Learning in action: How a classroom of eight-year-olds changed my perspective

Taylor McClennen

On March 9 of 2020, I walked out of Greylock Elementary School, fully expecting to return the following week. I was a Science Fellow, part of a program where Williams College students visit one of the North Adams Public Schools (NAPS) every week to teach a science lesson. My partner and I had just finished our magnets lesson, where we watched a Bill Nye video with the students and experimented with magnetic materials around the classroom. As we left the room, we waved goodbye to the teacher and students, saying, “See you on next Monday!” But next Monday I was home, and the classroom was empty.

The NAPS Elementary Outreach program provides one of the most essential facets of a college campus: engagement with community. As much as Williams promises to prepare us for life after school, we cannot truly be ready unless we recognize the existence of a world outside of our half-mile radius. When I spoke to Emma Reichheld ’21, a previous NAPS alum and Student Leader, we discussed the relevance of the North Adams program. While in classes we often learn about inequities and educational policy, North Adams provides an opportunity to connect these theories to something tangible. Furthermore, the NAPS program challenges the biases that Williams students often hold regarding North Adams by giving us the opportunity to discover, through our own experience, the vibrance and generosity of our neighbors. Despite our geographical proximity, Williams and North Adams are two communities that often feel very far apart, and the NAPS Elementary Outreach program is one way to bridge that gap. 

I have been a Science Fellow since my freshman fall. After stopping at the Center for Learning in Action (CLiA) table during their tabling hours in Paresky, I applied for the position, and three weeks later I was teaching third graders about weather. Since that semester, I have continued as a Science Fellow every year, and last year I also became a Student Leader for the North Adams Public School Elementary School Outreach program. As both a Science Fellow and a Student Leader, I have seen all sides of the relationship between Williams and North Adams. I believe that there are many important pieces of the puzzle — Williams students, the teachers, the CLiA staff — but the work truly revolves around the NAPS students. For these eight-year-olds, seeing a college student is the most exciting part of the day. And seeing a college student interested in science?! That means that science must be just about the coolest thing ever. At the end of the day, it’s the students that matter. Yes, this relationship benefits Williams as much as it benefits North Adams. But if I can be a role model for one more student to stay in school, to go to college, to become a chemistry major — then we have succeeded.

The teachers always say that the students look forward to seeing us every week. The third graders ask us questions about living in dorms, how we get dinner, where we do homework, what we are studying. They don’t care what we wear, or if we have acne, or if we have a midterm and two papers and a hundred pages of reading for tomorrow. They are just pure, young, innocent energy. And this energy feeds directly back to the Williams students. Leaving campus to go to the classroom feels like traveling light years away from the impending pile of work; for an hour each week, I escape the Purple Bubble. Even now, I continue to log onto Zoom every Tuesday at 10:30 a.m., ready to make paper airplanes to teach about forces, or experiment with compasses to teach about the Earth’s magnetic field. Even though I am in my dorm, my time with the students still maintains its sense of escape. And the students still see me, a college student — perhaps in an even more intimate manner, since they look directly into my room.

Perhaps the largest testament to the importance of the NAPS program is its ability to perpetuate its mission beyond our time at Williams. Many alums have graduated and chosen to pursue careers in education after participating in elementary outreach with North Adams. This list includes Emma Reichheld (quoted above), as well as Ben Hearon ’21, whose time spent with NAPS provided him with an experience that was pivotal in his choice to pursue work in the education sector after graduation. As demonstrated by these NAPS alums’ decisions to continue in education, the elementary outreach program has impacts beyond the Berkshires. These Williams students went on to become teachers all over the world, educating a new generation of students with the skills that began in the NAPS program.

On Thursday, the third graders and I will be experimenting with balance by creating structures that stand up by themselves. I bet that they will also ask about what’s showing in my Zoom background, since I put up a few new decorations. Maybe we’ll talk about what they did during February school break, or their new pair of shoes. Science is the objective, but ultimately it is more important that the students see a role model who encourages them to continue their education. And perhaps we can take a lesson from the students as well: to learn every day with the curiosity and appreciation that we had at eight years old.

Taylor McClennen ’22 is a chemistry and Spanish major from Wellesley Hills, Mass.