Traveling with Megan

By Rebecca Pelletier, corps member serving on the Sun Life Financial team

Mattahunt-Geography_GlobeI was standing in the hallway near the 3rd-grade classrooms, greeting students as they arrived for the day. Students smiled as I doled out high-fives and wished them a good day. Megan* came up the stairs dragging her feet, her hood pulled over her face. “Good morning, Megan!” I said with a smile. Megan grunted and continued to slouch down the hall toward class.

After weeks of watching Megan mature and develop a more positive attitude, I was surprised to see her seeming so down. That day in class, Megan kept her gaze locked on the floor, complained loudly during lessons, and ignored the work on her desk. These were behaviors that she exhibited at the beginning of the year, before we started working together. Since then, Megan’s come very far. After so much progress, why would she revert to old habits?

I made my way over to Megan’s desk, and pulled her aside. I told her that I noticed she seemed a little upset, and asked if that’s how she was really feeling.  She responded with a nod. When I asked if she wanted to talk about it, she shook her head, and then paused, looked up, and asked quietly, “Could I talk about it at lunch with you?”

Megan is one of my three lunch buddies, we eat lunch together weekly and talk about ways to build her leadership skills. When she came up to our team space for lunch that day, she settled in quickly. After taking a few bites and talking about what we were doing in class, Megan said, “The reason I was sad this morning is because my Grandmother just left to go to the Dominican Republic*, and I miss her.” This was the first time she ever opened up to me without any prompting. I listened as Megan told me about her grandmother, and all the things she would miss about her in the upcoming weeks.

Together, Megan and I talked about things we can do when we miss people. I told her that when I miss people, I try to think about when they’re coming back, instead of about how they’re gone. When I said this, Megan suggested she make a welcome back card for her grandmother. We gathered supplies, and she chose a big piece of pink construction paper to make an over-sized card full of love.

As she wrote and colored, Megan also told me that she had never been to the Dominican Republic, but wanted to someday. I asked her what she would want to see if she ever traveled there. “Beaches! And I would want to eat food just like my grandmother’s,” she exclaimed.

“Why don’t we go there?” I asked Megan.

She flashed me a confused look.

I went to the cabinet where I keep my laptop, and did a quick Internet search for photos of beaches and famous places in the Dominican Republic. As we went through pictures and maps, Megan asked question after question. We researched the climate, culture, and geography of the country in the short time that remained of lunch.

When we returned to class that afternoon, it was time for quiet reading. Megan went back to her seat, took out a book, and settled in. For almost the whole afternoon, she sat quietly to do her work, participated actively in class, and was an all-around role model for her classmates. The shift from her attitude in the morning to her attitude in the afternoon was enormous. When she walked by me in the hallway the next morning, Megan looked up at me and said, “Only two more weeks until my grandma is back!”

Building positive relationships with our students is one of the most impactful things we can do as corps members. My time spent with Megan that day translated into a more personal connection between us, and together we counted down the days until her grandmother would return.  And, just as I’m able to celebrate my students’ academic and personal achievements, Megan and I celebrated when her grandmother came back home.

*Name changed to protect student’s privacy

About the author:
Rebecca Pelletier is a 2013-2014 corps member serving on the Sun Life Financial team at Mattahunt Elementary School in Mattapan.  

A Friendly Push

By Rebecca Pelletier, corps member serving on the Sun Life Financial team

The student’s pencil is moving across the page. She is sitting up tall, and every now and then she leans over to help the student next to her. As I look on, a smile spreads across my face. I feel like jumping for joy; I feel like grabbing hands with the student and spinning her around and around until we collapse on the ground. Instead, I pick up a small green sticky note, and begin to write. Dear Natalie*, You have been doing your very best work this morning. Great job! I am so happy to see the best you today. Keep up the hard work! – Miss  Bex.

Meet Natalie, a clever student in my class who has had some difficulty adjusting to the 3rd grade. From my very first day in the classroom, I’ve watched Natalie struggle to join the class as the teacher  gives instruction; instead of sitting on the carpet with her peers, Natalie sits at her desk. When instruction is over and students are asked to work on assignments, Natalie finds every excuse not to do her work, from needing an eraser, to saying, “I don’t understand the assignment.”  When a solution is suggested, she pouts at her desk until the lesson is over.

