Haley’s Story: Student Reflection on D.C. Alternative Spring Break

A group of Harvard students traveled to D.C. for a service-oriented Alternative Spring Break

From March 11th to 18th, seven Harvard students traveled with PBHA’s Alternative Spring Break for a week of service in Washington D.C. The week began with a chance to bond over an eleven hour bus ride from Boston to D.C.’s Union Station. Conversations began in the typical way that most Harvard ones do— What year are you? What’s your concentration? Where are you from?

Sunday brought with it the opportunity to explore the history of D.C. While the majority of those on our trip had visited D.C. at one point or another, it was my first time in the city, and I was incredibly excited to explore all it had to offer. The weather was crisp and bright, somewhere in the mid-fifties, so we chose to picnic in the middle of the National Mall before strolling through the National Gallery of Art, the Supreme Court, and Capitol Hill.

dcOur service project officially commenced the morning of the 13th, when we took the Metro to DC International School, a small K-9 charter school near Columbia Heights. We arrived around nine in the morning to be greeted by the principal of the school, Simon Rodberg. After a short debrief, we were divided up based on our personal skill sets and sent to the classrooms Mr. Rodberg felt we would be most useful.

My morning kicked off with a seventh grade geometry class, where I had the opportunity to help students prepare for the upcoming PARCC exam, a standardized K-12 test that assesses proficiency in mathematics and English. The rest of the day consisted of courses in earth science, algebra, chemistry, and math. There was one resounding question my peers and I received in almost every classroom we entered from teachers and students alike: Why are you here?
After all, we were only rotating through classes for a few days, as Wednesday classes were cancelled due to snow and Friday was designated as a test-preparation day for teachers. How much of an impact could we actually have in such a short period of time? Over the course of the week, we saw those Harvard-typical conversations from our first day evolve into something deeper that reflected more seriously on our reason for being there.

Tasbhe answer to our question came to us in the small moments of the week. For instance, I administered an algebra exam to a student who was particularly disruptive in class and who had refused to do his work for the majority of the week.When I sat down with him to work on his exam, however, his entire demeanor changed. Realizing he didn’t recall learning the material on the test, he set a new goal to start paying attention in class from now on, saying “I want to get my grades up.” Other impactful moments during the week included opportunities to answer questions about the college application process during lunch periods. On the test-preparation day, the teachers were thrilled to see one of the other students on the trip and I doing something as simple as putting together bins of test materials for their classrooms.

Every small thing counted. Alternative Spring Break provided an opportunity for us to not only help alleviate some of the pressures on the DCI teachers during an intense period of the year, but also to educate ourselves on the current issues that face education policy today. Teaching is an incredibly difficult, yet rewarding task. It’s the micro-moments that are key, which is a lesson I intend to use to sustain my own service work long into the future.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” — Nelson Mandela