attention. I think that the biggest mistake teachers can make is to pretend that the classroom is a vacuum – that what happens outside ought to be left at the door and that learning ought to take place unfettered by whatever personal stuff we bring to the table. It’s a mistake because it denies the way our experiences color and can ultimately enrich what it is we learn, and I don’t know anyone who can compartmentalize their life and selves so tidily anyway.
That’s what I’m so thankful for this year. Amy and Cynthia have treated me honestly: as a learner and as someone who is trying to learn how to be in the world. They haven’t once denied me the experiences that color my service, and for them, for this opportunity, for my time so far, I am extraordinarily thankful.
– Written by Lydia
Tags: americorps, cleveland, Lake Erie Ink, NEO Literacy Corps
As I finish my second month serving with NEO Literacy Corps, I am not only beginning to feel more confident in starting to resemble something like a teacher, but I’m constantly reminded of why literacy – or more specifically, the capacity to communicate, the ability to read and tell stories – is a worthy goal.
October marked the first month where the curriculum I was teaching was based on ideas I had formulated myself. And while the challenges that come with being a green lesson planner are numerous, the one benefit is that I don’t have to spend time interpreting other folks’ ideas. I was excited, in particular, about a lesson I had originally dubbed ‘spooky house.’ My idea was that, as a lead-in to Halloween, kids could use the descriptive writing skills we’d been scaffolding for the past month to imagine and write about encountering a house. I thought it would work well for kids who celebrated Halloween, but be vague enough to pass for those who didn’t.
When the day came, my supervisor, Amy, spent a lot of her time talking my plan over with me. She gave me some old styrofoam the kids could use to build a three dimensional structure on which they could glue their writing. She advised me to include visual examples and teach the concept of personification for describing the houses. She also encouraged to present a wide variety of descriptions and house photos so we didn’t just get a batch of identical haunted house stories. We were trying to avoid ubiquitous gore. I spent the day finding examples of personified houses in young adult books and digging up pictures on the internet that we could model personification with as a group.
And frankly, when the lesson came, I was exhilarated. It was, without doubt, the best moment of my teaching experiences so far. The kids were at times quiet and engaged, and at others straining to answer a question, arms taught, hands raised. When we broke to write, they were quiet and started immediately. I was excited for what they’d produce, but at that point, I still assumed it would be a bunch of stories about haunted houses with bloody walls. I would have accepted those stories – part of what I feel so strongly about at Lake Erie Ink is that Amy and Cynthia have created a space where kids feel free to write what they want – but I would have known they could have gone deeper.
By the end of the day, every kid had mounted four panels of a house story onto the four walls of their unique styrofoam structures. They all looked great. Every one was so different and so clearly and perfectly made by a 4th or 5th grader. I was so happy with the advice Amy had given me along with the styrofoam, and I felt, for the first time all year, like a little bit of a success when it came to teaching. The kids had learned about personification and written spooky house stories that included it. The best advice Amy gave me, however, was the advice to read the stories before I left that day.
As I moved from small, styrofoam house to house, it became clear that a theme was emerging. Inexplicably and without prompting, every kid in the afterschool program had written a story about a lonely, abandoned house. Without even trying, they had co-written the story of a generation of Cleveland kids. It was the fruit of the housing crisis, and it was their real lives. They knew about the shadow an abandoned house casts on a neighborhood and front yards scarred by the constant stabbing of ‘for sale’ signs because these houses are on their streets. They weren’t prompted to write about foreclosure, and if they had been, what came out wouldn’t have been nearly so organic or honest. What’s poignant about what they wrote is that when a group of kids were told to ‘personify a house,’ each and every one wrote a story of foreclosure or abandonment in a personal way. These are the kinds of stories that communicate the consciousness of a generation and make people more human. These are the moments that the concept of literacy and the ability to tell and decipher stories make me believe that what’s broken can be fixed again.
