Leading Camden Middle Schoolers to “All Pull Together”

Kasey DiSessa of Rowan University sits in the middle of a row of middle school students she teaches

“I’m never going to be afraid to do anything ever again,” says senior Kasey DiSessa. “If I can cheer and sing in front of judgmental sixth graders, I can do anything.”

The biological sciences and English double major lost her self-consciousness and found her voice this summer as an intern for the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School in Camden. A Servant Leader (teacher) leading a classroom of 11 rambunctious 3rd to 5th graders, Kasey immersed herself in classroom teaching to support her goal of becoming a biology teacher dual-certified in English. 

Kasey DiSessa of Rowan University leans over a table with three students to teach them

Embracing the Kenyan tradition of Harambee, meaning “all pull together” in Swahili, each morning at the Freedom School Kasey, her four fellow Servant Leaders and approximately 50 students in the program got hyped for their day with upwards of eight special chants and songs. “It was a big deal for me to put myself out there like that,” Kasey says. 

A national program primarily focused on reading, the Camden location extends its reach into STEM education too, which suits Kasey well, given her two majors. “I have my two passions,” she says, “and I’ve been able to personalize my education at Rowan to blend both.” 

Kasey DiSessa of Rowan University leans over the shoulder of a girl student working on a computerKasey took classes in children’s and adolescent literature that helped her to prepare for her summer role. “I reached out to my professors and told them, ‘The books I read in your classes are in my curriculum — thank you! Your choices applied to my life in a way I was not expecting.’”

Toward the end of the summer program, Kasey led a two-week project on robotics. Stepping out of her comfort zone to do so, Kasey at first felt apprehensive — but then exhilarated at the project’s completion. “During the finale, parents came in to see their children’s final projects,” Kasey explains. “It was awesome. We had little robots from LocoRobo and we taught the students how to use an online app to drop and drag blocks of code and create shapes on the ground. 

“We all screamed at the tops of our lungs when the robot went through the gates at the maze. They had created the code, using a function they had never used before. We lost our minds we were so excited,” Kasey says. 

Kasey DiSessa of Rowan University stands in front of her decorated classroom door that says Welcome to Ms. Kasey's Forest!From Hackettstown, NJ (Warren County), Kasey stayed in South Jersey this summer solely to complete this internship. With she and her parents’ lacking familiarity with Camden — only knowing what they’ve seen on the news — at first Kasey’s parents had some trepidation about their daughter teaching in the city. “My dad is nervous about everything,” Kasey says. “But, the school was nice. The location was fine. I wasn’t nervous and the drive wasn’t bad at all.

“This program gives the students an edge they might not normally get in their regular school,” Kasey says. “It not just puts them on par with kids from schools with more resources, but also helps them to go beyond,” she says.

“I went in terrified and by the end I knew I wanted to come back and do this again,” Kasey says. “It was hard and there were days that it was emotionally taxing,” she continues. “But thanks to this program I feel more comfortable with teaching this age level and I would consider teaching in an urban setting, which is something I wouldn’t have considered before.”

Kasey will graduate this upcoming fall, a semester ahead of schedule, and plans to attend graduate school.

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