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Learning Through Teaching Others


By Jessie Fredlund ’07

Elizabeth Mehr ’08 assists Gerena students

When she arrived at Smith, Elizabeth Mehr ’08 knew where she was headed. She would major in neuroscience and seek a career in a related field.
But everything changed when Mehr signed up through Service Organizations of Smith (S.O.S.) to volunteer at the Gerena Magnet School, an elementary school in the North end of nearby Springfield, Mass.
Largely because of her weekly experience working as a tutor with the Gerena school students, Mehr changed plans for her major, still pursuing her interest in psychology, but now with an emphasis on child development. She also began a minor in education.
“At first, I wasn’t interested in education,” Mehr says. “Now, my career goals are to work in education policy trying to work towards educational equality in the public schools.”
Doug Winsor, partnership and outreach coordinator in the Office of Educational Outreach, oversees the Gerena tutoring program, now in its fifth year. The partnership with Gerena School began with when Lucy Mule, assistant professor of education and child study, and Sam Intrator, associate professor of education and child study, decided their students would benefit from observing urban education firsthand. A deeper partnership quickly emerged.

“We were so impressed by what we saw going on at the school,” said Gail Scordilis, director of educational outreach. “There was just tremendous enthusiasm and energy. The arts and the music programs within the school were thriving.”

Akosua Taylor tutoring at Gerena

Among other interactions with the school, Smith began encouraging students to tutor Gerena students in math and reading after school.

Now, Smith tutors spend some time helping kids on these subjects, but also dedicate time each week to enrichment programs of their own design. This gives Smithies a chance to share their knowledge and passion in their favorite subjects with younger students.

One group of Smith students brought classics studies to Gerena. In a school that is 80 percent Hispanic, they were able to show students how both Spanish and English come from Latin roots. Other programs have ranged from ballet to math to the mechanics of bicycles.

Akusoa Taylor ’09, an engineering major, helped 10 first-graders learn about science through hands-on experiments. This semester, she’s worked with students making their own comic books.

Mayda Saldana ’10 tutors a Gerena student

Smith students, occasionally joined by volunteers from the Five Colleges, spend a few weeks at the beginning of each semester working with Winsor to map out lesson plans and figure out how to incorporate a broad range of knowledge into their programs. They continue to meet throughout the semester to discuss problems and figure out how to adapt plans to new situations.

One of the most rewarding moments this year for Smith tutors at Gerena was the production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the elementary school students the actors, stage crew, set-designers and costumers. As one of the enrichment programs offered by Smith tutors, the project taught students about theater, literature and language arts.

But Gerena’s students aren’t the only ones learning from the exchange. In addition to gaining practical skills in education, Smith students take away new wisdom from their experiences.

“What I like about kids is that they appreciate things other people don’t even notice,” said Taylor. “They always teach you something new.”

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