And just like that, my teaching moment was wonderfully and perfectly eclipsed. This is hard work, and anyone who says otherwise isn’t doing it right. But as Amy recently said to me, the world of work doesn’t have the gratification of school. When you’re a student, the moment you turn in a big project, you feel a weight lifted. You know that, for an hour – or maybe a day – you can celebrate with a little rest. Some time with the tv. An extra long trip to the cafeteria. Working, however – and certainly a year of service with AmeriCorps – is about picking up without a break. There isn’t time for a day off every time you want to pat yourself on the back. There is time, however, to shuffle back to a file in a closet somewhere deep in a corner of my mind and glance back on this memory – all those styrofoam houses and abandonment stories – before closing the drawer with assurance and walking on.
– Written by Lydia
Tags: americorps, cleveland, Ink Spot, Lake Erie Ink, literacy, NEO Literacy Corps
I wouldn’t say I was cocky when I graduated from college. I just thought I knew something about the few things I knew. Writing, community service, teaching. These were the areas I felt comfortable with. My first month of service at my host site has humbled me, though, and it has reminded me of something a Comparative Asian politics professor said in class four years ago. We had started a unit about the history and politics of China, and as we slowly waded into the absolute ocean of Chinese culture, she warned us that the more we learned about China, the more we would realize there was to know. Our best hope for the class was to get a sense of the vastness of the field and how much we could never hope to learn. To become a student of China was to be humble.
Stepping into the role of Ink Spot (after school program) coordinator and volunteer coordinator at Lake Erie Ink: A writing space for youth sounds tidy enough. It rolls off the tongue, and it comes with a built-in service description. A quantifiable list that ought to end in 1700 hours. But beginning my job as the first AmeriCorps member at Lake Erie Ink has left me humbled and with a growing idea of how much I have to learn about teaching, about the complexities of the Greater Cleveland community, about the writing life, and about what it means to be a grown-up. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed myself. I’ve felt welcomed in every conceivable way. My supervisors are caring and supportive. They take advantage of teachable moments and they support me in the ways I need to be supported. But the situation – the sometimes helpless feeling of being in charge without feeling like I ought to be – has humbled me.
Today, the last day of September, was an open house event that I have been working toward since I started my service year. And while outwardly, I was making last minute preparations, bustling around, and introducing myself to board members; internally, I was riding over the peaks and valleys of my own consciousness. At once, I felt nervous and proud, overwhelmed and excited. I met a lot of people. Folks from the community, members of our board, parents of Ink Spot students, local poets and performers. It was a good day and a nerve-racking one. However, there was one moment of the day in particular that stands out. One of the little girls from the after school program read a poem. She was sandwiched between a troupe of poets — women who’ve made a life of writing — and a grassroots puppet theater. She shuffled around a little while the master of ceremonies made the transition. She walked into the room and out of it. Her usually sunny face looked stern, serious. She was nervous, and I’ve known her just long enough to be able to tell. Eventually, the emcee called her name. She approached the front and, as the microphone was lowered for her, started her poem. Right away, I recognized it as one she had written at the Ink Spot. One that was based on a prompt I had given. I felt a little pride. And then, something happened. The poem kept going. She had added something — a new ending that zoomed out and pulled the poem into focus. It was wonderful, and it was not at all my prompt anymore. She had taken it into her own direction, and she became something more than a tiny 10 year old. She was a poet, and she had become one on her own.
Now, I don’t know much about community development — even less than I once thought — but I think, in a perfect world, that’s how it ought to go. As AmeriCorps members, we may enter service with the idea that we’re going to change something. We may be naive enough to think that changes come from us, that we’re going to make things better on our own, that we have that kind of influence, and that we know what people need. The supremely humbling fact of truly serving, however, is that we don’t. We can give folks a prompt and hope that someone is brave enough to ignore its limits.The absolute best we can hope for is the chance to create a space that empowers others to change their own communities. That willingness to stay behind the scenes takes the humble acknowledgement that as outsiders, we can’t have all the answers. I’ve waded just far enough into my service year at Lake Erie Ink to see that I have a lot to learn about writing, teaching, and the community, but I’m excited to wade on.
– Written by Lydia