Bulldogs For a Day

Citizen Teachers Most students would be thrilled at the prospect of a day off from school, but a group of Boston-area 8th graders was even more excited to spend that mini-vacation learning in class. Instead of reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic at their respective schools, 40 students from Orchard Gardens K-8 School, Dever-McCormack School, and Edwards Middle School set off to take Psychology 101 at a prestigious Ivy League university.

Although the foliage lining the campus trees that November morning was full of bright reds, oranges, and yellows, the only colors on the students’ minds as the bus pulled up to Yale University were blue and white.

“A lot of them knew that it was pretty elite, and a lot of them knew that I went there. As we walked around they kept asking me ‘did you really live here? Did you eat here?’”, said Lucy Arthur-Paratley, a Yale alumna and current AmeriCorps Teaching Fellow with Citizen Schools.

They were in for a full day on campus, starting off with a tour of the Yale art gallery and a chance to sit in on a Yale class (in addition to Psych 101, the students also enrolled in several Freshman Writing Seminars including “Beauty, Fashion, and Ethics,” “Digital Childhood,” and “The Modern Metropolis”).

As much as they enjoyed the class discussions and the gallery’s art collections, the most rewarding part of their tour was interacting with the Yale students themselves. Finding a friendly group of people is just as important in college as it is in middle school, and on this point, the 8th graders were certainly not disappointed!

“What was interesting was that a lot of things surrounding racial protests at Yale were going on. People on campus were more sensitized to making students of color and first generation college students feel included and consciously asking themselves ‘what am I doing to make Yale a more welcoming place?’”

Another perk of this “boomerang effect” was that when Lucy invited some of her former campus mentees to lunch, more “Yalies” showed up than she had anticipated. The 8th graders spent their lunch hour with six current Yale juniors, and they immediately hit it off. Since there were bilingual students from both groups, the conversation flowed freely both in English and Spanish!

“It was a really relaxed and low key environment where they talked about everything from their favorite type of music to the best way to consume as much ice cream as possible in the dining hall.”

After lunch, the 8th graders had the chance to meet even more Yale students when they attended a panel discussion made up of first generation college students of color. Though this setting was much more formal than lunch, the 8th graders had the opportunity to ask questions about study abroad, jobs on campus, work/life balance, and picking majors. “A goal of ours is to introduce kids to students to share these experiences, and who can help them pinpoint these resources.” By the end of the visit, the students were skipping around campus courtyard singing Yale songs and cheers!

“It was a physical manifestation of their sense of belonging. I would say these visits give students a sense of ownership over the college experience and more inevitability. A clear sense that this is their path.”

Read more about the adventures of our students and teaching fellows here.

Coding: The Building Blocks of Imagination!

Citizen Teachers While many middle schoolers love to play Mario Kart, Legend of Zelda, and Angry Birds, not many get to play video games they designed themselves. Neither had the students at Edison Middle School until they took “Video Game Design” with Roger Pease. “All of them had used computers before, but not many of them had ever been exposed to computer programming. I wanted to show them that it was accessible,” Pease said.

Pease, who works as an embedded program developer at software company Enbase LLC, taught the students how to program their own version of Frogger, a popular 1981 arcade game in which the player helps a frog cross a highway and a river to get to safety while avoiding oncoming cars, logs, or alligators.

“We chose Frogger because it involved a number of different aspects (of programming) but wasn’t too complicated,” he said.

Pretty soon, the students wanted to do more than move the frog back and forth.

“Some kids wanted to create a chess game or replicate the Game of Life. I would tell them that it was a great idea and that they could do it someday.”

So how did Roger transform these middle school students into tech-savvy game designers?

It was not always an easy journey, especially since he only had one assistant, an AmeriCorps teaching fellow, to help him teach the class.

“When you teach computers you have to be really detail oriented and sometimes you say something in a way kids don’t understand. It was hard not to have another person who understood the material there to correct me.”

About halfway through the apprenticeship though, the students were creating their own virtual worlds. The setting for the original Frogger is the highway, the river, and a bare patch of green in between. They decided to revamp the landscape by making extra ponds and trees to dot the blank scene. When trees and ponds became too basic, they moved on to creating new characters and new cars (Ferarris, of course!)

One environmentally conscious student, who was tired of the streets and roads, even changed the entire highway scene to create a dirt path with bikes! These students were building their own worlds not with bricks and mortar, but with JavaScript and HTML.

