Singing songs with pre-school children, making ice cream trucks out of cardboard and meeting with other college students to discuss classroom management are all in a day’s work for 8th-semester human development and family studies major Bobby Rizzuto.
On top of his classes, his on-campus job and his grad school applications, Rizzuto is a team leader for the Jumpstart program at Sweeney Elementary School in Windham.
He spends eight hours per week traveling to the school, working with the pre-school children in his class and meeting with his four team members to break down how each session went, and to plan for the next session.
Outside of these meetings, Rizzuto creates learning materials for each session and meets with the leaders of the other ten sites that UConn Jumpstart, a national Americorps program, serves. Altogether, Rizzuto says that he spends 12 to 15 hours a week planning for or participating in Jumpstart.
As the team leader at Sweeney, Rizzuto distributes tasks to all of his team members. He also takes the lead during session time with the children.
“I am in charge of setting up the centers, I’m in charge of leading circle time and something called ‘Let’s find out about it,’ I float around and I help coach and manage my corps members to make sure that they’re having the most positive impact they can have,” he said. “A big component of what I do is classroom management.”
Circle time is the part of the session in which all of the children come together and do four activities, which can include poems, songs and games. “Let’s find out about it” includes half of the kids, and involves an activity that delves into the theme of that particular session. For instance, after Rizzuto read a book titled “Gilberto and the Wind,” he used a hair drier on a number of different objects and asked the children to make predictions about what would happen. “It’s all about expanding the story,” he said.
There are five different centers at every Jumpstart site: the letter writing center, the art center (which sometimes doubles as the science center), the book center, the puzzles and manipulative center and the dramatic play center.
“It’s one of our most important centers because with preschool children, one of the most important ways for them to learn is through play,” he said of the dramatic play center. “We can use it to really build and grow their knowledge of the world.”
This is where the cardboard ice cream truck comes in. For one dramatic play center activity, Rizzuto and his team cut cones and ice cream scoops out of construction paper and let the children pretend that they were buying and selling ice cream. “It was really interactive and the kids really loved it,” he said.
Every Jumpstart session at each school begins the same way. During the welcome time, the corps members work on letters with the children by helping them recognize the letters and sounds on their name tags.
Then, all of the children will listen to a team member read the book that will set the theme for that week. During the first session of the week, the book is read for enjoyment and vocabulary. During the second session, the team members engage more with the children. “It’s more of a conversation,” Rizzuto said. “It’s seeing what they remember.”
Reading time is followed by circle time, which is followed by an introduction to centers, during which Rizzuto demonstrates each activity at each center before the children go off to explore the centers.
After children share what they did during the session with the rest group and say goodbye to the team members, the team members head back to campus to discuss what went well, what didn’t go well and what needs to be done to prepare for the next session. “I’ll demo the book to the other corps members, I’ll sing them the circle songs if I have to,” said Rizzuto.
Team members are also trained outside of the meetings at monthly all corps meetings throughout the year and at more extensive meetings before the sessions start.
“We aren’t just thrown into the classroom without training. We are trained extensively. When we go in the classroom we are more than prepared,” Rizzuto said. “You can be taught how to interact with children but when you’re actually in the classroom and doing it, then you can really put work into practice and get a lot out of the ongoing trainings.”
Rizzuto credits the Jumpstart supervisor and staff in Community Outreach. “They are really open and willing to help. They’re trained in this, they know what they’re talking about,” he said. “They’re always there to support us and to help us with whatever we need.
Students are expected to put 300 hours into the Jumpstart program over the course of their first year as team members. These hours can be filled not only by going to the sites as part of the team, but also by going to the trainings, making supplies and going into the sites individually as classroom assistants. Rizzuto said that many people use school breaks to complete hours.
“It’s a big time commitment, but it’s doable. The staff work with you and the team leaders work with their corps members to complete those 300 hours,” he said. “If you’re committed to the program, getting the 300 hours is not a problem.”
Rizzuto described toe commitment as a manageable balancing act. “It’s a lot to balance, but I think for me personally, it’s what I need. I don’t like free time,” he said. “It’s very doable because of the resources we have at UConn Jumpstart. If one of the team members has exams coming up and can’t make materials, I’m fine with that. Everyone’s going to need extra time eventually. We’re willing to make sacrifices for each other.”
Rizzuto is a human development and family studies major with plans to research the effects of play on learning and eventually become a preschool teacher. While his academic goals line up pretty well with his work in Jumpstart, not every team leader or member is a teaching or HDFS major.
“I know one team leader’s a political science major, one team leader’s in material sciences. There’s definitely a wide variety,” he said. “You don’t need to be an HDFS major or a pre-teaching type person to do Jumpstart, but you do have to have a passion for working with children, and you have to be able to adapt because it’s not a cookie-cutter thing.”
UConn Jumpstart serves schools in Windham, Mansfield, Rockville and Vernon. “We serve preschool children in low-income classrooms because there is an achievement gap,” Rizzuto said. “We want to make sure that every child enters kindergarten prepared to succeed.”