Concerned about her lagging coursework, my partner teacher and I attempted to get Natalie involved in the classroom. We helped her set goals, which we wrote down and taped to the desk. We gave her individual instruction, made calls home, and even revoked her recess privileges when she failed to compete her assignments, but nothing seemed to motivate Natalie. Perhaps most frustrating for me was that, after several one-on-one talks with Natalie, I knew that Natalie knew what she needed to do to complete her homework assignments. A phone call to her 2nd teacher, who is now teaching at a different school, revealed that this kind of behavior was extremely out-of-character for Natalie.

Alongside Natalie’s difficulty in completing her work, my partner teacher and I noticed another trend in Natalie’s behavior. It didn’t seem as though Natalie had made friends with any of the other students. In fact, on several occasions, Natalie’s behavior suggested that she already felt alienated from her classmates. She rarely went out of her way to interact with them, and when she did, it was often in an unkind manner. In response to this observation, we tried an experiment. We moved desks around in the classroom until Natalie was sitting next to Jennifer*, a friendly and warm student who participates regularly in class.

Natalie’s transformation wasn’t magical. For the past two weeks, I’ve found myself kneeling next to Natalie and Jennifer’s table frequently throughout the day, coaching Natalie just as I had before. But very gradually, I’ve seen a change in her behavior. It began on a Tuesday. On this Tuesday in particular, Natalie worked willfully on her assignment for 45 minutes before losing focus. A few days later, she followed instructions for an hour, then two hours—then the whole morning.

One day, I looked toward her desk to check on her during carpet time, only to see an empty chair. For a moment I panicked. Where is Natalie? I thought. Then I looked down at the carpet to see her sitting cross-legged next to Jennifer, her hand raised in the air to answer a question.

My work with Natalie isn’t done. I still occasionally have to repeat instructions for her. She still sometimes uses unkind words, and her effort to do her best work isn’t consistent yet. But for now, Natalie is working hard to improve. She is getting back on track. All she needed to do it was a friend.

*Students name changed to protect privacy.

About the author:
Rebecca Pelletier is a 2013-2014 corps member serving on the Sun Life Financial team at Mattahunt Elementary School in Mattapan. 

Save Math: Creative Approach to 1:1 Tutoring

By Rebecca Pelletier

calculatorPractice makes perfect. Yet, for a student who has difficulty in math, a worksheet containing multiple practice problems might feel so overwhelming that the student gives up before he even starts. So what’s a corps member to do?

Engage, engage, engage.

“Engage” means something different for every student. For example, it could mean using vocabulary words in sentences about horses for a student who likes horses, or using a song to teach multiplication tables. If we can find creative and fun ways to help students practice their skills in a safe environment, the confidence that is necessary to tackle these skills will follow. By turning worksheets into games, corps members can help motivate students through feelings of apprehension, and help students master their coursework.

I witnessed a great example of creative and engaging practice at my school earlier this month. Marika Azocar, a corps member serving on the Sun Life Financial Team at the Mattahunt Elementary School, worked intensively with one of her 3rd grade students on basic mathematics. Wondering how she could engage this student in more challenging addition and subtraction, Azocar drew inspiration from a classic science experiment she had done in elementary school—the egg drop.

During the typical egg drop experiment, students use supplied materials to create a structure that will manage to protect the egg when tossed from the top of a ladder or off a balcony. Thinking back to her engaging egg drop experience in elementary school, Azocar decided to use the same lesson framework for Devin*. But, instead of saving an egg, Devin was challenged to save math.

Azocar replaced the egg with a calculator, and she replaced the usual wealth of materials used in the egg drop experiment with just enough supplies to create an effective parachute. On the balcony of the library, Azocar met with Devin and explained that in order to save math (the calculator), he would need to earn each piece of the parachute by completing a short set of problems for each piece. Once Devin constructed the parachute, he could try throwing the calculator off the balcony. Devin was quick to attempt more challenging problems that he might not have tried before.

By approaching a tutoring session creatively, Azocar was able to successfully shift Devin’s attitude from “I can’t” to “I can.” Devin has already begun to participate more often in class and is showing more understanding, and interest, in his math work.  If just one short session can create that much change, imagine what a creative corps could do over the span of 10 months.

At the root of Azocar’s success with Devin is the concept of engagement, finding a way to make learning accessible and exciting for the individual students we serve. If corps members embrace this one step in their tutoring, I believe that our students will be able to reach a level of achievement that exceeds the expectations of teachers, parents, and corps members alike.

For more math activities, check out:

*Name changed to protect privacy

About the author:
Rebecca Pelletier is a 2013-2014 corps member serving on the Sun Life Financial team at Mattahunt Elementary School in Mattapan.

