On Honesty, Rigor, and Success in College

Recently, I spoke to a group of AmeriCorp volunteers at Peace Lutheran in Tacoma, WA. Many were University of Puget Sound graduates working in K-12 classrooms and tutoring after school at the church. I was told they wanted to know the answer to two questions. What is learning? And how do students learn?

The fact that these whip smart young people didn’t think they knew the answers to those questions communicates a hell of a lot about schooling today. Specifically, too few teachers take time from “teaching to the standards” and “collecting and analyzing data” to think together with students about the learning process.

The cynic in mean assumes self-assessment and student-led conferences are en vogue because some policy analysts think they’ll lead to higher test scores. What’s needed is a genuine, substantive commitment to intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence. Too few teachers “press pause on the class DVR” and ask what went well in today’s activity? What could have gone better? Which aspects of your group’s work went especially smoothly? Which parts were most challenging? When working with classmates, what do you do well? How do you know that? What could you improve upon? Why? What contributes to your learning? What thwarts it?

I asked the AmeriCorps to list a few meaningful things they’ve learned in the past. Looking for patterns and themes, I then asked them to reflect on how they learned them. “I’m learning how to cook,” one offered up, “by hanging out with roommates who are really good cooks.” We could have spent the entire two hours mining that gem of an anecdote.

When I turned to assessment, I implored them to honestly evaluate the quality of their high schoolers’ work. I said many of the secondary students they tutor get very good grades because they distinguish themselves by attending class regularly and turning in their work. Their simultaneous nodding communicated they understood this rarely talked about dilemma for many urban and rural poor districts and schools—you can’t fail the majority of your students, so students who attend and submit work get passing grades without nearly enough attention paid to the quality of their reading, thinking, math, and writing skills. Understandably, college admissions’ offices know and adjust for this, but that complicates those students’ transition to college.

Absent rigor, many students start to think of themselves as “A” students. But grade point averages can mislead. So it’s understandable that they’re sometimes devastated when they receive “C’s” on their first college assignments. Which is why I keep a box of kleenex handy in my office.

How can teachers, tutors, and parents help high schoolers come to grips with the fact that they may not be ready for college level work without those students giving in to a debilitating hopelessness? There’s no easy answer to that question, but passing students along without honestly assessing the quality of their work is inefficient and uncaring. Here are three starting points:

1) Impress upon them that their commitment to improving their skills is the single most important variable in determining whether they’ll catch up to their college bound peers and that closing the gap will take months and years of tireless work.

2) Invite successful college students from their community back to tell them that they too can overcome the same long odds if they commit to working hard and taking advantage of the resources available to them.

3) Make sure resources are in place, whether it’s well funded public schools, Peace Lutheran-like after school tutoring programs, or intensive summer remediation programs hosted by college campuses admitting first generation college students.

The Purest Form of Teaching

One-on-one tutoring.

I was thinking about that while mountain biking with Lev Vgotsky in Capital Forest recently. Well not literally with Lev, figuratively.

Literally, I was cycling with Lance, one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. Sometimes though even the nicest guys have a devious core. Lance took me on a trail clearly outside my zone of proximal development.

He said it was a relatively mild Cap Forest trail which means I really suck. I went down twice, once I laid it down fairly gently into the dense shrubbery lining the super muddy 18″ wide trail and another I went over the bars. In this pic you can’t really appreciate how much blood is flowing from my knee and ankle under the layer of caked on mud. Badass, I know.

Blud and mud

I told mi esposa, una professora de Espanol, it was like dropping a Spanish 1 student in the center of Mexico City.

One of the central challenges of teaching well is adapting one’s curriculum and methods to students’ widely divergent preexisting knowledge and widely divergent skills. That is what non-educators don’t fully appreciate about teaching.

For example, take a high school swim team with 45 swimmers, 15 or so who swim on a club year round, 15 or so who only swim during the season, and 15 or so who are starting from scratch. What do you do? “Excellence” advocates might suggest cutting the “bottom thirders” but public school teachers don’t have that liberty. So what do you do when some seventh graders read, write, and ‘rithmetic at a 2nd grade level and others at the 12th? Then, for good measure, add in English Language learners, students with special needs, and well, maybe teaching is harder than it first appears.

In one-on-one tutoring it’s easier to figure out what the student knows and can already do, and therefore, it’s easier to adjust one’s material and methods in light of their zone of proximal development. Given that, maybe we should redesign our middle and high schools based upon one-on-one tutoring.

Probably unrealistic because people are so resistant to change. People would protest: we can’t have students coming and going from campus all the time; we can’t have students lose in the community; scheduling would be impossible; we can’t expect administrators, district bureaucrats, and parents to pitch in; we can’t expect students to be responsible and work more independently; we can’t redesign report cards; and we can’t do anything that disadvantages our students in the college application process.

Here’s how it might work. We wouldn’t need nearly as many administrators dealing with crowd control and discipline issues. So we take most of their walky talkies and deputize the majority of them as tutors. Same with district bureaucrats. We also deputize responsible adults in the community to both supervise student interns engaged in service-learning and to serve as tutors. We also ask parents to sign on as tutors in an academic, voc-ed, or life-skill area of their choice—Spanish, math, construction, baking, tax preparation, bicycle repair.

Some parents either won’t be qualified to, won’t be available to, or won’t want to participate, others may volunteer to tutor not just their children, but others too. For citizens that volunteer regularly, we could reduce their property taxes like Colorado did for seniors who volunteered in schools. Minimum expectations for community-based tutors could be detailed and teacher-leaders could design internet-based “how to tutor” modules and train them.

At high schools at least, we would also add in a layer of peer tutoring. Every student would be guided through a process of picking an academic subject (writing persuasive essays or solving algebraic proofs), extracurricular skill (competitive debate, swimming), or vocational ed set of skills (cooking or basic car maintenance) that they would be expected to teach a few of their peers. Again, teacher leaders could design internent-based “how to tutor” modules for students and teach peer tutoring first thing in the school year.

We’d completely rework the traditional bell schedule. At any one time, an expert swimmer would be teaching a beginner how to breath during freestyle, an advanced violinist would be teaching a beginner proper feet position and posture, an accomplished math student would be explaining to a less accomplished one how to solve for “x”. Upper and lower tracked students would interact regularly.

At home, in school libraries, and in community libraries, students would spend about half of their time reading, writing, and preparing for tutoring sessions.

Teachers would spend half of their time tutoring in their specialized academic areas and half as mentors supervising the tutoring network of ten or twenty students who they will get to know particularly well over the course of working with them for all three or four years of middle or high school. Thoughtful teacher supervision of each individual student’s tutoring network will be critical. This approach to teaching and learning would only work if the sum of the disparate tutoring experiences equaled more than the individual parts.

In any one day, a student would meet one-on-one with an adult in or near their home, with another adult somewhere in the community as a part of a service project or internship, with a few peers in school both as teacher and learner, and with a few teachers both to be tutored in core academic areas and to synthesize what they’re learning from all of their different tutors. And again, in between tutoring sessions, they’d be reading, writing, and preparing for upcoming sessions.

Crazy? Maybe I did hit my head on that over the handle bar number I did.