Sometimes though, students mastered codes and commands without the help of a teacher! And sometimes, they even discovered something that wasn’t part of the curriculum to begin with!

“One girl had figured out how to make the cars move in different directions. I hadn’t even taught her that. She learned it just from paying attention!”

Of course, when learning something that is so technical and detail oriented, it is always helpful to have a helpful and understanding mentor.

“Patience and kindness flowed out of him easily, and never have I ever seen him frustrated with a child. He would sit down with each of them, take his time to explain if they were having trouble, and kept them on track with the goal of the apprenticeship,” said Helen Tai, the AmeriCorps Teaching Fellow who taught the class alongside Pease.

Pease’s secret to mentoring middle school students: stay the course and don’t expect a reward right away.

“They’re not automatically going to be excited about things as you may be. Many may decide that computer science isn’t for them, but I wanted to show them that it was something they could do.” Please join us in congratulating Roger Pease as Citizen Teacher of the month.

Around the World in 80 Days

From Hello Kitty and karaoke in Tokyo to rainbow plumed macaws and vibrant soccer fans in Rio de Janiero, the sixth graders in Tracy Horridge’s apprenticeship, “Know Your World with ThermoFisher” have seen it all without leaving their classroom at Collins Middle School! Unlike her colleagues at biotechnology giant ThermoFisher Scientific, Tracy does not wear a lab coat and goggles at work. In her role as export manager, she licenses products with defense contractors around the world and makes sure the company stays on top of international rules and regulations when doing research in other countries. In short, she carries out the company’s mission of creating a healthier, safer, and cleaner world through the art and science of international negotiation. Join us in congratulating Tracy as the Citizen Teacher of the Month.

Tracy got her start at Citizen Schools through teaching an engineering class with a group of coworkers.

“I felt like I was learning along with the students,” she said.

The engineering apprenticeship was also her first experience mentoring students one on one, and she found herself drawn to middle schoolers.

“I thought about myself at that age, and how much I could have benefitted from a program like this then.”

So it makes sense that the next semester, she would jump at the chance to teach “Know Your World,” a class originally geared towards social media and digital communication. Tracy, however, repurposed the apprenticeship to take the students on a trip through her world.

During the group’s travels, they danced to songs in languages other than English, celebrated major national holidays other than Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, and sampled all the delicious snacks each country had to offer!

“We all agreed that we would not go hungry in Brazil!  We weren’t so sure about Japan. I was surprised at the number of kids willing to try new things, most notably the sushi. (I was 48 before I tried sushi.)”

One student in particular, Jonathan, wanted to go beyond the local flavor and take a deeper look at facts and figures.

“He didn’t just want to know the “fun” stuff about a country, he asked questions about their financial system and economy.”

The main objective of the apprenticeship, though, was to teach an important 21st Century Skill: how to successfully collaborate with a group of people with diverse cultural backgrounds and values. She figured a middle school classroom would be an excellent place for the students to begin their intercultural education.

“Even in middle school you hear people saying ‘I don’t want to work with that person,’ but I tell them the world is just going to keep getting smaller. You have to work together here with people you don’t like.’”

As a result, the students not only had to learn facts and figures about different countries, but they had to work together to learn them. Each student was randomly assigned to one of three countries, and were paired with students with whom they would not ordinarily sit in the cafeteria. In order for the rest of the class to truly experience a new country, each group had to figure out a way to work together to research it, including delegating tasks and actively communicating with each other.

“My favorite things were those that we learned together. While I work with Brazil, I had never really studied it. It was interesting for all of us to learn about.”

All of this research and collaboration was meant to prepare them for their biggest challenge as a group: presenting their findings to Tracy’s boss at ThermoFisher at their WOW! event.

“They were so nervous. They had worked so hard on standing up to speak and speaking loudly.”

In the end, though, all that hard work paid off when Tracy’s boss complimented the group on how much their presentation impressed him.

As for the curious Jonathan?

“I’m going to be working for him one day,” Tracy laughed.


Building a Community of Engineers

Citizen Teachers Ever since he was young, Sanjay Kadiwala, an engineer with Motorola in Chicago, has understood the value of service. In the fourth grade, he received the Justin Wynn Award and membership into their Leadership Academy, a selective program that gives elementary and middle school students in his hometown of Evanston, Illinois opportunities to volunteer in local homeless shelters and soup kitchens. Now, years later, he is still giving back to his community as a volunteer Citizen Teacher. Each week, he shares his expertise, passion, and energy with Chicago-area middle school students to excite them about engineering.

