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Education Lab is a yearlong project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

November 20, 2013 at 5:20 PM

Five questions with Denny Middle School’s City Year mentors

James Dixon and Becka Gross are two of the red-vested City Year mentors who work at Denny International Middle School in West Seattle. Here, the two AmeriCorps members, featured in Thursday’s story about the importance of attendance, answer questions from reporter Claudia Rowe about their work at Denny and their own middle-school experiences.

City Year mentor James Dixon, right, helps eighth-grader Jonathan Barajas with a math equation during a recent class at Denny Middle School. Photo by Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times

City Year mentor James Dixon, right, helps eighth-grader Jonathan Barajas with a math equation during a recent class at Denny Middle School. Photo by Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times

Name: James Dixon
Age: 23
Hometown: Seattle

Q: You attended middle school at Denny. What was that like?

Dixon: My middle school experience was a difficult one. I came to Denny not knowing anyone, and the school was vastly different than it is now. There were fights very often, and little to no structure in the school.

QWhat surprises you about working with middle schoolers?

Dixon: I think one thing that surprises me the most is their work ethic. I remember I was not a very motivated student in eighth grade. I often did not pay attention in class. These students do not give up. Even if they do not understand, they stay after school and come in at lunch to succeed.

Q: Do you remember attendance being a problem among your peers when you were in middle school? What do you think keeps students away at this age?

Dixon: During my seventh-grade year, I had horrible attendance. I think what kept me away was the atmosphere. The teachers did not seem to motivated to teach, and I felt like they gave up on us students. I think that also affected attendance among other students.

Q: What do you bring to the table that’s different from a teacher or parent?

Dixon: I think my age allows me to have different relationship with the students. I am able to have a peer-mentor relationship with the students, and I feel like they are more open to talk to me because I do not seem like a authority figure.

Q: As a mentor, how can you tell when you’ve really gotten through to a kid?

Dixon: I have one student who asked me, “What are you doing after City Year?” I said, “I don’t know yet. Maybe teach.” He said: “Yeah, you should teach so when I go to Chief Sealth (High School) next year you can be my ninth-grade math teacher.”

Becka Gross speaks with student Muna Sheikh while monitoring the hallways during a recent lunch period at Denny International Middle School. Photo by Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times.

Becka Gross speaks with student Muna Sheikh while monitoring the hallways during a recent lunch period at Denny International Middle School. Photo by Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times.

Name: Becka Gross
Age: 23
Hometown: Bay Area, Calif.

Q: What was your own middle-school experience like? What challenges did you face, and what helped you move past them?

Gross: Middle school was definitely a difficult and confusing time in my life, which is why I was interested in working with this age group.

I had strict (but sometimes clueless) parents and was eager for autonomy. I was grappling with questions around both gender and sexual identity, struggling with the too-cool-for-school complex, and hanging out with kids who liked fighting. I was deciding who I wanted to be and who I wanted my friends to be. Unfortunately, I spent a lot of time grounded or in the principal’s office.

Q: Do you remember attendance being a problem among your peers when you were in middle school? What do you think keep students away at this age?

Gross: In retrospect, attendance was a problem among me and my peers in middle school. I was not very motivated to get myself to class. I definitely remember missing far too much school, and having lots of arguments at home resulting from me trying to skip school. In one particular instance I remember begging my mom to let me stay home when I had a giant pimple on my face because I was terrified of how my peers would react.

Middle school can be a really daunting place. Preteens and young teens are eager for a sense of belonging, and unfortunately that often comes down to hurting each other based on differences.

Q: What do you like best about helping kids?

Gross: Every day is different with them, and it’s exciting to work in such unpredictability and get to handle a variety of issues. The students I have worked with are in a process of self-discovery and often have much more creativity in thinking about the world than many adults in my life. Working with kids inspires me and helps me become a more compassionate, patient and understanding person.

City Year is a group of young adults who go into designated middle schools and work with City Year mentors at Denny Middle School in West Seattle cheer their students on as they arrive at school first thing in the morning. Photo by Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times

City Year mentors at Denny Middle School in West Seattle cheer their students on as they arrive at school first thing in the morning. Photo by Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times

Q: As a mentor, what do you bring to the table that’s different from a teacher or parent?

Gross: I’m able to talk to students concerning issues that they might not always be ready or able to talk to their parents or teachers about. Corps members get to spend time with students throughout the school day and see them in a context that their parents cannot and their teachers less often do. The emotional support I’ve been able to give students throughout the school day as a corps member has lightened their load and helped many of them concentrate better inside the classroom.

Q: What surprises you about working with middle schoolers?

Gross: How rapidly they can change and how resilient they are. There are times I’ve had to be really stern and get very real with a student, going home thinking they will never want to speak to me again. In my experience they usually are less likely to hold grudges than I expect and are appreciative of people who treat them with respect and push them to realize their potential.

Comments | More in News | Topics: City Year, Diplomas Now, mentoring

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