I still remember the first time I stepped foot into Brayton Elementary School in North Adams. After weeks of searching for the perfect job with the Center for Learning in Action (CLiA), I was given the opportunity to work at Brayton as both a science fellow and a first grade buddy. This meant that once a week, I would eat lunch with the first graders as well as play with them at recess. Then, on Fridays, I would teach some of those same first graders science.
After getting over my initial nerves, I found myself constantly looking forward to the days when I would get to leave the purple bubble and make connections with other people in the Berkshires. The kids never failed to make me laugh and smile, and when I was with them, I was not concerned about the homework I had not finished or essays I had to write.
Working at Brayton has taught me so much about the area I live in. Despite its proximity to our campus, there is a stark wealth gap between Williamstown and North Adams. Many of the kids attending Brayton come from lower-income families and face more challenges in their day-to-day lives. That’s why any program where Williams students can work with these kids really does make an impact. Not only do these kids enjoy being around “cool college students,” but they look up to us as role models and really listen to what we have to say.
In the wake of the pandemic last spring, Williams students were required to return home, but this also meant that the programs that were being run at the North Adams elementary schools (Brayton and Greylock) and Williamstown Elementary were put to a halt. Although my mind was constantly floating between the stress of moving out and taking classes remotely, I often thought about how the kids at Brayton were faring. If I was stressed, I could only imagine how difficult it was for a 6-year-old to make sense of what was going on, especially since some of these kids did not have access to all the resources they normally had at school, nor did they always have the aid of their parents, who had to work.
This year, I was given the special opportunity to be a North Adams Public School (NAPS) Student Leader, and our main objective has been to engage with students remotely, in a fun and creative manner. Along with Morgan Noonan ’22 and seven student volunteers, I have been working on connecting children with literature through our Read Aloud Program. We carefully select books with the help of local librarians and teachers, and we create videos with the goal of exciting and sustaining enthusiasm for reading under these difficult and isolating circumstances. Not only did we learn how to navigate new, online educational platforms, but we have also had fun connecting with young students and reading some of our own childhood favorite books. In order to do this, we have also had to work hard to make our videos lively and engaging. This is usually the most difficult step since we have to be cognizant of how fast we speak and whether the pages we read are visible, whilst being silly and bringing each and every character to life. At the end of each video, we leave the kids with an activity or questions that relate to what we read, so that they can take the themes and ideas presented in the books and extend them into their own lives. It has been a great distraction and a creativity challenge for us, which has been extremely important given the number of programs and interactions that have been postponed due to the pandemic. As part of Read Aloud, we collaborate with others in the program, watch each others’ videos, and provide peer feedback, which has helped sustain peer interactions this semester. We have also received mentorship from the CLiA staff and learned more about children’s literature through their guidance. Our Read Aloud videos are available on the Williams College CLiA website, and links have been specifically sent to the various local school districts and teachers.
Engaging in this program has been an amazing experience for me. We decided to distribute our videos to any and everyone who wants to use them, and we have gotten really good feedback from schools and parents:
“These are excellent. I appreciated the opportunity to have a couple of stories read to me today! Thanks to you and to these very talented and giving students. Their efforts and time are greatly appreciated.” (Kim Morandi, Assistant Superintendent of North Adams Public Schools)
“Who organized the read alouds by Williams College?! So professional. How is that done? hope families utilize this wonderful resource.” (Jane Culnane, Kindergarten Teacher at Williamstown Elementary School)
It has meant the world to me to know that people enjoy watching our videos. Though the process is not always easy, I am learning that nothing can get in the way of us connecting with these kids if we have the will and motivation to do so. This winter, I will be engaging in a live Read Aloud after school program with kids from Brayton Elementary, and I can’t wait to read to them, even if it is through Zoom. I believe that the NAPS programs are not only helpful for the students we teach but also for ourselves and our well-being. I cannot imagine Williams without thinking about these programs and the positive impact we make, and I cannot wait to see what we do with these programs in the future, whether it be virtual or in-person.
Morinsola Tinubu ’23 is from Silver Spring, Md.