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Rising to the Challenge, When September Comes

(The following is by a sophomore at Harvard who spent all of last year as a teaching in the Phillips Brooks House Challenge program.)

By Matthew Alexander

THE WEATHER is warm now. A Challenge class plays on the common near Memorial Hall; seven or eight kids scurry on top of one another to build a pyramid while their two teachers scurry past each other to take photographs of them. Marc is in that class; I see him, hands in pockets, anticipating his jump onto the pyramid. Marc transferred out of my class this term to be with more of his friends; he seems happier and more relaxed now.

Challenge is a P.B.H. program designed to motivate, in a small classroom situation of 6-10 kids, Cambridge children in grades 6-8 who are underachievers in their schools (this year, a high school program has been in process as well.)

Orientation for Challenge took place a week before Harvard classes began in September. The new teachers met with the staff and an advisor every day in the bottom floor lounge of Hilles. Outside one could watch the changing patterns of the late summer light sparkling trough the trees surrounding Hilles; inside, one watched the other teachers, short-sleeved, spread out around a large rectangular table, expressing their ideals and uncertainties about teaching a Challenge class.

There was Mike, expressing his "All You Need is Love" philosophy developed during his summer at Head Start; there was Jon defending the legitimacy of being a pal, rather than authority figure, to his kids; there was Julia and Lisse stressing the importance of implementing practical projects to give te children a concrete feeling of success in the classroom.

I remember how I myself had looked forward for much of the summer to coming back early to Cambridge and preparing to teach in Challenge; how I had viewed it as an opportunity to expose children to the sort of education of which I felt deprived. It was the sort of education which would allow the children to experience themselves and one another in a creative, spontaneous and alive way; one levels of expression, sensitivity and communication.

We talked a lot during Orientation about the motivation which Challenge wanted to excite in the children--the motivation to "explore possibilities beyond the framework within which they have grown up." We talked of Challenge's wish not to impose values on the children but rather to show them a different set of values which was under their control to accept or reject. We suggested ideas for making the curriculum revelant to the lives of the children and for having it involve them in making and carrying through plans.

Throughout Challenge's winter term, teachers shared many similar frustrations. The ideal and abstract conceptions put forth during Orientation did not seem to apply to te concrete situation of the classroom. Teachers found discipline hard to dispense having seldom before been in positions of authority.

The children, shaped by their previous educational experience, found it difficult to respond to a teacher who desired respects a person, not as an authority figure. Often, one's class did not operate as a group but rather as eight, somewhat boistrous, separate individuals who seemed more interested in throwing paper air-planes out the window than in accomplishing something in the classroom. Gaining control over the class occupied time and energy that otherwise might have been used to motivate creative class.

Teachers found it difficult to innovate with curriculum ideas that didn't excite the interests of all the children in the class. Because of the limitations of one teacher per class, no children were allowed to deviate from what the class did if he did not enjoy an activity. Often, these discontented Kids would not accept their fate calmly, however, and proceeded to disrupt the entire class and spoil the hour. The same limitation of one teacher per class also affected individual children, who needed additional attention because they lacked self-confidence. Curriculum, even if it did excite the expanded for much more than a week before most of the children lost interest.

As the term progressed, classes got smaller as fewer kids began to come. Teachers felt apathetic towards the program and wondered whether it was accomplishing its objectives of motivating and broadening the children. At times, it seemed impossible to really broaden the way the children thought and acted when they were only at Challenge twice a week; their spontaneity and creativity could be stifled each day by environment in which in they spent most of their time.

One day, I wanted my class to express any reactions they had to a group of Sierra Club photographs. Some of the children did some very innovative things; some, though, had no faith or trust in their own inner world or in their powers produce anything uniquely their own. This faith had been taken away by environments which stressed conformity and rigidity rather creativity and spontaneity.

WITH THE spring term many positive changes have come to Challenge. for one, most teachers now "team teach." This allows for more individual attention to be given each child, as well as for a more relaxed atmosphere in the classroom. The staff has suggested curriculum ideas which, when implemented in the class, require planning by the child but which offer him a concrete feeling of success. Long-range projects such as Model Cities or Musical Instruments provide a structure large enough for everyone to work in while being individually creative.

I have become very excited about Challenge this term. The teachers seem to share a much more relaxed and eased attitude toward their work. Many of us have realized that the children, their fulfillment and happiness, are the primary ends to keep in slight when we're teaching, not whether or not a project is completed. Too often, I think, people unknowingly see other people as objects with which to achieve certain ends which are said to be in the best interests of everyone involved. Such an orientation, when applied to children in a teaching situation, can result in a stifling and tense atmosphere. Only when the child, his happiness and fulfillment, is the primary end itself and not an object or the means to certain ends, can his natural creativity and spontaneity surface and unfold.

The children seem to be enjoying Challenge a lot more this spring. They come more regularly, work more as a group, are spontaneous and alive within the loose structure of the project, and have drawn closer to their teachers as human beings rather than as authorities.

And it is this ease and relaxation that I sense in Marc and his class which makes me laugh a I walk past Memorial Hall on this spring afternoon

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