Huskies with Heart: Senior teaches, inspires Jamaica Plain’s youth through art

Huskies with Heart: Senior teaches, inspires Jamaica Plain’s youth through art

By Marc Larocque

Seven year old Brian does not read well. Most of his Latino classmates do not read well either, but Brian’s skills are particularly lacking compared to his peers. He is very defensive about this, and as a result, has ignored teachers and shunned his fellow students.

“He really stood out to me,” said Erika Sanchez, a senior sociology major and teacher at the John F. Kennedy Elementary after-school program in Jamaica Plain. “One time when I asked him to try reading the directions to a homework sheet out loud he got really mad at me. He crumpled the paper and threw it at the wall.”

But after getting one-on-one attention, Brian’s motivation to improve his reading skills matured.

Sanchez said one of her best days at the program was when Brian approached her and said, “Erika, do you know that I am a great reader.”

She gave him a high five and he smiled at her.

Now Brian reads with Erika every day.

Sanchez works at the Kennedy after-school program for elementary school students every day after classes. She treks to the school with a few other college students and local teens to offer individualized literacy tutoring and art lessons.

“It’s so needed, this one-on one-attention,” Sanchez said. “A lot of these kids’ parents can’t speak English. They go home and their parents can’t help them or even read the directions on their homework. When this happens, the child gets further and further behind.”

Sanchez said she is scared this kind of cycle will cause many of these students to get lost in the public school system.

“With the number of students in typical elementary school classrooms, some of these kids might fall through the cracks and get left behind,” she said.

The children in the after-school program are mostly from the Jamaica Plain area. About 80 to 90 percent are from Latino families, mostly Puerto Rican and Dominican, said Abe Lateiner, program coordinator.

Regular school classes have 20 or more students. But classes at the Kennedy after-school program have about 10 students in each class, usually allowing for one-on-one attention.

“I’m hoping that they receive the support that they need and that I am just a part of that support – not all of it – because they need more than just one person,” she said. “I just want to help them take a step in the right direction and know that there are people out there that care about them.”

When she is not in class or working at the after-school program, Sanchez volunteers her time and talents in other ways like participating in an alternative spring break program.

“This year instead of going to Cancun or Florida we are going to Honduras to help build a house for a family there,” she said.

However, of all her volunteer programs, Sanchez said the after-school program is one of her favorites.

She found out about the after-school program through a friend, Barbara Civill, a middler human services major who worked at the program while Sanchez was on co-op last semester.

“She was always jealous of my job,” Civill said. “There was an opening and I knew she would be awesome because she is bilingual and studied art throughout high school.”

She was a graphic design major as a freshman, but said she soon discovered she wanted to do something more and became a sociology major.

“I realized it wasn’t for me. I wanted to work with the community and to help people,” she said.

Sanchez said she continues to enjoy using her art skills to get her students to think more creatively about life.

“I go into work every day and I try to teach them different ways of looking at the world through art,” she said. “They are used to typical arts and crafts activities like drawing pictures, without any particular direction.”

One project Sanchez implemented was for students to draw an object using only the letters in its word. For instance, one boy outlined a house, and then filled it in with different designs using the letters H-O-U-S-E.

A lot of students quickly gave up on this project, she said. They would throw away their papers and cry because they found the project difficult.

“But then, I take them individually and encourage them, showing that making great pieces is actually possible,” she said.

The greatest works are often from the students who initially gave up on the project, Sanchez said.

She said she hopes to continue to challenge young students with new and different projects.

The projects are “something that they have never done before, and I think [they will] enhance their creativity for the rest of their lives,” she said. “They are normally not being challenged. They can create – and very well.”

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