THE SUMMER SCOOP: Breakthrough internship helps junior understand culture

This is the sixth installment of a series on internships, jobs and classes that students are doing this summer.

From June 25 to Aug. 3, junior Héloïse Schep taught two seventh-grade literature classes as a teaching fellow at Breakthrough Sacramento’s summer program.

Q: What drew you toward teaching as a summer job?

A: When I was planning my summer, I knew I wanted to do something “internship-y” and get work experience.

At first I was hoping to do something in the Netherlands, but I wasn’t really able to find anything there for high school students.

I realized how good of a time I had teaching with Breakthrough during the school year, so I looked at Breakthrough’s website for teaching opportunities.

To my dismay, I realized I was already two months late for the teaching application, which was due in January. I emailed Faith Galati, the executive director of Breakthrough, asking if there was anything I could still help out with during the summer even though I had passed the application deadline.

Faith emailed me back saying that I could still apply since she knew everything that I had already done for Breakthrough Sacramento.

It was a long application process with many essays and interviews. It was super nerve racking.

I never thought I would get accepted because I was so late and so young, but in the end, I got in!

Q: What was your role in the program?

A: I was a teaching fellow, the name Breakthrough gives to student teachers during the summer.

I taught two classes of literature each day to seventh graders. I also taught speech and debate with two other teachers, (which was) the equivalent of an elective, as the kids chose it. I had a lot of experience in speech and debate from mock trial, so that made teaching the class super easy!

I even had to conduct parent-teacher conferences at the end of the summer!

As a teaching fellow, you also have to teach a BridgeTime class, which is about life skills and college information, because most of the kids don’t have that kind of information available at their schools.

I also led a club. It’s not the type of traditional school club that you would think of, like French club. The clubs have different colors, and I, along with another teacher, was in charge of Purple Club.

You have a group of kids, and you do a lot of spirit activities and compete against other clubs. It provides that community bonding experience for the kids.

I worked every weekday from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m, even though the kids went home at 4 p.m.. We had to stay so late for teacher workshops and department meetings after the kids went home.

Q: What was your literature class like?

A: Well, I had one class of seven kids and another class of eight, which is not too big for Breakthrough classes.

There were four total seventh-grade literature classes. I taught two, and another teacher taught the other two. Breakthrough is such a big group of kids, so you want classes as small as possible.

We covered a book called “The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros and some short stories, all chosen by Breakthrough.

Q: Did you have to design your own curriculum?

A: Breakthrough gives you part of the curriculum because there is certain stuff that they want you to get done, especially so you follow the public school curriculum that the kids will be exposed to throughout the regular school year.

But you are required to make changes, and it’s not like the lesson plans tell you what to do each minute. You are not on your own, but you do need to make changes and get all your own materials. They don’t make that stuff for you.

You have a lot of time throughout the day to meet with your mentors, too. Each department – I was in the literature department – has a mentor who talks with you about your curriculum. I also could meet with the other seventh-grade literature teacher, who was in college, to make sure we were teaching the same things.

You do have a lot of freedom. If you want to run a certain activity, you could do that. If you want to teach your class a certain way, you can do that. Each class, even though you have the same core curriculum, could be vastly different.

Q: Why did you decide to teach literature?

A: When I worked with Breakthrough over the school year, I taught literature, so I was already familiar with the curriculum. Also, I love literature and I feel like I had already mastered most of the skills I was teaching (such as figurative language, themes, response-to-text essays and making inferences).

At Breakthrough, you don’t choose which classes you teach – you put down what subjects you are qualified to teach and then they decide. However, I’m really glad I taught the class that I did.

Q: What was your favorite class activity that you came up with?

A: I had a pretty talkative group of kids, so I found out pretty quickly that class debates worked well for them.

I did three class debates in the five weeks that I taught. Those were always my favorite lessons because the kids were so energetic and so into it. It was really great to see them get into a book like that and really love literature class.

English can be hard because you don’t have the dissections and stuff that STEM classes have, so when your kids can get really into it like that, it’s awesome.

Q: Did you have any difficulty teaching seventh graders as a high school student?

A: Before you teach, you are required to go through two weeks of teacher training. They teach you strategies for disciplining kids and dealing with behavior and everything. They prepare you for almost every situation –  even kids getting kicked out of Breakthrough, which almost never happens.

So going into teaching, I felt prepared. But it still felt weird to tell kids to be quiet when I’m only two or three years older than them.

I quickly realized, though, that I am the one grading their assignments and teaching them. I am supposed to be in charge – I’m their teacher.

It helped that I wasn’t the only high school teacher. There were two other student teachers who had just finished their senior year of high school. They were pretty young too, like 17.

Q: Did the students respect you as much as other teachers?

A: At first, I didn’t share my age with any of them because I was afraid they might respect me less, but they didn’t.

I think it didn’t affect me because there wasn’t a difference between my responsibilities and the authority of the other teachers. Every teacher teaches the same amount of classes and has about the same amount of advisees.

One of the things that I love so much about Breakthrough is that the equality between the teachers and between the students is really emphasized.

Also, the students knew that I would be writing report-card comments that their parents would receive and that I could give them detentions; I didn’t treat them any differently because I was younger, so they didn’t either.

