Dr. Seuss has nothing on these Fairfield University students

Image: GSEAP students volunteering with Bridgeport schoolchildrenStudents at Cesar A. Batalla Elementary School in Bridgeport anxiously awaited the arrival of "the fun people," otherwise known as Fairfield University undergraduates.

"I like Wednesdays because I get to read poems with Emily... I like her just as much as Dr. Seuss," shared six-year-old Aniyah, speaking of sophomore Emily Pedrick, one of 22 Fairfield service-learning students who have been reading with and serving as literacy tutors to the school's first, second and third graders throughout the fall semester. Their weekly visits to the Howard Avenue school are part of the community outreach component of a Fairfield University service learning course offered by the Graduate School of Education and Allied Professions (GSEAP).

In Batalla schoolteacher Melissa Quintana's class, Mike Kenney '12, a politics major, sat with first graders Eduardo, Bryan and Victor. "What's your favorite thing about reading and writing?" he asked. The boys spoke of learning new vocabulary and playing word games.

In a neighboring classroom, eight-year-old Redwan said he looks forward to seeing his Fairfield pals. "I learn new words from them," the third grader said. Other children spoke of friendships forged, reading more, and poems that rhymed like raps.

Image: GSEAP students volunteering with Bridgeport schoolchildrenThe schoolchildren weren't the only ones sharing stories of lessons learned.

The Fairfield undergraduates are enrolled in "Explorations in Teaching: Teaching, Learning and Schooling" - a service learning course taught by Professor Patricia Calderwood. In addition to classroom study, they assist Batalla teachers by working one-to-one or in small groups with the youngsters. About 25 hours of service in a high needs school is required.

Pedrick, a biology major, said she's learned to be aware of the different learning levels among students in a class. "You have to be patient," she said. "You can learn from your students how to be a teacher."

English major Carina D'Amato '13 takes two courses that involve outreach at Batalla. "What I now know is that you need to give kids a chance to learn on their own and to make their mistakes."

To Erin Gildea, Batalla's literacy coach, it's all "a win-win situation." Gildea is the only literacy coach at the Pre-Kindergarten through Grade 8 school; there used to be three. She knows it's vital children master reading fundamentals in first and second grade. During those years, children are learning to read. By third grade, a child should be reading to learn. If that is not accomplished, a child can struggle academically indefinitely. "It impacts the rest of their lives if the gaps are not filled," she said.

The service-learning course came to fruition just months ago after Principal Hector Sanchez met with Melissa Quan, associate director of the University's Center for Faith and Public Life and director of Service Learning. Quan oversees service-learning programs that forge connections between academic learning and meaningful service addressing community needs. There are sixteen Fairfield service learning courses underway this semester, with 255 students enrolled. Five area schools benefit from them.

At Batalla, sixteen additional Fairfield students tutor children at the school through a section of the First-Year Experience (FYE) course. "These tutoring partnerships, which have focused around reading and literacy, have developed into deeper relationships," Quan commented.

Image: GSEAP students volunteering with Bridgeport schoolchildrenRebecca Constantine, Connecticut Campus Compact AmeriCorps*VISTA volunteer at Fairfield, noticed a shift in many Fairfield students' outlook about going to the school. "They've gone from calling students there 'the kids' to calling them 'my kids.' "

Anne Gribbon, School Volunteer Association director, believes the initiative holds great potential. "I am anxious to learn about the outcomes but feel assured that they will be positive," she said. "Equally important is the fact that we are developing an effective model that can be duplicated in schools in the future."

To celebrate their time together, the Fairfield and Batalla students recently collaborated on a reflection book, describing and illustrating what they learned. Many of the Fairfield students felt that they got more than they gave.

Matt McNeill, a junior, explained that as a teacher, at any age level, there is an opportunity to impact and shape a child's life. "I hope I taught them some skills with reading and writing," he said, "but I hope they learned more about self confidence, how to work as a group, how to respect others and their ideas, and how to express themselves."

Margaret McGohey, a sophomore history major, found it hard to leave the school. "One of the kids was talking to me today about God. She said, 'We should all just try to make God happy.' Isn't that great?!"

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Media Contact: Meg McCaffrey, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2726, mmccaffrey@fairfield.edu

Posted on December 12, 2011

Vol. 44, No. 144

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