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Julia’s belief in the power of young people

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I proudly serve as a City Year Milwaukee AmeriCorps member at Vincent High School, where I assist in a ninth-grade English classroom, and I am continually astonished by the insights and abilities of my scholars. This is why my favorite City Year value is “belief in the power of young people.” During my service, my own belief in the power of young people is fueled daily by my students’ constant curiosity, the ways in which they challenge each other and the world around them and their resilience.

I have one student in particular who drives my belief in the power of young people. His name is Jake*. He is 15 years old. He can and will talk for 20 minutes without stopping about any topic. For example, I’ve listened to him go on and on about interdimensional time travel, the science behind black holes and the injustices faced by Black men on a daily basis. He’s easily one of the most eloquent students in the entire class, and his vocabulary and precision of language are well beyond his years. However, this student cannot read. It took us all several weeks before we really understood how limited his literacy skills were because he is so well spoken.

Jake and I often work together on English assignments – I’ll read him the daily writing prompt, and I will type what he narrates. He weaves together intricate and logical arguments and makes points that I had never even considered. When we work on vocabulary.com together, he can verbally define and put into a sentence any word that pops up. He just needs the extra help of me reading him the word and the options. Jake and I have also worked together on non-English assignments. He regularly finds me during my prep with a citizenship packet or geometry quiz in his hand, saying “Ms. Julia, are you busy?” And, admittedly, sometimes my reaction is, “Yes, Jake, I am busy. Go find someone else.” But then I realize I have the opportunity to help him teach himself, and this is my duty. Jake works one on one every day with a special education teacher to develop his reading skills, but there are times when he needs additional help, especially when his special ed teacher is working with another student. I am happy that I have the opportunity to work with him in these moments, to show him that there is always an adult somewhere who is willing to help.

Jake may not be able to read and write like the other students, but he understands any concept after I explain it. Together, we walked through one example of using the Pythagorean theorem to find the missing length of a triangle, and then I spent the next half hour watching him plug in the numbers and troubleshoot the problems by himself. Another time, I read him a current events article, and he went on to relate it to many other things he had seen in the news recently. And even within the time that I’ve known him, his reading skills have come a long way. He has gotten much better at trying to read and write on his own, learning to sound out words and ask for help only after he has tried it himself.

We often talk about Jake’s future. He has big dreams – he wants to open a mega mall, direct movies, become a masseuse, start a restaurant. I always ask him what the first step to his future success is, and every time he confidently answers that the first step is learning how to read. When I listen to Jake talk, I know that he can accomplish all of his dreams. He is the most motivated young man I know, and his dedication to fixing his skill gap and graduating high school on time make me believe in the unlimited power of young people, especially the young people who have been discounted.

Many people in the building don’t realize Jake’s potential. They see him as someone who needs too much help, someone who hinders the classroom environment because of his skill gap, someone who will never catch up academically. But I see Jake as someone who has made a lot of progress this year, working tirelessly to improve his reading skills. I see Jake as a future business owner and film director. I see him as the embodiment of the untapped power of young people. I see him as the reason why I serve as a City Year AmeriCorps member. 

*Name of student has been changed.

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About the author: Julia Steen proudly serves as a City Year Milwaukee AmeriCorps member in a ninth-grade classroom at Vincent High School. Julia is from Elm Grove, Wisconsin, and graduated in 2019 from Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. Julia serves because she wants to support students that haven’t have had the same privileges she has, and she wants her students to know that someone will always believe in them and that they can succeed, regardless of what our society may tell them.

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