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Students Become Teachers for Lowell Kids

Literacy Improvement Collaboration Benefits City, Students

Bartlett School Partnership

Shamus Ricardo and third-grade friend Patrick created a Ben Franklin mural as part of a service-learning partnership designed to improve literacy in elementary school students while enriching the College Writing curriculum for university freshmen.

By Sheila Eppolito

When Patrick, a brown-eyed third-grader from the Bartlett Community Partnership School, entered the buzzing classroom in O’Leary 478, he scoured the crowd for Shamus Ricardo, the literacy buddy from UMass Lowell who Patrick’s mom had been hearing about daily. When he spied him, Patrick made a mad dash to Ricardo’s side, and the pair admired a near-life-sized version of Benjamin Franklin they’d created together over several weeks. 

“My favorite thing about Ben Franklin was that he was outside with a key and got hit by lightning and nothing happened to him,” says Patrick. 

Ricardo, a journalism student from Leominster, says he’s impressed by Patrick’s enthusiasm and creativity, and by the Bartlett staff’s commitment.

“It was great to see how invested the teachers were with their students. I could tell it was more than just a job,” Ricardo says. 

The celebration was the culmination of a service-learning outreach effort designed to improve literacy among elementary school students. Under the program, freshmen in English Department Lecturer Matthew Hurwitz’s College Writing class visited the Bartlett School in Lowell for several weeks, selecting and reading books with second- and third-grade student partners. Second-graders created three-panel, fold-out book reports with spots for coloring, character description and illustrations of key plot points. Third-graders worked with 5-foot-long sheets of mural paper, on which they drew their biography subjects, including things the characters might say, and dressing subjects in period clothing heavily influenced by Crayola. 

Literacy in a New Light

Kayla, another Bartlett third-grader, worked with UMass Lowell buddy Zoe Kiritsis, a criminal justice major from Charlton, on a mural about Dr. Seuss. Their final product included lots of colorful paint, strings of yarn for hair and a brown construction paper taco in the author’s left hand.

“He loved tacos,” Kayla says.

“Getting off campus and into elementary school classrooms is a powerful way for our students to transcend and expand their horizons,” Hurwitz says. “This work was meaningful for our students, as it went beyond only asking them to write some prescribed number of pages or words on something they’ve read, and instead extended a wider focus on things that affect literacy, like class, race and identity.” 

The project was both rewarding and challenging for UMass Lowell students like exercise physiology major Shania James from Littleton, who worked with a second-grader named Tiaraliz.

“Switching roles from student to teacher was a bit nerve-wracking,” she says. “Having never worked with kids before, I was excited and nervous to see how this project worked out.”

James reports an unexpected result.  

“I forgot how much fun it is to color. As we get older, we focus on writing essays and preparing presentations, but we never get to color. It’s a great stress reliever,” she says.

Jacqueline Polanco, a criminal justice major from Andover, worked with a third-grader named Robert on a poster about Alexander Graham Bell. For Polanco, working with Robert hit a personal note. 

“Like Robert, the only language spoken in my home was Spanish, which made learning English extra difficult. It was nice to have the chance to help a student who is going through the same learning challenges that I did,” says Polanco.

Connecting to Campus

Third-grade Bartlett teacher Valerie Daneau, a 2004 university alumna, cited the program’s value in targeting students who perform at grade level and don’t often receive the focused attention and opportunities offered to classmates who struggle more.

“We can see the campus from our classroom window, and I want my students to know that UMass Lowell and other universities are accessible to them,” she says. “They all left feeling that college is cool: They were impressed that O’Leary was just one of many university buildings, and even more by the Starbucks in the lobby – and we’ve had many discussions since our visit about where they want to go to college.”
Hurwitz’s service-learning project began in 2013, but the collaboration with Bartlett boasts a 100-year history, beginning in the early 1900s when students training to be teachers at the Lowell Normal School spent time at the Bartlett Training School.

Bartlett principal Peter Holtz is looking for more ways to get his students on campus.

“I can’t overstate how powerful it is for these children to visit this university campus. By being invited to campus, they feel welcome here, like they belong,” he says. “These kids have a long journey, and when things in their lives get challenging, I hope they’ll remember this day, and that they, too, can realize their college dreams.”

At the close of the celebration, UMass Lowell students gave their partners copies of the books they liked most in elementary school. The Bartlett students clung closely to their gifts, and headed back to school.