What I Learned From My Students

This summer, I interned at South Bronx United’s Summer Soccer Scholars’ Program as an SAT tutor. I am interested in math education and hoped the internship would help me learn more about a career in education. At the beginning of the internship, I expected to learn more about teaching: creating and executing lesson plans, managing a classroom environment, catering to the different learning styles of different students, etc. I did not expect that I would learn far more from the students than I could ever teach them. I did not expect the internship to change my life.

Growing up, I was always a firm believer in the power of authority. Whenever a problem arose in the schoolyard, I was the first to tattle: delegating the problem to a teacher or administrator to avoid dealing with it myself. So far, the authorities have served me fairly well. But upon working at South Bronx United, I learned that often times, authorities fail.

Many children still worry about getting mugged on their way to and from school. Many children face bullying, but must deal with it themselves because their teachers are either unable or unwilling to help. A broader and more troubling failure is the failure of public schools to provide immigrant children with equal opportunities.

The SAT, the “standard achievement test” is meant to test the abilities of individual students in, as the name would suggest, a standardized way. But the SAT fails to do so. For example, part of the difficulty of SAT math word problems is that they are specifically worded to be confusing. Even children who have been speaking English since infancy find them hard to understand. Therefore, a child who has just learned English a few years ago and/or speaks a different language at home will face an even larger challenge trying to understand the word problem: a challenge has nothing to do with the child’s abilities. The same problem appears in the grammar section. When teaching students about searching for sentence errors, I found myself justifying my answers over and over again with the phrase, “it just sounds right.” It sounds right to me because I have heard English spoken correctly for 18 years. Will a child who hasn’t had the same exposure to the English language be able to recognize the correct answer simply because it “sounds right?” Probably not. Though the SAT claims to be a standardized test, I learned this summer that it is far from it.

Though the students at South Bronx United, and those living in other immigrant and low-income communities across America face struggles beyond those of native English speakers, working at South Bronx United has given me hope. Because the students do not receive all of the resources that they need from school, organizations like South Bronx United are all the more important in providing these children with the support they need to succeed. All of the students possess a strong desire to succeed and an eagerness to learn from anyone who can help them. Maybe they will have an uphill battle, but organizations like South Bronx United will create level patches every now and then. I have no doubt that eventually these students will climb to the top.

As part of the SAT/College Prep course, we had students start writing their personal statement for the Common Application. Michael Oyenuga, one of my mentees, wrote his personal statement about his desire to become a lawyer and protect the falsely accused. Michael’s essay reads:

“The first time I did an investigation was when I was 12 years old. I investigated on one of my friends because his aunt claimed that the money she left on the living room table had been stolen and she suspected that my friend had stolen it. Since she is related to my friend, my investigation would be easy. Later that same day, I decided to ask my friend if he found any money which was missing; he replied by saying no. my investigation was not over yet. I then asked him to lend me some money to buy snacks, which he did. The money he gave me was the same money that his aunt was missing. After he gave me the money, I became curious as to where he found the money that he gave me. I became so suspicious that I asked him no further questions. I was determined that he had stolen the money from his aunt. In the evening, after his aunt had arrived from work, I told her what I discovered. I told her that her nephew had stolen the money, and she was mad. She later asked him why he stole her money. 20 minutes later, he came to meet at my house to discuss with me why I told his aunt he stole her money. He told me that I was wrong and the money I was with him earlier was given to him by his grand-mother to take care of himself and his little sister while she was traveling. After hearing that, I felt really bad. I thought I was trying to help the problem but I only created more problems. During our discussion, I tried to explain my reasoning, but he never listened. He left, saying that our friendship was over.

In conclusion, I gained lots of experience. I learned to mind my business and that if I am trying to help an individual, I should have more evidence to prove me right before I make accusations. The experience had given me the knowledge of being a lawyer in the future because I would like to defend those accused of crimes they never committed.”

Priyanka with Mohamed

Priyanka with her mentee Mohamed

Michael’s essay shows that only change for the better will come from the success of immigrant/low-income children.

I have confidence in these children because at the end of the day, they are all good kids. Sure, they run and crash around the halls when they should be making their way quietly down the stairs for lunch. They stand when they should be sitting, and talk when they should be listening. But they are also excited to see me every morning no matter how harshly I had to scold them the day before. They make each other laugh, they always share, and they fall asleep in each other’s laps during long bus rides. Each one of them has earned a special place in my heart, and I wish them all the very best. Or rather, I wish them better than the best because, like all hard-working, kind-hearted children, they deserve no less.

by Priyanka Subramanian

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