Denny Student Blog: Alan

DIMS Blog

At Denny International Middle School (DIMS), we pride ourselves on the promotion and advancement of a “culture of literacy.” Around every corner and classroom, you will find contest flyers, inspirational quotes, event announcements, and bits of learning all concerning literacy. The teachers and administration all think of literacy as less of a standard to be taught, but more of a cause to be furthered. We want our students to love reading, even find it to be infectious, and write well.

Last year, a City Year corps member named Sam Boutelle was one of many individuals who worked tirelessly alongside teachers and staff to help spread this literary fervor. Sam, however, soon discovered there was a problem. He noticed that for the most part, students had responded well to the impassioned exaltation of literacy, particularly in writing: producing poems, essays, stories, and book reviews. All of which were deserving of a little extra praise and recognition than a Level 3 or Level 4 grading could bring. But none came. Instead, they would be passed back to the student and soon thereafter become forever lost in the paper-stuffed abyss that is a middle schooler’s backpack. I never had the pleasure of meeting or working with Sam myself, but I imagine his response was, “That’s simply not good enough.”

Sam took to the internet to find a solution, and the “DIMS Authors and Scholars Blog” was born. Run by the City Year ELA coordinators and supported by teachers and staff, the blog is an online platform for highlighting the vibrant community of talented creative writers and artists at Denny. It is referred to as a single blog, but in actuality it is three separate webpages, each dedicated to a grade level. All three are filled with everything from expository essays to pencil sketchings, and a wide variety of poems in all shapes, sizes, and styles. All together, the blog boasts a combined 81 postings and has garnered over 2,000 views in just two years. You can check out the blog posts here:

6th Grade Blog
7th Grade Blog
8th Grade Blog

Admittedly, this might all seem like little more than a shameless plug in an attempt to amass a larger viewing audience, but what I think we can all learn from Sam and the DIMS Blog is no solution to a problem is ever outside the reach of innovation. If it bothers you, address it. If it doesn’t exist, create it. And if it is met with indifference, assess the situation with a clear mind, a level head, and the courage to either stay the course or move on. As for me, I will continue to make sure that students have the opportunity to share their creativity, their struggles, their triumphs, their questions, and the workings of their inner selves with the world. Why? Because writings like this one, submitted to the blog by an 8th grader, should never go unseen:

As a young girl,
I was surrounded by hate,
Parents fighting until divorce,
It left me alone,
My family broken,
Now a teenager,
Everyone’s caring and happy,
I have a step-father,
I’m no longer alone,
My family is a fixed mirror,
Though you can still see the cracks,
It’s because I’m a Denny Dolphin
and I finally belong.

Go Dolphins.

Day in the Life: Paul

I wake up before the sun rises. I roll out of my sheets and into the dark world. I’ve never been much of a morning person, but the thought of not being there for my students is far worse than the thought of getting out of bed early. With their futures at stake, I have learned to accept some compromises.

I gather up my uniform. Some days, I find it difficult to convince myself that I’m half as durable as these boots, half as classy as this tucked-in white dress shirt. Still, I take one end of my shoelace in each half-asleep hand and weave them together until they’re inseparable, like exhaustion and dedication.

Backpack? Check. Teeth brushed? Check. I am no longer Paul. I am now Mister Paul. I step out into the quiet of early Seattle and look out over the foggy, distant lights of the city. Soon, I am walking through the rusted front door of my home away from home, Aki Kurose Middle School.

The early bird students are there every morning before I arrive, like clockwork. They keep themselves entertained with card games, Rubik’s Cubes, jokes, and harmless pranks. One student tells me he gets up at four every morning. When I ask why, he simply says “I dunno.” I don’t know either.

I pop into the classroom to say good morning to my rad partner teacher, a recent 8th grade Language Arts transplant from Connecticut with a wicked sense of humor and laid-back style. He jokes with me about the trials and tribulations of being married with children. I tell him I don’t know how he does it – that the hundred different kids I serve each day will last me a lifetime.

I set up in the City Year room at Aki, making myself a quick breakfast while mulling over notes from previous days and weeks. What happened to that student? He was on an upward spiral for the longest time. Now it seems he’s coming off the rails again. Gotta get him back on track.

Now it’s time for my fellow corps members and I to have our first circle, where we gather ‘round and share joys from our lives with each other. It sounds silly, I know, but you’ve gotta understand: City Year is a culture all its own. When still growing accustomed to it all, it seemed absurd to me, even cultish at points, but in time I’ve come to see that there’s a depth of thought and intention behind it all, and I’ve joined in the fun.

