On Wednesday, November 18, 2015, I was a guest at the Harlem RBI and Dream Charter School, located in East Harlem, New York. As the taxi approached the school, we passed a large, colorful mural painted on the side of an old brick building. I saw it for an instant, but I remember a figure, mouth open, with a rainbow of colors exhaling. The taxi missed the school on our first pass. Construction barricades blocked the main entrance so we made another loop around the block. I knew it was going to be a great day when the mural came into view again. The bright kaleidoscope of colors was created by an artist for this community, but today, they gave me hope and courage.
I was given a tour by Emily Parkey, Director of Family and Community Engagement and Government Affairs. Despite the complicated title, her job is simple. Emily focuses on creating an environment at the school where the students can be easily supported by their families. The thought is, if they embrace and include the extended family, it increases the likelihood of success for each student.
I continued to tour the four floors. The cafeteria and the gymnasium took up the first floor. The second floor was where I would soon read to the Kindergarten and First Graders. The higher the floors went, the older the children were. All grades attended Science, Performing Arts, and Fine Art classes a few times a week on the fourth floor.
In 2008, this East Harlem community-based public charter school grew by one grade each year. Emily explained the eighth graders will be the first class to complete the Pre-K through 8th grade program. The next logical question I had was, “Where do these eighth graders go to high school?” I noticed a slight hesitation. While the school has someone on staff to work with the placement of their eighth grade students, out of the 496 public high schools in New York City, only 50 of those schools are college preparatory. (learn more about the school here)
Dream Charter School takes their students (all ages) on college visits each year. The classrooms have a “College Corner” where college memorabilia are proudly displayed. These students have been shown what college is from an early age. They clearly understand a college education is obtainable for them. The current eighth grade class must feel a bit uncertain of their future at this point. This gave me great pause.
Dream Charter School submitted a proposal to be eligible to open a high school under the Harlem RBI and Dream Charter School umbrella. If approved, this new high school would not be open in time to help the current 8th graders, but hopefully, would be in place for the current 7th graders.
Harlem RBI (which stands for Reviving Baseball in Inner cities) was first an organization which ran community sporting teams. The original thought was by involving the youth in organized programs it would help make a difference and begin to improve and enrich the surrounding area. After several years, they realized they weren’t having the impact they desired. That’s when Harlem RBI created the “Harlem RBI and Dream Charter School” concept. Understanding the scope of what the founders, teachers, and supporters have embarked upon to build this community up is remarkable. I am in awe of their vision and proud to have walked through their doors.
I sat on an orange bench, with my back resting on the wall, waiting for the clock to strike its magic hour of “Showtime.” I watched as several classes of uniformed students filed down the hall in an orderly procession heading outside for recess. Some of them recognized me from the poster announcing my visit. Some of them spotted “Ernie,” my stuffed dinosaur dressed in his royal blue “Dinosaurs Live in My Hair” t-shirt and their faces quickly lit up.
My first reading was with two combined Kindergarten classes which consisted of 52 students and four teachers. After introductions, we spent several minutes discussing, “What makes us different from our neighbors.” If we are going to “celebrate our differences,” it’s important to identify what we like about ourselves. This concept for Kindergarten proved to be difficult. There were some good answers. One girl shared she was proud of her different color skin. One child said she liked her long braid. She stood and twirled around to show everyone how long and beautiful her brown-haired braid was. Many of the boys expressed they liked when they could play at the park. I certainly couldn’t blame them for that sentiment. Perhaps this was more “unique” than I knew.
Next we discussed dinosaur facts. The three dinosaurs in DLIMH are the Brontosaurus, Raptor, and T-Rex. I asked if they knew any interesting facts about dinosaurs. My favorite response was from a little boy who announced matter-of-factly, “They are extinct.” We celebrated his use of an amazing word choice. They were so welcoming and friendly. From their perspective they were excited to meet a “real live author.” For me, I was equally ecstatic to be with “real live students!”
Their vibrantly decorated projects hung on newly white-painted walls. The school opened in August and the facility felt clean and modern. Classroom lights were on motion sensors. Brightly colored rugs were in areas where students could sit for story time. I tried to explain where Michigan was in relation to New York. I looked for a map. One student sitting in front of me whispered, “There’s a globe behind you.” Sure enough, there was a fabric stuffed ball which showed the United States. They were proud of their school and they had good reason to be. To me it represented a clean slate, a fresh start, and promoted self-worth.
Before I read DLIMH, I ask the students to be on the look out for the drawing of my dog Colt that Anni, the illustrator, had included in the book. From the 120 individuals who listened to the story all day, only one little kindergarten boy, saw the dog illustration. As instructed, he raised his hand quietly when he spotted him. I continued reading the story, gave him a soft high-five recognizing his attention to detail, and winked. He beamed with joy.
We then had a long discussion about the illustrator, Anni Matsick. I explained how her ability to bring the written characters to magical life was critical to the book. I told them I saw the world through words and I thought she probably saw it through images, color, drawings, i.e. art. I passed around some postcards Anni had created with a dragon. They loved looking at her talented colorful artwork. I shared with them Anni sent her “Best Wishes” and was excited her artwork was being seen by them. I reminded them the potential to become authors and illustrators is as possible for them as it was for Anni and me.
I had a few hours before I was scheduled to meet with the two first grade classrooms and I needed the chance to reboot my adrenaline. I realized it was always a “live” show. There were no do-overs. I was getting better in parts of my presentation, however, the spontaneity of children sometimes felt like walking through a minefield. Okay, that’s a bit dramatic, but not always knowing what was going to happen, did create anxiety.
The first graders and their teachers were just as warm and wonderful as the kindergartners. The teachers had prepared them with possible questions for me. When we went through the “Dinosaur Fact” question and answer part, one boy remembered the Brontosaurus was called, “Thunder Lizard.” I was impressed. We discussed poetry since they had just completed a section on that in class. I explained how listening to my mother’s poems as a child taught me about rhythm. To me it’s a beat – a cadence. We talked about how songs are actually poems. They were attentive, intelligent, and extremely polite. I got hugs, high-fives, and lots of smiles.
The curveball at this reading was a two-year-old sister of one of the students. She sat at the front of the classroom in a stroller and decided part way through the presentation, she had a lot to say as well. It was a bit difficult competing with her funny groans and jabbering. I should have picked her up out of her stroller and used her in my presentation. Of course, I didn’t think of that until two hours after.
At the end of the day, I submitted a writing competition proposal to the principal of the Lower School and Emily. I wanted the second and/or third graders to take the DLIMH book where it ends, and add on two to four more pages, in rhyme and illustrated, working in teams or individually. I asked them to look it over and make any suggestions. They thought the idea was great and loved it. I look forward to returning to Harlem RBI and Dream Charter School when this idea comes to fruition.
When I left, the students and teachers were having an after-school Zoo Reading Party in their gymnasium. Teachers were wearing masks representing different zoo animals, and the students were going around the room, taming the wild animals, by reading to them. Parents and siblings of the students were also in participation.
As I walked to my car to head to the airport, I was filled with the remarkable energy of the day. I carried all their faces and words with me as I headed home. It’s been four days and I still feel that way. I am so grateful for the opportunity and thankful to have met each of those wonderful optimistic students. It was an amazing experience - one I hope to always remember