Sanjay has always been passionate about education. A few years ago, he worked as a substitute and high school teacher.  While he eventually returned to work full time as an engineer, he still missed mentoring students.

“For me, growing up, many people have made me into the person that I am without concerns for their own financial gain. I want someone else to have access to those opportunities” he said.

He found this opportunity three years ago after hearing a presentation from Citizen Schools Illinois staff members.

“I was attracted to Citizen Schools because of the chance to be in a classroom setting again, the age- group, the chance for cultural enrichment opportunities, and combining engineering with teaching!”

It turned out that he loves working with middle schoolers so much that he came back to teach four apprenticeships in a row, and he’s even winning awards for it!  Four apprenticeships, three schools, 75 students later, he was awarded a Silver Presidential Volunteer Service Award, an honor awarded to American citizens recognizing them for their volunteer hours.  In that time he has taught everything from engineering design to yoga. This fall, he’s teaching students how to build solar cars at Chicago’s Monroe Elementary School.

Join us in congratulating Sanjay as Citizen Teacher of the month.


You mentioned one of the aspects of our program that appealed to you was the “age group?” What do you enjoy about working with middle school students on particular?

“Being in a STEM career, it’s rewarding to go into an elementary school and demo “cool things”, but the students aren’t old enough to understand the science behind everything. In my time as a high school teacher, I found that most people had made up their minds and were in the mindset of only taking a class because they had to, not because they wanted to be there. The middle school age group is extremely open in comparison. They’re old enough to understand some technical detail but not so old that they’ve made up their minds about the world and are still open to having adult mentors and are curious about world.”

What is your apprenticeship for this semester?

“This fall’s apprenticeship is Solar Car Showdown and it’s by far the most technical apprenticeship I’ve taught so far. Two of my four apprenticeships have been for the Chicago Maker Challenge, and those involved talking about ideas or coming up with technical solutions/apps that would solve an accessibility or community problem. However, the end product was usually just a storyboard explaining the app. This semester, students are actually working hands-on, in teams, building solar cars and are part of the design process.”

 What do you hope the students get out of the class?

“Just the fact that they’re building, drawing conclusions, working with a team is the core of STEM. They’re answering every day questions I face in my work as an engineer: Can you apply what you learn and then make changes or improvements or think creatively?”

 Describe a moment of discovery you witnessed with a student.

“One of our solar car teams was having an issue because their car wasn’t traveling straight and they were trying to figure out why that was happening. One of the students asked “how can I fix this and tell what’s going on?” and another using a ruler to see if one of the axels is straight compared to the other one. If they’re not aligned, it won’t go straight. They used tools available to solve the problem. While the car still wasn’t perfect, it was better. It was really cool to see a group of students work through problems, and figure out resources. That’s not really taught in a book. Sometimes you have to test and fail and then try something else. To see them work through that  at such a young age is cool. It’s rewarding that they have this experience early on that maybe they can utilize in their classes at school and maybe even outside of school.”

Describe any challenges you had as a volunteer teacher, and how you overcame them.

“In the first three schools where I taught, students really had a first line of defense towards adults in general, ‘who knows if you’ll be here next week?’ The repetition of seeing an adult, someone they could rely on week after week brought down that barrier."

Do you have any advice for anybody who wants to volunteer with middle school students?

“Frequency of seeing them is important, but also trying to explain things on their level. Working in STEM, you get so used to your career and interacting with adults, but it’s important to recognize that these are students. You also want to try to reach out to them individually because there are a lot of bright kids who aren’t getting the challenge or enrichment that they could with a knowledgeable mentor.”

Each apprenticeship culminates in a WOW! Event where students show off what they learned. At this fall’s WOW!, three of Sanjay’s students won the “Apprenticeship Mastery Award” at the Citizen Schools Illinois regional WOW! Event for the car they built.

Motorola Mobility is Citizen Schools Illinois’ largest corporate partner. Since 2013, more than 50 Motorola Mobility employees have given over 6,000 hours to impact over 170 middle school students in Chicago Public Schools. Citizen Schools is excited to continue our partnership with Motorola Mobility for the 2015-2016 school year.


The Motorola Mobility Foundation (MMF) is the philanthropic arm of Motorola Mobility LLC, a Lenovo company.  Motorola Mobility Foundation seeks to catalyze the innovative use of technology to improve lives and communities. We do this by leveraging employee expertise and talent, providing funding, and partnering with nonprofits, learning institutions, startups, government, corporate and civic organizations.