Circle’s over. Now that I’m used to the snuggly warmth of the indoors, it’s time to step back out into the cold dawn. Students are arriving, and we corps members get to welcome them, setting the tone for their day in a big way. Now’s our chance to dance poorly and draw a few smiles and high-fives. I don’t take this part lightly–if I look closely, I can see a few children’s’ eyes light up just because I’m there. The same could be said for any member of our team.

With a few smiles, the cold doesn’t seem so cold anymore. I follow the last straggling students in the door as the first bell rings.

First period. I say good morning to any students who might have been too cool to say hello to me in front of their friends. I get a sense of who’s coming into class ready to focus and engage, who’s falling asleep at their desk, who thinks they’re a sneaky Instagram ninja, and who’s too shy or ashamed to admit they need help.

The classes themselves are a blur. There are ten thousand variables in any classroom on any given day. That student who’s been my secret gem will, on some days, make me want to breathe fire. Other times, that student I never really clicked with will hit me with an act of grace so stunning I’ll be left speechless. If one thing doesn’t change, it’s my purpose here: to be the best possible version of myself at any given moment, because these kids deserve no less.

Some days, my best isn’t very good. My mind padlocks itself, and I find it impossible to chain together the words I need to explain a basic concept. Some days, I have rough stuff going on in my personal life, and the stress of a situation overwhelms me. I snap at a student and am humbled as I see their eyes lower, disappointed in themselves. I make a mental note right then, even in the midst of my frustration-hazed brain, to apologize to them later and remind them that they’re going to change the world for the better one day.

Other days, I float on clouds. I share a new approach to tackling a problem, and I can witness the enlightenment in a student’s eyes. I show a kid that I care about them and believe in them, and watch them fill with a new spirit. Yet another student goes out of their way to build bridges where just a few months ago they were burning them.

By the end of any given day, I’m spent. I want nothing more than to go home, grab a meal, shower, and rest. But more often than not, as I’m replaying the day in my mind, it isn’t the moments of conflict or the notoriously lewd (and often hilarious) comments of 8th graders that linger with me. It’s the moments of breakthrough, of endurance, of compassion.

Despite the volunteer wage, I have had no more rewarding job than this one. The reward is getting to watch my students improve and grow as human beings, as I improve and grow in this crucible along with them. For this one fleeting year, their fates and my fate are woven together tightly, like the laces on my exhausted, determined boots.

The Test Goes On – Featuring City Year Corps Members!

At Denny International Middle School, the teachers, staff and City Year corps members always try to get their students excited about school. Although the MSP, a standardized test, helps teachers track how well their students are doing and which areas they need help in, students are sometimes unenthusiastic about the prospect of taking another test.

In an effort to encourage students in their learning, teachers Gary Lai and Erin Jolley created a new and improved version of Lupe Fiasco’s “The Show Goes On.” Done the Denny International way, the hit song became “The Test Goes On.” The music video also features City Year Seattle corps members Roberto Gutierrez, Trish Griego, Natalie Mace, Theila Smith and Andy Tilton. As Theila Smith said,

“We were part of the video to boost student morale for the upcoming MSP test because we’re also part of staff and we want to show the kids that we’re there for them.”

The corps members at Denny International Middle School always go above and beyond for their students!

For more Denny International music videos, see “Teach Me How To Study.”

Video by the staff at Denny International Middle School, with words by teachers Gary Lai and Erin Jolley

Text by Sherry Tiao, City Year Seattle/King County External Relations Project Leader

Floyd Jones at Aki Kurose Middle School

Floyd Jones with City Year corps members

A City Year Seattle corps member’s typical work day focuses on interacting with and educating the next generation of leaders. However, recently a group of us had the unique opportunity to connect with a special member of the community. We shared the T-Mobile Diplomas Now team at Aki Kurose Middle School with Floyd Jones, who is an investment banker by day, poet by night and longtime Seattle philanthropist. He joined City Year Seattle to see our programs in action and how corps members and students use poetry in their service and school work.

The connection between poetry and service is unique. It gives corps members the opportunity to connect with students outside of the usual schoolwork, allowing them to share a passion. It is wonderful when one of our supporters shares that same passion. When Mr. Jones visited with us at Aki Kurose Middle School, three generations were connected through art: Floyd Jones, corps members, and students.