Being younger also had benefits: the students were more likely to share things with me and be themselves in the classroom because I was closer to their age, and they realized that I might be able to understand what they were going through better.

Q: Did you have any experience teaching before this summer?

A: I had actually taught with Breakthrough before as a weekly Breakthrough teacher through a program called Weekly Breakthroughs. Once a week I would visit a Language Academy and teach a group of six students (seventh and eighth graders) literature. We read “The Outsiders” this year.

So I got out all my nerves teaching kids at that time. I wasn’t really as awkward with the whole teaching thing since I was used to it.

I didn’t have that hard of a time too since I was teaching seventh graders, who had never been at Breakthrough before.

The new students tend to be more nervous and try to fit in since it’s their first year, so they’re not going to be the rowdiest group of kids. I didn’t have a hard time with them at all.

Q: Did you have to grade papers and assignments?

A: Grading assignments was actually the easiest part of the day. It was surreal because it made me think about all the things my teachers have to go through every day, grading stuff and preparing handouts before we walk in.

Teaching can be a lot of pressure, especially grading papers. I often caught myself crying out, “How many more pages of these essays do I have left?!”

It was really rewarding to see, though, how much the students can grow and improve if you really take your time in giving them feedback. And as their work gets better, it’s less work for you in the long run.

In the end, I got myself through it because I knew that I would be helping the kids improve. It did really show me how much our teachers have to go through, which was really cool.

Q: Did you get to spend a lot of time with the kids outside of the classroom?

A: We have a lot of field trips, basically every Friday, where we go to colleges and other locations around Sacramento. I had to be a chaperone all of those, so I spent a lot of time with the kids.

We also have a few dances, which I had to chaperone too. That was definitely interesting!

This is more part of my overall teaching experience, but it’s just weird to be teaching and managing students while still being a high school student. It was surreal to think that my teachers would be doing the same things as me in only two or three weeks time.

Q: What was one of the funniest moments you had with the kids over your five weeks?

A: My room – I was in (Spanish teacher Patricia) Portillo’s room – was also the homeroom for Black Club.

And there was this one girl in Black Club who really loved “the office.” What she would do is make cutouts of Dwight Schrute’s head and place them around the room to see how long it would take me to notice.

So I would be in the middle of teaching a lesson, and I would look up, and there would be a head on the top of my ceiling, and I would just freak out.

I didn’t want to take them down, so at one point there were probably 10 cutouts of Dwight Schrute’s head around my room.  I would just crack up every time I saw them.

Q: Did you have a favorite moment?

A: One of my favorite moments would have probably been the lip sync battle the students had during Olympics Day.

All the clubs choose different songs and performed a lip sync to them. Our club worked so hard on our songs (a medley of “Hakuna Matata,” “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” and “Un Poco Loco”) and they were able to be really creative and add all these crazy touches. One of my students, Paola, brought glow sticks and turned off all the lights at one point so she could dance with them, and a few brought costumes.

Our medley ended up being nearly twice as long as the others and crazily complicated, but the kids had so much fun, and we won first place!

Another great memory was on my last day. At Breakthrough, we make songs called Shabooyahs, which are 4-line rhymes sang to a certain rhythm, and usually teachers make then for the kids or the kids make them for themselves.

These two students wrote six of them about me and performed them when the buses were about to leave! I had no idea, although maybe I should have, since they were asking about rhymes and my hobbies all day and being pretty secretive – but it was the sweetest thing ever.

Q: What was your biggest takeaway from teaching at Breakthrough?

A: It really taught me about planning and managing things because there was so much going on with all the classes, electives and the kids.

You are never just responsible for your own group of kids. You are responsible for all the kids and chaperoning the field trips and running various events.

For example, my club was responsible for the Back to Breakthrough Night and the student-led conferences.

It really taught me how to reach out for help and manage your time effectively because it’s almost like you have too much work to deal with, so you have to ask for help, or you will fail.

You have no time to screw around at Breakthrough when you’re teaching. Even when you have time off, there’s always something to do.

Q: Would you recommend other students to teach at Breakthrough?

A: Yes, I would, but you do need to be prepared, and I wouldn’t recommend doing anything else (like a job or class) during your time at Breakthrough.

This experience was one of the most difficult, arduous things I ever had to do. I had to work every weekday and throughout most weekends, and I could never let off steam or have an off day because the kids were watching me and were affected by my moods all the time. It’s also a lot of pressure because if I’m not teaching well, the kids won’t learn and have a valuable experience, which hurts them because they’re giving up their summer, too.

However, the support system I got and skills I gained were incredible. I feel so much more prepared for college and teaching, and the presentational and organizational skills I got helped (and will help me so much). I now know people that are attending schools that I’m interested in and that have careers that interest me, and building that kind of network with information is so, so useful.

The relationship you get with the kids through this program is also so worth it.

Q: What was your favorite part about teaching Breakthrough students?

A: One of the coolest things about Breakthrough is learning so much about the kids. They come from so many different cultures and ways of life that I was never exposed to at Country Day.

Just having them talk to me about their family lives and different traditions they have for birthdays and stuff was so cool.

They even threw the teachers a potluck as a thank you in our fifth week. The students brought all this food from all their different cultures that I probably would have never had if I had not taught Breakthrough.

They are so strong and unique and often taught me more about resilience and life outside of the community I grew up in – more than I could ever teach them.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email