How Heroes are Made

By Jonaszen Yao

Photo by Ryan Carraccino, 2012-2013 corps member

Photo by Ryan Carraccino

“Mr. Jonny, can you please remove me from this madness?” a fifth-grader said to me on my first day of service at the Mattahunt Elementary.  At the time, his classmates, who would go on to become students in our extended day program, were playing around in the hallway while he attempted to stand in line properly.

His name is Jeremiah*, and he is a superhero.

Like all great heroes, he has an origin story set in the days before he found his powers within. When I first met Jeremiah, I noted that he was easily overwhelmed. Although he was outgoing in conversations with adults, he became frustrated around his peers, gave up quickly when he met a challenge and openly expressed a sense of low confidence in himself. He would sit on the sidelines during recess out of fear of both looking weak and of losing. His surrender to the slightest bit of stress led him to enter “shut down” mode.

In this mode, Jeremiah would isolate himself away from others, including his teacher, refusing to participate or do work. Silence and solitude became his shell. In order to reach out to him, I brought him out into the hallway and sat with him during these  “shut down” periods. I invited him to speak up about what was bothering him, and after some time, he opened up. While he would then describe vivid stories of vengeance, I allowed him to continue as I gained insight into his very creative mind.

When Jeremiah began comparing his hypothetical actions to those of DC Comics’ Justice League, I felt a surge of understanding. In order to calm his thoughts, we began talking about the motives and actions of superheroes.  I taught him resilience through the Superman—how Clark Kent felt like he did not fit in with his peers but became their protector anyway. Through Batman, I taught him determination. After all the great, but very human, detective perseveres amidst a series of strong villains and difficult mysteries.

As our explorations into superhero mythos continued, I was able to relate every opportunity of growth with the very comics Jeremiah would read. By the end of the school year, Jeremiah, the once self-exiled scholar, commands the respect of his peers. No longer does he give up when faced with an obstacle.

In learning from his favorite heroes, he exhibits a piece of each of them. When a student is misbehaving, he springs to the challenge of calming them before the teacher resorts to discipline. When two classmates have a dispute on the playground, he acts to mediate it.  He performs inspiring speeches to rally the disheartened, his grades have increased and his imagination now focuses on tales of comedy and fantasy, not vengeance. It was a pleasure to watch him grow and a  privilege to have been a part of it.

About the author:
Jonaszen Yao was a 2012-2013 corps member serving at the Mattahunt Elementary School in Mattapan.

*Name changed to protect privacy

Preparing Your Child for Middle School

By Jonaszen Yao

Irving_web“Are people actually stuffed into lockers?” one of the fifth graders whom I served asked. The transition from elementary school to middle school can be simultaneously exciting, frightening and confounding to a young scholar’s mind. Here are a few tips to prepare them for the years to come:

Address Your Child’s Fears
Things as small as combination locks and the quality of lunches are common causes of anxiety for upcoming sixth graders.  As silly as these fears may seem to adults, conversations that acknowledge them are important to have. Don’t simply dismiss these worries, but rather brainstorm solutions and ideas to prevent their fears from coming true.

Their major fears will probably to do with social fears. The top two are the fear of having no friends and the fear of bullying. Again, work with your child to come up with solutions for both scenarios, and, even better, think up ways to avert problems entirely.

Be Honest and Preemptive      
Often, the reality that middle school is a very different experience than elementary school does not set in until the first day of school is nigh. It is a good idea to talk to students about middle before their sixth grade year beginns, at the very least to gather their thoughts on the subject. Once that is done, make sure to be honest about what their middle school experience would be like with specific points (instead of “Oh you’ll have fun” or “Middle school is good”). It’s also all right if you don’t quite remember what middle school was like, feel free to reference your local library for books such as Help! My Child is Starting Middle School!: A Survival Handbook for Parents, by Jerry L. Parks.

Counter with the Positive
What awaits them in middle school other than more responsibilities and a new social arena? Help them understand the opportunities that come with both. Let them understand the sense of freedom that new responsibility offers. Ownership of a locker doesn’t need to be a burden; it can be a luxury. A new school with more people also means the opportunity to make more friends.

Review Their Schedule
In elementary school, the teacher was entirely responsible for your child’s schedule. Now the charge of moving between classrooms is partially theirs. Make sure that they understand where to go and when in order to avoid confusion down the line. If necessary, write down a list of directions and/or keep a schedule taped on the cover of their notebooks. That way, your child can always refer to what room they need to be in and when.