Floyd Jones with City Year Seattle Corps Member

Mr. Jones toured the school, participated in a lively conversation with four corps members, and assumed the role of audience member during a student rehearsal for the City Year hosted Student Arts Slam. Mr. Jones and corps members shared their views on why the art of the spoken language and service are important to each of them. Corps member Kendall Morgan said,

“When I write a rap it is very introspective; it is when I reflect on my life and feelings. At this point in my life, service is my focus so it’s inevitable that it is a part of my music. If you don’t reflect on what you are doing, you lose some of the substance that can be learned. Rap and spoken word are my way of doing that.”

After the discussion, Mr. Jones and the corps members attended the final practice session for the arts slam. Students shared songs, raps, and poems about the events happening in their world. One student dedicated a poem to her mom and focused on the lessons her mother has taught her. Another student shared a piece titled “The Situation,” in which she painted a chilling picture of some of the struggles that middle school students face. She detailed students making choices to either get involved in “The Situation,” which she described as gang life and peer pressure, or pursuing education. It was amazing to see students approach the realities of what goes on in their middle school with so much maturity and understanding.

The intergenerational connection displayed during this visit was astonishing. It is refreshing to be able to be a part of another generation’s experiences and to have representatives of three generations, all sharing a common passion, in the same room.

Text by Kendall Morgan, City Year Seattle/King County Recruitment Project Leader

Making Progress – One Step at a Time

City Year Corps Member and Student

I already knew a little about Justin* when I began working with him in his language arts class. Other people had said to me, “Good luck. He never responds.” I soon encountered the same frustration I heard in their voices, as I collided abruptly with Justin’s academic apathy and quiet, socially withdrawn demeanor; this attitude was such a problem, in fact, that every attempt to interact with him or prompt him to work was met with silence. He simply ignored me and went about with his doodles.

However, I was prepared to do whatever was necessary to get Justin to do his work. Even if it meant that Justin would grow to despise me, I resolved to be an annoying stitch in his side, applying the positive peer pressure I felt he needed to succeed. After looking at his grades online, I knew what I was up against: his highest grade was a C, he was failing almost all of his classes, and he was at-risk of being held back a grade.

Every day, I worked to motivate Justin, and I tried to instill good academic and study habits into his daily routine. I would badger him to prepare for the start of the class lesson as soon as he walked in the room and talk about note taking, specific study tips, and everything in between. Gradually, Justin stopped ignoring me; however, his responses were less than ideal. He would grunt, sigh, and either begrudgingly comply or ask me why he should do what I asked of him. It wasn’t much, but I still considered it progress.

As the weeks and months went on, Justin would complain less and less. During my first report card conference with him, we discussed his likes, dislikes, and hobbies. Most importantly, however, we talked about his future and the possible opportunities that lay in store for him. I emphasized to him that none of that would be possible without an adequate education. This was a big turning point for our relationship, as Justin began to realize that I prompted him to work so much because I actually cared about him and his future. Slowly, Justin became more willing to do work on his own and without my pressure on him to do it.

As Justin’s motivation became more and more intrinsic, our relationship became less that of diametrical opposition, and I was able to maximize the help I could actually provide for him. He was much more receptive to my aid, and I was able to focus more on how to help him do his best; I no longer had to worry about getting him motivated and ready to work.

Now, Justin has rounded out the end of the third marking period with mostly B’s and C’s on his report card and not a single failing grade. There is still much work to be done but in just a few short months, Justin has made great improvements. In our recently completed second report card conference, we were able to have a much more genuine conversation focused around academics. He took the initiative to ask me what his prospects for promotion into the seventh grade were looking like, and he wanted to know exactly what he needed to do to keep from being held back.

As a result of Justin taking ownership of his academic work, he does not actually despise me as I feared he might. In fact, a few weeks ago he asked me impatiently if City Year would be accompanying the class field trip because he wanted me to be the chaperone for his home room. Not only do our interactions bring a smile to my face, but knowing that Justin is well on his way to academic success is an incredible joy. Just last week, he excitedly ran up to me to show off his latest progress report: A+. I could not be more proud of his improvements, and given his outstanding standardized test scores, I know Justin now has the intrinsic motivation and academic skills and habits necessary to do well in middle school and beyond.

*Names have been changed

Text by Pepis Rodriguez, City Year Seattle/King County corps member of the JPMorgan Chase/NELA Diplomas Now Team at Denny International Middle School