It’s 7:45 a.m. and I enter the doors of Patrick Henry Public School 171 in East Harlem, NY. The kids aren’t set to be here till 8:30, but on my way to the school I see boys and girls in Harlem RBI uniforms all around, anxiously waiting for their day to start. Before this happens though, all of the REAL Kids Learning Coaches (myself included) meet with our supervisor for a morning notes briefing. We go over the schedule for the day, get notified of any announcements, and then we go into our short meeting with the baseball staff to review plans for the week. Today is opening day, and the baseball director makes sure we are prepared for everything that afternoon.
At 8:30 sharp, the doors to the school open and the kids in the REAL Kids program come bustling in, decked out in their full uniforms. There are 15 teams, and over 250 kids in our league, the Jackie and Sharon Robinson Leagues. This league is composed of 4th and 5th graders from Harlem and other parts of the city. (Kindergarten through 3rd graders are placed in the Roberto Clemente or Satchel Paige League, and go to a different school in the morning, just a few blocks away. Overall, there are more than 600 boys and girls participating in the REAL Kids Summer Program this year, a record-high for Harlem RBI.)
When the kids come into the cafeteria, they find their designated table to join their workshop group. This is where they meet up with their teacher and learning coaches. I am set up at the table with my co-coach CeCe (an East Harlem native and former Harlem RBI participant) and our teacher, Katisha. After the kids eat breakfast, we head up to our classroom on the third floor, where it’s time to learn. The goal of the REAL Kids summer program is to curb the summer learning loss for these youth, and the workshop portion of the day plays a major role in accomplishing this goal. During this time, there are 16 kids in our workshop group. When we first get into the classroom, the kids have 20 minutes for independent reading. The program has set a goal for the kids to read a combined total of 45,000 pages as a league during the summer. At the end of each independent reading session, pages read are tallied up and recorded for this goal. Then the class comes together in a circle, where Katisha delves into leading a conversation about the workshop theme for the summer: heroes. Katisha reads the group a portion of a story about Jackie Robinson and how he broke barriers to play major league baseball. Then the discussion is opened up, and the students begin to talk about what makes a hero a hero, and who they see as heroes in their own lives. They write in their journal for a few minutes, then share with partners about their heroes. I listen in to the conversation of two of my students, and am touched by their thoughtful explanation of their own heroes. After talking more about heroes in every day life, the class is split into book clubs. Katisha leads one, CeCe leads another, and I lead the third group. During this time, I sit with five students and read with them, and help to facilitate discussion about heroes in their book. This day, the students are reading through comic books, their favorite.
When workshop is over, I take my students around the building and drop them off into their team classrooms, as it is time for clubhouse to start. After doing that, I return to my classroom where my team has gathered. We are the Keystones, the name of a former Negro League team. During clubhouse, CeCe and I have an hour to bring our team together to talk about the themes of REAL Kids. This week, we’re talking about teamwork, and how we use it on and off the baseball field. After a discussion about that, we lead a team-building activity for the kids. Today it’s Balloon Tower—the team is split up into two groups, and each group is given a bag of balloons and a roll of tape. We give them 15 minutes to build the highest tower they can with the materials. At first, it’s every man for himself, and each kid thinks their way is the best way. But as time moves on, I see each group coming together and working like a team to achieve their goal. We’re still working on bringing together 18 kids to work like a team on and off the field, and this activity certainly seems to help that out. We finish with a discussion of how we used teamwork to reach our goals, and then take our kids to lunch in the cafeteria.
After lunch, it’s time for baseball. We walk as a team over to the fields in Central Park, a short commute. The kids struggle to maintain their focus on the way there, as we expected since it’s opening day. They’ve been in practices for a week, and all they want to do is finally play against the other teams. We get to our field where our opponents, the Knights, are just arriving as well. We have about an hour to get our team to stretch and warm up, followed by one last mini practice before the game starts. At 2:30 the game finally starts, and for the next two hours it is a gratifying experience to see the kids playing. They can’t wipe the smiles off their faces, even if they make a mistake. For some, it’s another baseball game like they’re used to, but for others, it’s their first time playing. While the experience differs across the team, the excitement and happiness is widespread throughout the game.
At one point in the game, I tell one of my players, Arnoldo, that he’s going to play second base. Without thinking, he sprints out onto the field and stands on top of second base—except he’s forgetting something. I wave him back in and tell him he needs to put on his glove and hat to play the field. “Oh yeah!” he says excitedly, and picks up his glove and a batting helmet, and runs back onto the field. Again I wave him back into the dugout, explaining that he has to wear his hat in the field, not a helmet. I think to myself that he might be embarrassed while his teammates and the other team are waiting on him to start the game again, but there’s no shying away at all from Arnoldo. He’s in his own world out there, but it’s one of pure joy because he’s on the field playing baseball with his new teammates. It’s the small moments like this one (they happen all the time) that keep me laughing and inspired by these kids on a daily basis.
At 4:15, it’s time to end the game because we need to wrap up and walk back to PS 171 where the kids’ parents will be waiting for pickup at 5. My team lost the game 5-1, and while there are a few heads down immediately after the loss, 15 minutes later they are all laughing and smiling once again as we have a snack and walk back to the school. There’s another game the next day, another chance to get better, and another day for the kids to have fun with their new team. After all, that’s what it’s all about here at Harlem RBI—the program’s motto is ‘Play. Learn. Grow.’ and I’ve been lucky enough to see that with my team—an enriching experience each and every day.