Visit the School
If your child has spent their entire school career in the same building, moving to an entirely new one may be a confounding experience, especially when they consider the idea of moving classrooms throughout the day. Getting lost is another common fear. Accompanying them on a quick tour of the school building does wonders to soothe this worry.  As an additional resource, Boston Public Schools annually hosts School Preview Time, which serves as open houses for each schools.

About the author:
Jonaszen Yao was a 2012-2013 corps member serving on at the Mattahunt Elementary School in Mattapan.

Nation Building

By Jonaszen Yao

Country Name: Dragon Island Chief Export: Water from the Fountain of Youth Ideals: Safety and Security for All

Country Name: Dragon Island
Chief Export: Water from the Fountain of Youth
Ideals: Safety and Security for All

Occasionally, students in the Starfish Extended Day program came to homework hour without homework to do.  While we could give them a random selection of worksheets to complete, our City Year team at the Mattahunt Elementary School seized every moment as a learning opportunity. In order to live up to these ambitions, we set up a long-term project combining history, civic learning and writing skills. Our students did not do busywork—they became leaders of nations.

Beginning with a Declaration of Independence from a fictional empire, they formed new countries. Our students worked hard making maps, flags and constitutions for their fictional countries. In doing so, they took the first steps of forming a national identity for their new lands and learned about the organization of governments. They have also built national ideals in the laws they established: “X-Canada” outlawed fighting in its Constitution and “Gravity Falls” made it a national right to live in a large house. When you witness fifth-graders debating each other on whether representative democracy, absolutism or constitutional monarchy is the best way to rule, you know that learning is happening.


Constitution Excerpt: “The people have a right to be respected.” Country Name: Gravity Falls Chief Export: Purest Water in the World Ideals: The Constitutional Right to a Very Comfortable Life

Constitution Excerpt: “The people have a right to be respected.”
Country Name: Gravity Falls

Thanks to the lessons of Mattahunt Bucks as a school-wide currency, the students were familiar with the basic needs of a successful economy. With this knowledge, they chose certain goods from their countries to export so that their governments may maintain themselves. Those goods came in the shape of resources as simple as gold to the wondrous waters of the Fountain of Youth.

What they do with the revenue afterwards is also quite fascinating. We have seen an even split between those who spend their entire nation’s treasury on a defense budget and those that spend it on social welfare. In truth, they would all love to spend it on both, but we enforce the idea that they do not have unlimited funds.

Perhaps it was the joy of building upon what they have already created, but when our students came to Starfish without homework, they did not ask for free time. Instead they ask about the next step in the project. After all, the project was an ongoing one, including assignments to establish their founding stories and foreign policies toward neighboring countries. Beside moving forward, some students even rethought their governments, which have led to mini-lessons about elections, and, in some cases, revolution.

About the author:
Jonaszen Yao was a 2012-2013 corps member serving at the Mattahunt Elementary School in Mattapan.

Book Review: The Dead Gentleman

By Jonaszen Yao
Jonaszen Yao is a 2012-2013 corps member serving on at the Mattahunt Elementary School in Mattapan.

“What book are you reading?” asks one of my fifth graders.

The Dead Gentleman,” I reply. Steven* looks over the cover, featuring a futuristic boy wielding a mechanical bird in his hand.

He continues, “Is it about an old, dead guy? Sounds boring.”

I turn to him and shrug. “I guess it is boring if you’re not interested in zombies. Or time travel. Or battles.”

The Dead Gentleman, by Matthew Cody (Random House, 2011), is a science fiction chapter book chronicling the adventure of two young protagonists, the street urchin Tommy Learner and the knowledgeable and intrepid Jezebel Lemon. Tommy’s early life in the year 1900 finds him joining a time-travelling society known as the Explorers, and his path eventually crosses with Jezebel one hundred years later. Together, they work to thwart the plans of an undead alien known as the Dead Gentleman, whose ambitions center on the typical villainous plot of world domination.

What sets Matthew Cody’s The Dead Gentleman apart from many other works of fiction is its truly massive scale. Although the story begins in early 20th century New York, it moves forward to modern times and then back again. Of course, this is only natural, as its characters often use time travel technology to overcome the challenges thrown in their way. Additionally, in the course of this single novel, its characters meet: a robotic bird, zombies, an alien zombie, a vampire, a man-eating spider, an ancient civilization and underground trolls among others.

Beyond a large cast of colorful characters and historical periods, it dabbles in multiple genres as well. There is touch of mystery in this adventure, a dash of fantasy and even a tiny dose of horror as Tommy and Jezebel confront nightmarish-looking creatures.

