The six students of the Campus Academy gathered shortly after 8 a.m. recently in the basement of McKinley Foundation on the University of Illinois campus.
The students, all dressed in dark-colored dress pants and jackets and most with ties, are enrolled at a new home-school middle school for black boys. Here is an account of one day this month at the new Champaign school:
8:15 a.m. – Teacher Maurice Holman, a third-year law student, begins critical thinking and current events class by talking about newspapers, the kinds of news in them and whether they are still necessary when people can turn on the TV for news.
"It's big if you get in the paper because usually you don't get in unless you die or are in jail," says Chris Gillespie of Urbana, an energetic, animated and talkative boy.
"What if you don't have a TV?" Holman asks.
"Or what if you have a TV and your cable goes out?" Chris responds.
Holman asks the boys to read news articles he printed for them, including one discussing the recent death of "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin. Holman starts a discussion about dangerous jobs and if they are worth doing, but the boys talk about Irwin and the animals he worked with.
Holman moves to an article that questions if art is important. He asks the boys if they've seen a really good movie that made them think. The discussion drifts to an action movie, and they debate who dies in the end. Holman moves the discussion back to dangerous jobs, then takes a break a few minutes later.
Jelani Saadiq of Urbana immediately asks to be interviewed by a visitor. He says he likes Campus Academy.
"It's a small group, so we can pay attention more," Jelani says. "The teacher isn't all frustrated with 20 people.
"It's funner. It's people you know, so it's not a new person where you don't know who they are and you get in trouble with them."
Asked about being at an all-boys school, Chris says, "It's cool. We get along better. There's no girls to distract us, I guess."
Soon he and four other students are gathered, laughing, around their head teacher, Billy Keniston, in the next room. Meanwhile, Mitch Bentsen of Champaign, a quiet, serious boy, talks intently with Holman about cell phone technology.
9:37 a.m. – In geography/social studies class, Keniston has the boys take turns reading aloud from "The Mob and the Ghost," by Lillian Smith, who writes about her feelings on segregation as a child growing up in the South.
Jelani notes that several of the boys are biracial, and their parents wouldn't have been allowed to be together in the South during the era Smith wrote about.
Keniston discusses Smith's description of how white Southerners shielded themselves from the realities of what was happening to blacks.
"They kind of had to hide that they thought it was bad," Mitch says. "They knew it was bad but acted like it wasn't."
After the discussion, the boys take a quiz, responding to eight quotes about race and writing how they feel about them. As each finishes the quiz, he heads upstairs to a computer lab and plays video games.
10:45 a.m. – Keniston and the boys walk the few blocks to the UI Library to do research for a geography project.
This will be part of their Tuesday mornings for at least a month. Keniston has assigned a project in which each student must research two countries and put together a binder with detailed information about their geography and cities, people and cultures, economies and international relations, governments and social issues, and current and historical events.
"The main focus is getting the structure of creating a portfolio of work," Keniston says. "Also, it's to start to do work that's edited and to make revisions."
Noon – The students return late from the library, damp from rain.
They quickly change clothes. Demetri Daniels of Urbana, who runs the Precious Sword Shaolin Martial Arts Academy, begins kung fu lessons. When the weather is nice, he teaches the class on the UI Quad.
The students begin with kicking exercises, then Daniels has them crouch with their knees bent, legs to the sides and arms straight out in front.
"The more you talk, the longer you guys are going to do this," Daniels tells the boys, who haven't been quiet since class began.
He asks them to name some Chinese numbers, and when they do, he lets them stand up. Then they sit in a circle, feet interlocked, and do situps while Daniels counts in Chinese. They do "frog jumps" and pushups, and at the end of the class, Daniels rewards two boys with cinnamon rolls for being able to touch a ceiling pipe with their foot while kicking with a straight leg.
Daniels is teaching them kung fu four times a week now, but as their physical education teacher, he'll also teach other sports during the year.
12:30 p.m. – The boys eat their lunch as Carl Estabrook begins language arts class.
Estabrook, a retired history and sociology professor, begins with grammar. The boys take turns reading a review of the different parts of speech, then Estabrook talks about diagramming sentences. He addresses the boys by their last names.
"Mr. Gillespie, finish what's in your mouth and read for a little while," he says.
While one of them reads and Estabrook explains the text or asks questions, the other boys are humming or tapping pencils or giggling. Caleb Estabrook of Champaign (Carl Estabrook's grandson) and Chris continually poke and elbow each other.
A little later, when Estabrook gives them several sentences to diagram for homework, several complain they don't understand the work.
Estabrook passes out workbooks, and they begin Latin. The boys take turns reading and translating simple sentences from a story, doing so with ease, and Estabrook discusses masculine and feminine nouns and adjectives. The boys focus on this part of the class much more intently, and most of the fidgeting stops.
2 p.m. – Art and democracy class begins at the Independent Media Center in Urbana.
The students have begun choosing colors for a school logo and clothing, and they're learning how to make decisions as a group. So far, they've voted down every color combination that has been proposed. Chris Evans, a UI art instructor, suggests they use a secret ballot this time.
"Democracy takes time," he tells them.
Almost all the boys vote in a secret ballot for black, white and blue, but then some decide they don't like the colors.
"The thing with us is, once we get a color, we don't want it," Chris says. "So maybe they aren't the right colors."
"I don't like them now. I think they look ugly together," Jelani adds, even though he voted for them a few minutes earlier.
Evans talks to them about what it means to come to a consensus through addressing everyone's concerns.
"It takes longer, but you don't end up with people who are unhappy because everyone's opinion matters," he says.
The boys finally settle on a combination of black, white, blue and gold, and they have their school colors.