Today was my monthly volunteer stint at a local grade school. To recap my previous three sessions:

Episode One, writing station: The exercise was to learn the parts of speech by practicing Mad Libs, then create one’s own Mad Lib.

A Mad Lib is a story where one provides the nouns, verbs and adjectives, often making it more amusing than the original paragraph. For example:

The interior was spacious. Seats accommodate an average adult; there was enough spacing for me to set up my ginormous laptop.

would get converted into:

The [noun] was [adjective]. Seats accommodate an average [noun]; there was enough spacing for me to set up my [adjective] laptop.

You’d be surprised how often the kids would choose “butt,” “stinky,” “fart,” “farty.”

Overall: It was a noisy lunch, but okay.

Episode Two, writing station: The exercise was to write a compare/contrast story on a book and movie from the same story. I had read/seen neither, nor was there any suggested preparation. Each student was allegedly familiar with the material and had already constructed a Venn diagram to aid in this exercise.

Getting them interested in writing after they just spent an hour outside in the sun was nigh impossible. I tried all kinds of tricks to get them to put things on paper first then editing them into the particularly rigid skeleton requested. One boy composed three words — four if he added a space to “alot.” Each time I’d wander over, he appeared in trance, waiting for the universe of nouns, verbs and adjectives to spontaneously congeal on his paper.

Two of the other boys had highly-repetitive Venn diagrams: Circle 1 (the book): Jar Jar isn’t as annoying. Circle 2 (the movie): Jar Jar is annoying and must have its bodily fluids removed by leeches. [Okay, I made up that last part, though it’s true.] Intersection: Jar Jar’s last name is Binks. Not much to work with.

Two of the girls were teeming to show me what they’ve done. After congratulating them on making good progress, one asks me for a critique on her handwriting. “I am not a good person to ask about this. Er, I mean it’s fine.” She realizes I’m left-handed, which for some reason, is a novelty and I have to give an impromptu demonstration of my writing. Then for sheer showmanship, I switch hands. And write backwards. Oooooooooh.

A surly boy is arguing with the girl next to him about how long sentences can be. They ask. I mention Faulkner’s pages and pages of one sentence. He doesn’t believe me, so I rattle off titles for him to “research.” I want to recommend having a stiff drink before doing so (aka “how Faulkner wrote”) but it would be so totally inappropriate.

A girl asks me whether he needs to make it double-space when hers is obviously single-spaced and neat. “Of course not. This is a rough draft. You’re going to have ample opportunity to rewrite it.” Another, clearly an over achiever, says “Oops, I need to erase something. Should I rewrite the page again?”

I was thinking that I should mention that my report card had a blemish for writing, and that by many accounts, I turned out to be a productive member of society despite this egregious gap in learnin’, but that would be tantamount to conceding There Is No Permanent Record. “No, Alana, this is a rough draft. Smudges on rough drafts will not prevent ‘extra credit’ later on.”

At the end of our session: all but one girl had a serviceable rough draft. Surly boy was pretty close. Everyone else: bupkus.

Overall: I was unhappy with how this went. I was reconsidering my commitment.

Episode Three, writing station: Writing station was canceled! Instead, they had oil paints. They were supposed to create a picture in a style similar to an artist who had previously visited the class. Color some airplanes, cut them out and put them onto a piece of thick paper. Paint mountains, grass, sky and clouds.

The five kids who had done their work before were all over this one. Some kids were having problems coping with the ambiguity of the exercise. “Are the mountains too big?” [No! If the pilot wants, she will circle a few times to gain enough altitude. It’s OK — it’s a pretty night for that.] “My grass isn’t green enough, is that a problem?” [It’s always greener on the other side of the fence. (blank stare) I think it’s fine, but it’s your drawing.]

The girls were clear on the concept that only a tiny dollop was necessary. Not the boys. One was trying to apply it thick enough to shield from cosmic radiation. The teacher freaked when she saw he’d used half a tube. She insisted that “an adult had to dispense paint now.” I spent the last 30 minutes darting from child to child, doling out drop-sized dollops of Cadmium Yellow, Titanium White, Ivory Black, Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue and Pthalo Blue.

Overall: the art was more fun than writing, but being Paint Boy wasn’t fun.

Episode Four: A New Hope: I switched over from “writing” to “tech station.” They were working on an exercise where, given a budget of $2500 and some other constraints, they had to plan a family trip to five distinct geographical regions in Washington State. They gave me the details so I could come prepared.

The parameters were simple:

1. Choose one of five vehicles, considering its passengers capacity and fuel economy.

2. Each family member eats three meals a day. They made some simplifying assumptions that this would come to $30/day/person.

3. Lodging was $90/day for a hotel or $15/day for a campsite. For extra credit, they could find better deals.

4. The trip had to visit five geographic areas of the state: coast, western lowlands, Okanogan Highlands, Cascade mountains, Columbia Plateau). Travel was limited to seven hours a day. You had to visit at least one historical site in each region.

5. Activities should be planned to keep the family entertained.

I worked out a complete solution to this last night and brought it, some maps, and a couple of travel guides with me.  The kids were organized into four teams. They’d done preliminary work in selecting a route, and my task was to answer questions, help out with computers, etc.

  • Group one felt Olympia was “on the coast.” I explained “the coast” meant “the Pacific Ocean or possibly the Strait of Juan de Fuca,” but not Puget Sound, otherwise that would include Seattle. Panicked, they were about to redo their entire itinerary until I showed them google maps and how it was just an additional 200 mile loop. “Go to Cape Disappointment, rent a Yurt.”
  • One group had planned a 14 day trip, but hadn’t added any of their expenses up. “Um, you might want to do a quick sum of all of the meals for the six people on the trip.” Once they cut out five days, we found some camp sites that would work.
  • One group was thorougly immersed in searching for restaurant menus, local hotels, grocery store picnic items to maximize their extra credit points. We got along well.
  • The fourth group — all boys — had finished their third slide. For most of the session, they were in heated discussion about the Chevy Suburban. They had been keen on researching its true gas mileage, color options, and opportunities for adding flame decals on the side.

Overall: I’ll finish out the year, but I don’t think I’ll sign up next year.

3 thoughts on “Volunteering”

  1. This is hilarious. I love hearing about your vicarious experiences, especially with the kids. 🙂 Being able to laugh about these things eases my own experiences with older kids!

  2. One thing that struck me from what you wrote is that it seemed like the girls were able to get things done; the boys, not so much.

    What’s up with that?

  3. Kiri: 🙂 (I have a hard time making it through the full 90 minutes. I am in awe at how you can muster a four hour stint *plus* time after for office hours, grading, and prep.)

    Claire: It’s a very good question. With this class (8 – 10 year olds), I’ve observed the girls are generally more likely to do their work, do it well, and be more concerned about opportunities for “extra credit.” The boys tend to goof off, especially in groups where there are more than one.

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