Get Out and Give Back: “A” for Achievement

This nonprofit inspires excellence in both the students and the volunteers.
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Higher Achievement scholars Sydney, Mickayla, Johnnie, and Nathalie on stage at the Warner Theatre during the 2011 GoingPlaces! Gala.

needed a substitute mentor for the three fifth grade girls she tutors with Higher Achievement. When she emailed me the lesson plan, all preconceived notions of substitute teachers as babysitters dissolved. The lesson plan was detailed, structured and would take a lot of work from both the girls and from me. I liked it.

I studied the lesson plan over and over, trying to commit it to memory.  I wanted my lesson with them to go smoothly so the girls would hardly notice that their regular mentor was gone.

On lesson night I signed in with the security guard (another new experience) at Savoy Elementary School’s main entrance across from the Anacostia Metro. , Higher Achievement’s Assistant Center Director for Ward 8, introduced himself to me and gave me a hug. Definitely they love their volunteers!

Higher Achievement works with middle school students in at-risk communities to give them the tools, training, and support to complete high school and beyond. From my experience with them, I can add that Higher Achievement also gives their kids a very high bar of excellence and expects them to maintain it.

The teacher mentor session ran from 6 – 7:30 that evening. Before my girls arrived, Matthew handed me three raffle tickets, or “culture tickets” in Higher Achievement speak, to give to my students if they displayed outstanding excellence, collaboration, spirit or respect.

Wouldn’t it be great if all of us worked for culture tickets?

Chana had prepped me well on the lesson (writing a descriptive paragraph, emphasizing the setting and the five-step writing process) and what to expect from the girls. Neveah, Chana said, was quiet while BFFs Jonnae and Andrennae were outgoing and chatty. Chana had promised them souvenirs from France if they got a good report card from me, so I knew they would be on their best behavior.

Neveah, Jonnae and Andrennae earned culture tickets for going easy on their substitute mentor.

When Neveah, Jonnae and Andrennae appeared my brain suddenly turned to mush. What happened to all of that preparation? I had to read the lesson plan to them line by line, and thankfully they seemed not to notice.

The instructions were easy to follow and organized to include the theme, objectives, desired skill outcome, required materials, and time increments. The girls had to write a paragraph around a magazine picture. I had thrown a few Washington Lifes and Newsweeks in my briefcase for the girls to look through. Neveah chose a full-page picture of an elegant foyer, Andrennae opted for trendy bedroom photo and Jonnae liked a Newsweek photo of a woman sitting in a café.

As they pondered the questions needed to create a setting I encouraged them to unleash their inner creative artist (in what city is the café? Do you live in the mansion? Is there a zoo behind it? Does the bedroom overlook the ocean in Hawaii?). It was, after all, their story.

Following the writing process, the girls drafted their questions, wrote their stories and then swapped them with each other for peer review before revising and grammar editing.

I helped each girl if she asked, and read their paragraphs with them. Andrennae envisioned that the trendy bedroom was her college dorm room at Yale, where she studied to be a pediatrician. Neveah, who wrote about the large mansion foyer, described the family who lived there-a mother, father, son and daughter. At the end of the paragraph she wrote that she dropped in on the family to say hello.

She was only a visitor in her own story. That made me sad.

After the peer review, where each of them gave each other fair, constructive feedback, I gave them each a culture ticket for collaboration.

As the session ended, each girl received an “A” from me. Higher Achievement got an “A+.”

Volunteering with them as a teacher mentor or a study hall aide in any of their six area locations (they have two sites each in Baltimore and Richmond) requires a background check, a weekly commitment and a passion to help middle school kids succeed.

Culture tickets are a bonus.

Jane Hess Collins helps and encourages people to give back through her volunteering, writing, speaking, coaching and workshops. You can follow her other Get Out and Give Back volunteer stories on Facebook, Twitter and her website. If you’d like her to volunteer with your organization, contact her here.

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