Monday, January 23, 2006

kids, MS & reading

For two weeks, in school gymnasiums across Eastern Ontario, I am up in front large groups of kids talking about the Multiple Sclerosis Read-a-Thon. 15 schools down, 14 more to go.

My job is to get kids informed about MS and excited about joining the read-a-thon fundraiser. It's a great cause and a lot of fun, even if I am losing my voice.

Today I had a grades-7 & 8 group, then a country school of 110 kids in grades 5 - 6. The older the kids are, the harder it is to get them hyped. It is so not cool to show you like reading.

My favourite schools are those where I have rows of kindergarten and grade 1's sitting right in front of me. To start off my talk I get them snapping their fingers, stomping their feet, then clapping their hands to make a rainstorm. They love it. It's also a great way for me to get their attention and lead into how our brains send messages to our hands to make them clap, or feet to make them stomp, etc...

But when you're in grade 7, you're way too cool to make a rainstorm. Luckily a teacher I talked to in a staff room at the second school gave me a suggestion that worked as well as the rainstorm for my segue- and was cool enough for pre-teens. She suggested I do a clap-back: I clapped a brief rhythm and the kids clapped it back. They responded well - and were dead on in their clapping. I felt like I'd been given the inside track to this school and the rest of the presentation went really well. It's easy to spot who are the 'cool kids' in a class. It feels like a real accomplishment to get them participating. At the first school I had this morning I had no such inside track and could tell I had not made it in to being cool in their eyes. I was not deemed worthy of much attention or interest.

Before I started doing these MS RATs, I never thought much too much about the differences from one school to the next. But each year I visit about 50 schools (Jan, Mar & Oct) and there can be huge differences from one school to the next. The age of the building doesn't seem to be factor - old schools can be more dynamic and high-energy then some new, big schools. Rural schools are definitely more white, but some country kids seem keen, kind and less cool-obsessed. But then others are sullen and miserable. I remember one small town school where the teachers had no control of the students and stood with arms crossed and bored expressions throughout my talk. They made it very clear that they were frustrated about being stuck in this town lost somewhere between Cornwall and Ottawa. Their actions and tone of voice communicated this negativity to their students - who of course responded in kind. I could have stood on my head and juggled flames with my bare feet and I still wouldn't have drawn a smile.

I never know what to expect when I'm heading in to a new school. Some inner-city schools are bitter and run-down. Some are great - teachers giving all they have to give these kids a decent shot at life.

I visited one school in the poor east-end of Ottawa last week. It was day of freezing rain and one school had already cancelled on me; I wasn't sure what kind of reception I would get here. Approaching the school, I noticed all the low-income rentals, the shabby duplexes, the run-down apartments. "Most of the fund-raising we do is just for the school," one of the teachers told me in the staff room.

But can I tell you that those kids were the some of the keenest I have met? After I had shown a little video about the RAT, I asked the kids if that looked hard to do. 'No!' they shouted back.

"Do you think you can do that?" I asked.

"Yes!!" they cried. I knew they didn't come from money and that their parents wouldn't be pleased to be asked for a few more dollars, so I emphasized reading over raising cash. But it was really touching to see the kids who have so little be so eager to help others. Wish I could say there was the same positive response in some of the richer schools I've talked at.

It's an old saying, but it seems so true that those who have the least always seem to give the most.

I don't know what kind of school is waiting for me tomorrow. Will my city suburbs school be the rainbow of nationalities I love to see? Will the teachers be keen or tired and grumpy? Will I be able to hold the attention of the youngest for the whole half-hour? Will my voice hold out? (It cracked a few times today - something which perhaps won me sympathy from the adolescent boys.) This is all a little draining at time, but when it works - when the kids are with me, laughing and participating - when I seem to be able to communicate at least the basics about MS and the importance of helping fight this disease - well then it all seems pretty worthwhile.

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