It is the start of a first-grade Zoom class called “Sing, Craft, and Connect” and Hamza is having trouble keeping to his seat. His teachers’ friendly entreaties are met with childish defiance. “I am a strong little boy,” Hamza repeats, in perfect English, from off-camera.
Class leaders Akaya Numata and Jocelyn Alvarez--a junior and a senior, respectively, at Princeton High School--decide it is best to begin the lesson, and they start a round of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” with six children from Bani Sweif, Egypt, who spend an hour each Friday learning the English language with them.
Suddenly, Hamza appears on camera, and he is singing. Pupils Talia and Kenzy each take turns leading the chorus of young voices.
Meanwhile, in a Zoom session called “Storytime”, PHS sophomore Julia Tharney and junior Eleni Staikos are encouraging second-graders to read aloud from The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The children vary in their fluency--some read easily while others struggle to sound out each word--but all seem enthusiastic to try. Julia calls on readers one by one and fills in herself in moments when volunteers are lacking. Eleni jumps in when a little girl named Meriem struggles to pronounce the verb “frightened”.
In all, there are 17 groups on this particular Friday, ranging from first grade through eighth and practicing English in groups focused on reading or phonics or discussing topics as varied as science, world cultures, and movies. Organized through the PHS Ideas Center, this so-called “Friday Club” engages 53 Princeton students in service learning. In addition to such projects, the Ideas Center provides tutoring for classes, study groups for midterms and finals, SAT prep, and help with study skills, college essays, and college applications.
Last fall, Andrea Dinan, the district’s director of service learning and experiential programs, was in search of meaningful volunteer projects that students could undertake during the Covid pandemic when she happened across a posting on an Arabic studies listserv looking for English teachers to help Egyptian pupils with reading. When she replied to the posting to offer help, Dr. Dinan was surprised to learn there could be as many as 900 pupils from the Diwan School in Bani Serif, near Cairo, who would participate.
Dr. Dinan brought the idea to the students on the board of the Ideas Center, who helped organize their fellow volunteers. Each of the nine thematic clusters is assigned a handful of students who help develop weekly curricula or who lead sessions, or both. The Friday Club is set to run through the end of February, at which point Dr. Dinan will evaluate next steps.
“They are having fun,” Dr. Dinan says of the volunteers. “After the first session, the groups reported back there was silence until they brought up Disney, which turned out to be the universal language. Despite the obstacles created by the pandemic and remote learning, it’s important to embrace the opportunities we have to connect in new ways.”
Learning as they go is another theme one hears from the student volunteers.
“When we touch base during our lesson-plan meetings, we consider what changes can be made based on how last week’s activities went for each individual group,” says junior Audrey Peel. When running a session, Audrey gives herself the freedom to extemporize based on how the conversation is going. “Sometimes, I make last-minute decisions to skip activities while the lesson is happening,” she says. “That’s something I never would have done in my first lesson since it takes a bit of practice to get comfortable with adjusting the plan.”
“I have learned how important it is to maintain enthusiasm during the entire Zoom call to ensure maximum engagement,” observes junior Blaise Stone.
All agree that teaching is challenging work, particularly through the medium of Zoom. “It is tough to keep going with the lesson when there’s not much response,” says junior Jimmy Weinstein. “It is tough work (which I already knew) but it takes a lot of stamina to push through any insecurities and a room full of crickets.”
The students agree they are having fun while meeting the challenge. “I start out my Fridays greeting a group of smiling six-year-olds,” says Audrey Peel. “What could be better than that?” -- Justin Harmon