Waking Up "For the Kids"

Waking Up "For the Kids"

By Erica Richey, ’10

According to guard Mike Lawler, it all started out as a matter of convenience.

“It was a great opportunity because of the way the program works,” Lawler began. “It’s great for a football player because they give you housing, they give you some money and we could work out in the morning and then hustle over to the job.”

It seems, however, that for three Harvard football players, this summer program turned out to be a whole lot more. Lawler, along with senior Jeremy Wall and junior Ben Graeff, participated in the Cambridge Youth Enrichment Program (CYEP), which is hosted by the Philips Brooks House Association as part of the larger Summer Urban Program. Lawler and Graeff worked as senior counselors at a local Cambridge school, taking on their own groups of students to teach for six weeks of the summer, which required them to develop curricula and brainstorm creative ways to prevent what Graeff explained as “summer learning loss.”

“I’d been looking for something as far as the service end of my commitment to Harvard, and CYEP was the perfect place to fulfill that. I have a younger sister and I’ve always loved working with younger kids, at bible camps and Sunday camps,” said Graeff. “It really helped that we had an opportunity to teach these kids and enrich them and combat something that affects urban children.  It’s something called summer learning loss, which basically, in the summer, children lose a lot of what they’ve learned the previous year, and we try to combat that through promoting literacy and just keeping up learning over the summer.”

Camp Director Jeremy Wall added to this, “Over 50 percent of them [students] don’t remember, and then teachers spend the first month or two of school refreshing kids. It’s a big waste of time.”

Wall, who worked as a senior counselor during the summer of 2008, decided to return to the camp after making such bonds with the students and parents during his first experience. He cites “social justice goals” as one of his greatest motivations in continuing involvement with the program.

“A lot of kids expressed certain indignation about their circumstances.  They feel like they’re getting the short end of the stick in a lot of cases. I came back really thinking I could help turn that disgust and anger into something positive. For example, the kids could become more involved in their community instead of just seeing the problems with it.”

All seriousness aside, it sounds like the counselors had their fair share of fun with their students to balance out the learning. Each week followed the same structure.  Monday through Wednesday, the counselors taught from their curriculum for three hours in the morning, and in the afternoon they would go on special field trips that they tried to weave into their lesson plans. Thursdays were an all-day, camp-wide field trip, and Friday was reserved for “directors workshops” run by the directors of the camps.

Both Lawler and Graeff had to structure a curriculum around their own major theme, teaching “Expressing the World Around You” and “Boston as a Great Resource,” respectively. 

Lawler’s campers focused on working with creative mediums, with a special focus on authoring a short story.

“By the end they had all written significant creative stories,” Lawler said. “I showed them how to go through the drafting process.  They came up with the ideas, the characters, all of the details. We wrote, did some peer editing, then I helped, and they came up with some great final drafts.”

Graeff used his field trips to really reinforce his goal of teaching his campers to explore the city around them.

He recounts, “We had a two-week block where we focused on the Revolutionary War and the importance of that in establishing our country, so we went out to Concord and Lexington. We watched a really good documentary about the march out to Concord. We tried to re-enact the minutemen hiding in the woods and the British regulars walking through Concord and saw a live musket firing.”

Both Lawler and Graeff remark how much fun it was for their students to see scientific experiments and to see science in action. Math, it seems, was of least interest to the students, but they used a little competition in order to motivate them.

Lawler remembers, “The only way I could really get them to do math was through games. We played a game called ‘Around the World’ where they would go head to head against each other to answer math facts.”

Of course, not everyone could be in the classroom all day. Wall’s role, although important, was more behind the scenes.

“During the day, I dealt with issues in terms of parents. If someone’s parents were upset about anything, then I was typically the person that talked to them.  I made sure the field trips were running as they should, checking transportation and getting people where they needed to be.”

For the “fun” field trips, the counselors and directors alike hosted bake sales in order to fund their excursions. Lawler talked about the important lesson the students even learned in fundraising.

“The one thing that was good was that it taught them that in order to go on field trips and do these nice things it takes money and it takes hard work.”

Of course, the reward was well worth it. Graeff smiles while recounting his group’s day at Six Flags. He comments, “We were actually able to go for an entire day. They really loved the water park because it was such beautiful weather out.”

Program director Meghan Durgin was really impressed with the players’ involvement with each and every aspect of the camp. “They really took initiative and stepped up even when they didn’t need to,” she said. “I think their team mentality helped, because they were always instrumental in getting the group morale up and always had a really positive attitude.” 

She was especially proud of the work they did to help set up a Friday Director’s Workshop about staying healthy. “They organized a day in the Harvard Football complex. For them it may not have been anything special, but the kids were amazed at all the equipment and had a great time trying to push the sleds around.”

Why did they put in that extra work? From the sound of it, each of the players became really invested in the camp and really wanted to see the students succeed. Wall was especially pleased with the outcome having been with the program for a year already. Not only would he have to put in hours of extra work after the day was over, but he had to work to manage time and prioritize a workload that far exceeded the amount of work possible for the two sole camp directors to handle. Overall, he was very proud of his accomplishments.

“We learned to cope with it all and learned to take the best opportunities and make the most of them and just kind of smooth over the rest. The most rewarding part of the summer was just being able to sit down with so many families and hear what’s going on with their kids at camp, be it positive or negative,” Wall reflected. “Building those relationships where I could just call a parent, or they would call me just to talk, that was great. At the end of the summer, getting so many positive responses from what the kids experienced was a great way to end. A lot of the parents were more pleased than they were the previous year, so just seeing a lot of progress made everything worthwhile.”

Lawler, who has ambitions of being a teacher later in life, echoed Wall’s sentiments of fulfillment.

He explains, “I didn’t realize that fact that we could have these kids, and it wasn’t even so much what we taught them, because they might forget, but the fact that we could be positive role models in their life. You realize that they’re watching everything you do, even when you’re tired, having a positive attitude is important. Even with the co-workers, we discovered that if we had a positive attitude and we stepped up in activities, it spread to a lot of people.”

Graeff explains the special meaning that the camp took on for the three of them: “For our football team, even before our involvement, our summer motto, we joked, was that it was ‘for the kids.’  We get up in the morning ‘for the kids.’ Our job then ended up actually being ‘for the kids!’ I was the most fulfilling summer job that I could have asked for. I sat in a cubicle all of last year. Sitting on a computer all day is so boring, whereas with this job, although it’s stressful, you’re always interacting, always laughing and having a good time.”

Lawler seemed to really sum it up with his closing words.

“It’s really great just giving back to these kids. You realize how lucky you are in having the role models you have and the resources you have because they just don’t have anything like it growing up. Even though six weeks is nothing, it is something.  I felt like we really did make a difference, as much as we could in those six weeks.”