The Clarke University Education Department’s annual trip to Milwaukee schools was thrown a frigid curve by the polar vortex.
But in the end, it was mission accomplished.
department chair and associate professor of education, and Ellen Spencer, instructor of education, traveled with eight students in Clarke’s fifth-year master’s of education program. Their plan was to spend four days in diverse schools in Milwaukee from Jan. 6-9. However, sub-zero temperatures closed Milwaukee schools for the first two days that the Clarke team was there.
“This caused us to do some re-thinking as to how to meet the course diversity experiences,” Schmidt said.
First, a guest speaker was added to the Sunday night class. This last-minute speaker, a friend of Schmidt’s, spoke about his experience in school as a gay student. He spoke of bullying he endured and suggestions for teachers to make sure students who are gay are not bullied in their classrooms.
“The students found his talk to be inspirational in that it inspired them to do better for their future students so they did not have the same experiences that he did,” Schmidt said.
To substitute for the time lost to school closures on Monday and Tuesday, Schmidt and Spencer tried to line up volunteer opportunities for the Clarke students.
Easier said than done.
“After several phone calls to attempt to volunteer in Milwaukee, we were starting to get discouraged,” Schmidt said. “Many organizations turned down our offer to volunteer because we had not gone through the proper volunteer channels - filling out the correct agency paperwork, meeting with volunteer coordinator for the agency, etc.”
Finally, Schmidt made a “desperate” call to St. Ben’s meal site in Milwaukee, which serves approximately 350 free meals each night to the homeless. Brother David at St. Benedict the Moor Church/St. Ben’s meal site (www.stbencommunitymeal.org) allowed the Clarke contingent to come and give the gift of presence - eating with the homeless who came for meals that night.
“While volunteering at the meal site, the group started talking to another volunteer,” Schmidt said. “When they mentioned that they were from Clarke, the volunteer noted that she was also a Clarke alumna. This inspired the students to see that their service work can extend beyond their days at Clarke.”
On Tuesday, with school canceled for a second day, the Clarke group volunteered at the Cathedral Center (www.cathedral-center.org) in downtown Milwaukee, a homeless center for women and children. They spent part of the afternoon and evening reading with children, talking to mothers, playing games, holding babies and more.
"One moment in time can change a person’s life forever,” said Clarke student Danielle Hafhill of the experience.
The next two days they spent an abbreviated schedule at Milwaukee schools, spending Wednesday at University School (a private college prep school) and Thursday at an elementary school in the Milwaukee Public School System.
"This trip was a life-altering experience that caught me by surprise and forced me to look at the world in a whole new light. It changed me not only as a teacher, but as a person,” said Clarke student Elizabeth Vanhoe.
Added Clarke student Amanda Geise, “This Milwaukee experience gave me an eye-opening perspective to the wide-range of diverse inequalities in America's schools today.”
“As future educators we desire for students to learn,” said Clarke student Matt Naber. “The experiences we had and the people we saw in Milwaukee opened our eyes to opposite sides of the economic spectrum. On one end we saw students and educators asking, ‘What else could we ask for?’ and on the other, ‘When will we next eat?’ How can students learn when they worry about their basic needs each day?”
The adventure wasn’t over yet as Friday brought a drive home in an ice storm.
“Even though the weather was awful, and the plans were adjusted almost daily, the trip was a total success,” Schmidt said. “The shifting in plans allowed us to experience opportunities that we had not previously taken part in, all of which this group of students insist need to be kept in the course for next time!”
The eight students who attended are Darrell Bellows, Amanda Geise, Daniele Hafhill, Raleigh Moon, Matthew Naber, Nicole Pociask, Casey Smith and Elizabeth Vanhoe.
Each student kept a journal. Below are a few key quotes from the journals.
- “I absolutely know that I want to teach where I can make the biggest impact and help the most kids possible. I have all the tools I need and the knowledge to understand and benefit children of low socioeconomic status.”
- “My knees stop bouncing, my words decelerate and become concise; I can stand tall and become my best self. Considering my personal expectations while working with any age group and my renowned ability to work effectively with virtually any secondary student, I notice a new level of competence and confidence after teaching/observing today.”
- “… the trust hormone is perhaps the most potent shield dissolving agent at a teacher’s disposal. Eye contact, handshakes, verbal negotiation of effective work ethic can run a high risk classroom into a safe zone. Without security and interpersonal confidence, a community runs a high risk of causticity and tension. Maslow… the hierarchy… Intro to Education and Educational Psychology… we get it!”
- “I honestly believe that regardless of governmental mandates, the teachers can truly set a positive and ultimately harmonious environment for students. Don’t get me wrong; there will be ‘good days’ and ‘bad days’ as I student teach and eventually work in my own classroom, but at least I’m willing to grow and change.”
- “I feel drawn to leadership in the education system, but I must first see how I can disrupt the game on the local level.”
- “This visit was emotionally draining, but I feel that I could go back another day and make another small impact on their lives. Those kids need someone to build relationships with them and show them that someone in the world really does care.”
- “Today one of the things I noticed was the use of best practice (teaching) in the classrooms. There were integrated units, multiple intelligences, gradual release of responsibility, student-centered learning, and so much more.”