Jul 16, 2009 Herm Card Uncategorized
Saying “Yes” to Education Series:
“The typical American educator is not like me,”Asomgyee Pamoja said, “a large scary black man with an English accent.”
The typical American educator is not Asomgyee Pamoja, born and raised in England. And that is, in some ways, unfortunate.
This is because Asomgyee Pamoja is another of the ones that gets it. What Pamoja gets is that American education — American urban education — needs to be ABOUT more than it is. It needs to be about understanding the urban culture — the culture in which urban students live.
It needs to provide opportunities for students to understand what is around them and ahead of them, not only what is behind them (as the New York State Education Department seems to feel). Pamoja is aware of what they need to know and he is aware of how to enable them to know it. He is a teacher who understands that for education — teaching — to succeed, it must be relevant.
If the typical American educator was allowed to share his vision, and the typical American school system able to let that vision flourish, there would be no discussions on how to “fix” urban education, there would be no need to belabor teachers and administrators with the need to teach to state assessment tests, and there would be no need to worry about the status of education in America’s inner city, let alone education in suburban and rural America.
Fortunately, the Syracuse City School District is no longer typical.
Syracuse saying yes to education in the summer
As site director of Elmwood Elementary School’s Say Yes program, he and his Program Coordinator, Rhoda Smith, are currently engaged in the energizing, five week Say Yes Summer Camp. Unlike a typical summer camp, the Say Yes summer program is aimed at extending the academic year for students while at the same time providing enrichment and enjoyment to the summer months.
While the morning academic program is developed by the Elmwood’s SCSD summer faculty, the summer camp curriculum is developed and implemented by the Say Yes staff and the college students serving as summer counselors.
While the academic side of school is relevant to the base of knowledge students need, the Say Yes summer camp focuses on the relevance of their environment and the lessons to be learned within.
“We operate on their level to make them comfortable with education — with school. We engage them on their level. We don’t overload them. We let them know that in the morning they will learn wonderful things and in the afternoon they will have wonderful experiences.
“Our counselors are college students and young people from CNY Works. They model behavior that lets our students know what is attainable through education. They talk about what they do in terms of what the students can look forward to doing,” Pamoja said.
Action as well as words
The staff at Elmwood is able to engage the students with about a 5-1 ratio, which means that the students are all part of the action. The afternoon field trips are either walking tours of the Elmwood area, or bus trips to significant local sites. They are exposed to art and culture and physical activity.
“We get them active. A lot of these kids would just sit inside and watch TV if they weren’t here. We get them out and into the community. It was surprising to me how many of our students have never been to Syracuse University, even though it’s only about a mile away. We make them aware that not only is there a college that close, but that they have an opportunity to go there, or to any other college they can qualify for.”
“We make them aware of being part of society, and what that means. They are young (7-10) and now is the time when they should learn what they are capable of doing. If we go to Onondaga Creek and see trash, we can say ‘let’s do a project on this.’
“We can talk about it and decide what we can do — cleaning up, planting plants, things like that. Then we can decide who can help us. They become aware that there are people (such as the DPW or Parks Department) whose job it is to fix the problem but they (the people who would like it solved) are able to help by knowing what the solution should be and asking for help in solving it.
“Hopefully, they learn that this is what they need to do if they want to get something to happen in their community. We always hear about ‘good citizenship,’ but what does that mean? Basically, in a decent society, it means that you do what you have to do so that you can do what you want to do.”
Say Yes is about something
An expressed purpose of the Say Yes Summer Camp is to maintain the flow of education for SCSD students. An advantage is that it provides opportunities not readily available during the school year. Pumoja’s focus at Elmwood revolves around weekly societal themes and some of the noteworthy people relevant to them.
Each day is “about” an important person in the students’ culture. They will learn about their heritage through the experiences of such figures as Shirley Chisolm, Garrett Morgan, Dr. Charles Drew, and Marcus Garvey. Names not familiar? Check with an Elmwood Say Yes camper in a couple of weeks.
Pumoja has invited local leaders in many fields into the school to talk to the students about things important to them. Dean Stith of the Whitman School at SU will talk to them about entrepreneurship and opportunity, and poet Omanii Abdullah will talk to them about beautiful language and powerful words.
Field trips to city hall and the Syracuse Symphony will expose them to a new look at government and a new look at music.
Walking tours of their neighborhood will expose them to new ways to look at their surroundings, and Asomgyee Pamoja, Rhoda Smith and a bunch of energetic and committed young counselors will expose them to new ways to look at themselves.