Cody’s tale is meant to lure in both avid bookworms and those who have yet to find a book they enjoy. With two protagonists switching perspectives each chapter, Cody also doubles the opportunities for his young audience to relate with the main characters and truly immerse themselves in the story. As Cody says, “Adventure is always out there—you just have to know where to look!”

Back in my classroom, I did not have to tell Steven all of these details. I knew had him at “zombies. “  Just two days after I finished reading the book and donated it to the classroom library, it was checked out.  I quickly found it in in the hands of Steven, the boy who used to think books boring. Now, his nose was buried in the book as he was losing himself in this tale of heroes fighting fearsome villains through space and time.

Readers who enjoy The Dead Gentleman might also enjoy:

* Name changed to protect privacy.

Unexpected Economic Lessons

By Jonaszen Yao
Jonaszen Yao is a 2012-2013 corps member serving on at the Mattahunt Elementary School in Mattapan.


Students earn Mattahunt Bucks through good behavior.

At the Mattahunt Elementary School, teachers and staff developed an initiative that offers students tangible rewards for good behavior. As children perform actions such as wearing their school uniforms, observing hallway etiquette and assisting their fellow classmates in need, students may earn “Mattahunt Bucks.”

On a bi-weekly basis, classes file into Mattahunt’s school store, where school money may be spent on various prizes. Thanks to donations from parents and funds raised from Mattahunt’s Annual 5k Race, the school is able to entice students with items ranging from pencils, toys, and bikes, to the most coveted item in the room, an XBOX 360 (worth a whopping 1,500 Mattahunt Bucks.) Those with the ambition to make high-end purchases must not only be consistent in their good behavior (and consistent in their earnings), but must also be diligent in their savings.

This moral economy hopes not only to keep students motivated through a wide variety of prizes, but also offers them a basic lesson in what it means to be a citizen in the modern world. Hard work and meeting the expectations of society yield rewards; disrespect toward peers, authority and rules yields penalties.

What was not foreseen, however, was the students’ practical understanding of how money functioned in the world around them: how it is earned and how it is multiplied.

About one month into the 2012-2013 school year, students took their Mattahunt Bucks and began using this currency for their own ends. It began with a few children setting prices on personal goods: Pokemon cards, pop tarts and toys—many toys. At one point, it was even noted that a fifth grader sold his old hats to first graders during the morning bus commute.

Next, came payments for services. A group of children routinely profited off “richer” classmates who desired to be “it” during a game of tag. Beyond school grounds, some students began charging others for homework help. The shift from moral economy to a traditional one did not stop there.

It was only a matter of time until the students faced the consequences of their “rogue” economy. A student walked up to me carrying a dejected look on his face. When I asked him what was wrong, he replied, “I can’t get any more Pikachus.” Apparently, the chief trader of Pokemon cards had increased his prices. After weeks of selling the cards, demand remained high, but his supply was running low. While most of the students at Mattahunt do not yet know the terms supply, demand, inflation or capitalism, they have come to grasp—and use—those concepts firsthand, on their own.

In order to reel in the economy and have student their money as intended, teachers and staff have begun regulating the system. Firstly, the school has banned currency exchanges between peers. Secondly, teachers began tracking their students’ funds to ensure accountability. These are certainly significant measures, but they by no means end our children’s experience with economics. Students may, as always, earn their pay with good deeds—and what shape this regulated economy takes on in the months to come will undoubtedly fascinate.

Wordless Wednesday: Heart and Soul Race

Photos by Isabel Smith and Rekha Iyer
Isabel Smith and Rekha Iyer are 2012-2013 corps members serving at the Mattahunt Elementary School in Mattapan.

On October 21, students, staff, community members and the City Year Boston team serving at Mattahunt Elementary School gathered at Franklin Park for the school’s annual fundraiser. The 5K run and walk, which was organized by the school’s gym teacher Ms. East-Jose, raised funds to purchase supplies for the Mattahunt Elementary School’s store.

Walkers trekked up a hill in Franklin Park during the annual Heart and Soul race.

The City Year Boston Mattahunt team posed in front of the William J. Devine clubhouse. Despite the rainy weather, everyone sported smiles from ear-to-ear.

Corps member Jonny Yao posed with a poster made by elementary school students.

Mr. G, a math teacher at the school, posed as the “Mattahunt Star.” Mr. G zipped around the course on a golf cart, cheering on participants and City Year corps members. Mr. G wore the “Mattahunt Star” costume for the entire race, even with the high humidity.