A Different Kind of Internship

Tristan Gavin

When I told my friends what my summer plan was, many of them expressed to me how challenging it sounded. This came from friends doing chemistry and biology research I could not even begin to describe to you and friends with highly competitive internships in the business field. The job I told them about was teaching science to middle school students from the Oakland Unified School District through a program called Heads Up.

Granted, it has not been a walk in the park. There is a reason there are summer school programs in place for these kids. The gross imbalance between academic need and academic support for some public school students in the district holds them back from keeping up with their peers in other districts. The city of Oakland is facing serious economic issues that only heighten the need for extra support. Over one-quarter of children in Oakland live below the poverty line––a number nearly six percent above the state average. Less than half of students at Oakland public high schools make it to graduation before dropping out. The odds are seriously against public school students, and to expect to bridge that gap in the six weeks I spent teaching is ludicrous.

But Heads Up does not expect its six-week summer program to be the ultimate academic equalizer, nor does it try to nullify any of the learning they do during the school year. Instead, the program offers a four-year commitment to supplementing the students’ existing education with weekly support during the school year and with summer school, ultimately hoping to provide academic opportunities that encourage children to pursue further education.

Founded in 1987 by Head-Royce School, one of the premier private schools in the region, Heads Up admits students recognized as exceptional by elementary school principals. All Heads Up students are public school students of color with demonstrated need. These children are smart and motivated to succeed, and they benefit immensely from the extra support of an extended curriculum.

In its 25 years as a program, Heads Up has benefitted over one thousand students by building competency and excellence inside and outside the classroom. This is achieved through classes like mine, which build upon previously introduced academic material, and also through weekly workshops that promote community service, leadership and college access.

My role as a teaching intern was to teach environmental science to the sixth and seventh graders in the program and to design and run the weekly workshops.

In the classroom, I worked with a lead teacher to come up with engaging lesson plans to help students build a general curiosity for the world around them, while stressing the accessibility of academic endeavors. This required lots of hands-on activities, like testing pH for acidity in local rain and counting water fleas to determine chlorine levels in rivers and lakes. In the process of running experiments, my lead teacher and I worked to instill a fundamental understanding of the scientific method in these students and to teach them important skills, such as measurement, in order to create a foundation for future science learning.

My friends were right about this being a daunting task. Have you seen a seventh grader lately? If you have a sibling or cousin between the ages of 11 and 14, try convincing them to give up six weeks of school-free days in good weather to run experiments to find the source of a mysterious and fictional fish kill. Unless your middle schooler is a serious science enthusiast, I would wager that at least nine times out of 10 they would choose their summer vacation over the latter option. It’s hard enough to convince kids to get excited about school during the school year, but the summer is another story.

Still, what made the job challenging is directly related to what made the job so rewarding. The students did not have to be at school, nor did they really have to participate in any experiments. Any participation from the students, whether they realized it or not, was voluntary. The vast majority of students went above and beyond my expectations. They came to class willing to learn and even more willing to share what they already knew. Some of the best class periods were those dominated by discussions of scientific phenomena the children began recognizing in their lives.

One of the focuses of my course was environmental awareness. As you might imagine, most middle schoolers struggle with foresight and awareness in a world outside their own. Still, I found children to have an astounding ability to draw connections and think critically. Did they come up with a solution to climate change? No. But were they able to recognize injustices and habits in their lives that could be changed? Yes, and frankly that was something I don’t think I could have found doing research for the summer. It is one thing to make astonishing discoveries, but watching others make them is something else entirely.

In weekly workshops I watched the children perform musical acts that they had been working on in enrichment classes for six weeks. I designed a lesson plan that helped students figure out when to start thinking about higher education and what to do to prepare for college or other institutions of higher learning. The children got to meet professionals from the community and learn about the opportunities ahead of them. In the six week program I also kick-started my acting career by performing some skits that promoted problem-solving, critical thinking and personal empowerment.

On top of everything else, working with these kids was an immense learning experience for me. I came in with very little knowledge of a classroom, but I learned how to write lessons, manage a class and promote positive learning by working alongside a teacher. I also was put through a week of training that covered everything from diversity to how to teach students with disabilities, and I checked in weekly with the administration.

While my whirlwind tour of the field of education was every bit as challenging as my friends foresaw it being, the days were filled with experiences that affirmed my decision to work at Heads Up. Some days, all it took was a student staying after class to ask more questions about bottled water. Other days, it might be a student reciting a poem at lunch or sinking a half-court shot and beaming with pride. Most days it was just the realization of how fortunate I was to get paid to spend my days with such incredible youth.