Congrats to Cynthia Via, our February Volunteer of the Month! Cynthia began volunteering with Open Studio in the 2015-2016 school year, and helped out with Big Class in Residence at Akili Academy's superhero project. Most recently, she volunteered with our letter writing workshops at ARISE Academy and Cohen College Prep after the 2016 presidential election, culminating in the book I Want You to Know Something About Me: Letters About The Election of Donald Trump by New Orleans Youth. Thanks for all your hard work, Cynthia!
What first brought you to Big Class?
I saw [Big Class] at a book fair, and being new to this city, I wanted to get back to teaching. I missed working alongside students and being part of a writing program. And what better way to learn about a community, than through stories told by kids.
What keeps you coming back?
I’m inspired to keep writing when I see that students are imagining interesting characters and dreaming up lovely poems. Also Big Class projects are intuitive and non-conventional. I see [Big Class's] philosophy as not being one sided; they want feedback, and allow students and volunteers to find their own rhythm. I like that Big Class also pushes volunteers to be more vocal in bigger groups.
What are some skills you have that help you out at Big Class?
As someone who writes and often gets distracted, I understand frustration. I’m also not easily disappointed, and I know one small pebble is part of a big mountain. Allowing kids to find their own style of writing and cognitive process, is important, rather than forcing them to finish a task without engaging with the ideas.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced at Big Class?
Since we work with many different schools, the chances that I see the same student is rare except for in Open Studio. It makes it harder to build trust when you only see them one time, and many students are overwhelmed with school projects to take on extra tasks. I think you have to be understanding and flexible, and let them know these projects are something new, outside their classwork.
What are some great projects you’ve helped with? Tell us the story behind one of them if you can.
I worked on Open Studio, superhero stories at Akili Academy, and I Want You to Know Something About Me: Letters About The Election of Donald Trump by New Orleans Youth. Helping students write letters about relevant social issues was rare for me. I was surprised to see that many of them were savvy in the political discussion that we hear in the media, and in our own circles. They wrote letters to the new president or other elected officials, giving them suggestions, explaining their own fears and aspirations. The students had a chance to grasp how their lives can be impacted by the decisions of government, and that they do have the power to speak up. This made me hopeful about the next four years. I especially felt close to the experience of many Latin American students, who wrote letters in Spanish, about their journey to the U.S.
What are you up to when you’re not volunteering with us?
I’m an AmeriCorps member and I was serving my term in New Orleans for No Kid Hungry, a non-profit, which provides grant funding for after school and summer camp programs that provide free meals to the community. Before that I worked as a reporter and freelancer in NYC. I write about hiking, nature and random life episodes on my blog and other publications.