Learning From Teaching

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I have the first graders at Elmer Wood Elementary School in Atwater to thank for giving me a reason to have hope for our future generations. I presented a Junior Achievement program to Ms Harris’ class on May 5. Junior Achievement is a national non-profit program designed to provide children of all ages with a better understanding of business and how a strong business sector can help foster stronger and safer communities. The program uses volunteers from the local community.

The volunteers come into the classroom armed with a learning "kit" of lesson plans and classroom materials such as posters, handouts, and take home items. The take home items included refrigerator magnets and postcards. After an orientation session, the volunteers are ready to teach the program in classes signed up to the program.

I was a J-A presenter in a second grade class about ten years ago when I lived in upstate New York. I still cherish a group photo presented to me by the class when I finished that five-unit program.

Fast forward ten years to 2011 and I find that not much has changed in how the program is set up and executed. I picked up my learning kit the night before my class.

I had to skip any orientation due to the short time frame between signing up and presenting. Fortunately, my previous experience from the 1990's prepared me for what to expect of the program.

I arrived at Elmer Wood School at 7:30 am, signed in at the principal's office, and was directed to the classroom. There, I met twenty smiling faces and Ms Harris. She helped me set up the room with a giant poster of a small community. After giving me an introduction, she sat close by as I began my presentation.

The J-A courses are generally broken down into five sections. Ten years ago, I presented these sections over a five-week period. This time around, I would present all five sections in one three-hour period. Talk about pressure!

The first section dealt with that poster we put up on the wall in front of the class. The students were encouraged to point out things they were familiar with such as a school bus, children, trees, and pets.

From this participation exercise, we were able to define a family as a special group of people who may differ in age and relationships but who are connected to one another in some way. We even concluded that different types of family members live in our community and that they all can help one another make it a good place to live.

Part two was about making the distinction between what you need and what you want. Again, there was a lot of class participation as I held up pictures of things we need, such as: healthy food, clothing, and a home; as well as pictures of things we want, such as: an ice cream cone, a video game, and a pet.

Some of the students challenged the idea that a pet is a "want" rather than a "need". As a pet owner (our cat Bob has been with us for twelve years), I tend to agree with the kids.

The third unit helped the children define what a job is and why a job is important in helping families acquire their wants and needs.

Junior Achievement kits contain workbooks and handouts so that the students can participate in developing their own vision of jobs and career paths. These young people were only six and seven years old, but already they are getting ideas about what they would like to do when they grow up.

Session four was the most active section when I placed a large map of the neighborhood on the floor. The students circled around the map and took turns pointing out such things as a police station, a school building, a hospital, and a fire station.

We connected the locations on the maps to the concept of "does this place provide us with a want or a need?" The children enjoyed this session the most. I suspect they enjoyed this the most because they could finally get away from their desks and form a circle around the floor map.

We wrapped it up in the final section with a review of everything covered in the previous four sections and making the point that jobs help families live better lives. I stressed how their hard work in school would eventually earn them a diploma.

I then handed out certificates of completion to the group. The certificates were prepared by J-A coordinator Michelle Gonzales in anticipation of a successful completion of the five sessions.

The group was very appreciative of my visit and wished me a safe day as I prepared to leave. I packed up what remained of my Junior Achievement kit, and left the school at the end of the morning.

I really have to hand it to the teachers who are with our children most of the day. They have to be nurturing, firm, and in control throughout the day. Without these key components, the J-A program could not achieve the level of success is has achieved over the years.

But I really have to give a shout out to the students. Their attention to the material being presented, their naturally inquisitive nature, and their enthusiasm really made an impact on me. As a volunteer presenter, I got so much out of this group of eager young people.

I'm thankful to work for a company that encourages volunteer opportunities such as Junior Achievement and permits me time away from the regular workday to participate in these activities. I was impressed with the level of support received by the program coordinator in preparing for my day-in-the-classroom.

And I was overwhelmed by the dedication to learning I observed in the teacher Ms Harris.

Most of all, I felt honored to be in the presence of our future generation of learners. They are beginning to form ideas about how they can contribute to their communities.

They are getting ideas every day about how they might contribute to improving the quality of life when they leave school.

If this first grade class at Elmer Wood Elementary in Atwater is any indication, I think we are in good hands.

They have given me renewed hope in the future.

Steve Newvine lives in Merced and is a member of the Business Education Alliance of Merced, (BEAM) an organization of business people and educators working together to help produce a world class workforce in Merced County. BEAM is affiliated with the Merced County Office of Education.