Backstory: Measuring the Circumference of a Circle
How Measuring the Circumference of a Circle Was Not Going to Equip Students to Meet and Overcome the Challenges of a Different Test: Their Ability to Survive
As we worked to create an effective pilot program for overage high school students, one sizable challenge was the complication of inheriting academically struggling young adults with very low attendance rates in their former schools. It took an inordinate amount of time to build trust while we constantly encouraged students to continue coming to school. But we understood their resistance this way: if you’ve often experienced only failure, it’s far easier to stay away from an institution that reminds you of failure than to summon the courage to attend school and address learning gaps. This is particularly true when many, but not all, of the difficulties may have arisen from poor attendance in previous schools. Convincing students that their journey did not have to continue on the same trajectory became a multipronged process and required the school staff to be innovative and persistent in our efforts.
First, we had to revamp our assumptions and instructional model. For instance, the distribution of a tenth-grade math, science, or history book based on the grade level designated in each student’s official record proved to be an inaccurate, and oftentimes detrimental, way of assigning students to classes. Although we believed that with quality instruction students would eventually achieve and then surpass the grade stamped on their record, we found we could not assume that, upon their arrival, they were all reading or able to understand the content at the tenth-grade level.
Instead, we had to assess actual current performance levels, which we never perceived as an absolute indication of their true ability. After all, the entire staff was committed to the belief that every student possessed the ability to learn. That philosophical mantra was often proven true once we identified their educational level of mastery, and then designed initial lessons for success based primarily on what they demonstrated they could do. This instructional process—scaffolding up to more rigorous levels of instruction once they demonstrated a degree of mastery in preceding lessons—proved effective in advancing each student along their individual learning curve at their own pace.
We also discovered something important about our new arrivals: what they did not know reflected what they had not been taught, what they were taught but never understood, or what teachings they had missed because of absences. We were determined not to add to their educational frustration by assigning them work above (in some cases well above) their current performance levels. Likewise, we refused to assign work below their performance level, which would have continued the cycle of frustration. (A number of students’ underperformance levels were tied to boredom, which led to disengagement from classes and then school.)
It was imperative that we assess current levels of performance at the start of each school year so we could meet students at and teach them from a starting point where they could experience success. Building their self-esteem to restore their faith in their own ability to learn meant we had to use a model of integrity: meeting them where they were in order to move them forward with their educational progress. The fact that we did this without shaming or blaming them for what the start-of-the-year assessments revealed helped restore their trust in those of us responsible for their education. The students were able to experience receiving an education in a new way. It was about maintaining their sense of dignity.
After we adjusted our assumptions and instructional methods, the second step was to build rapport. I shared, by way of being willing to serve as a personal example, how one’s present circumstances don’t have to determine one’s life’s trajectory. I understood and directly spoke to their plight of being born into poverty with limited resources. I explained that resiliency and resourcefulness were attributes that could serve to overcome whatever economic status one was born into. I told them that being young adults meant their life script had not yet been written and that they had time—if they spent that time well by investing in education—to create a different and more prosperous script in their favor.
Third, the decision to remake an educational culture more responsive to the needs of students on the verge of dropping out was bolstered by the findings in a study by the Parthenon Group, which was sanctioned by the school district. The purpose of the study was twofold: to investigate reasons for the trend of increasing dropout rates among high school students, and to explore potential remedies to reverse this trend. Our school’s cultural shift aligned with some of the proposed remedies in the study. And the district’s decision to invest in online education platforms was instrumental in accelerating our efforts to make education highly accessible from anywhere. The mobility of education by way of portable laptops that could access the internet from home and/or places of employment, community libraries, and other locations with bandwidth, netted favorable results—including a significant reduction in our dropout rates. (See “education week demand still growing for online credit recovery classes july 13 2010” and “Local Pilot School Excels,” Jamaica Plain Gazette, December 14, 2007.
Fourth, the formula for engaging students in learning had to include understanding the range of diverse learning profiles, and this understanding naturally influenced the expanded menu of learning options. Traditional academic standards, with detailed skills targeted for development at all grade levels, were embedded in the framing of new courses designed to better engage students in learning. For example we found that exchanging a traditional English I course with a broader selection of Humanities courses—such as Investigative Journalism, and research projects featuring controversial topics like “Examining the Evolution of the ‘N’ Word”—could implement state-mandated standards and the development of specific skills while significantly increasing student interest and engagement. For Journalism and Research courses, the instruction focused on how to develop students as scholars through an investigative evidence-based learning model that included current events and other topics of genuine interest to students yet still aligned with the scope and sequence of statewide standards. Offering culturally relevant courses with interesting content not only more fully engaged the students in learning but also accelerated the pace of addressing deficiencies identified in assessments at the start of the school year. The key was to find meaningful topics that would generate and sustain high interest in learning. Over time, we observed an increased percentage of passing rates at the “advanced” and “proficiency” levels achieved by our students, as well as improvement over consecutive years on statewide English Language Arts assessments. The data was gratifying because it validated our decision to diversify our methods of instruction.
Transforming Our Success from ‘Good’ to ‘Great’
Student performance outcomes on assessments continued to improve, and students were achieving success beyond the one-dimensional method of assessing academic ability. Annual standardize assessments overlooked the need to build and assess competency in other consequential areas. Communication skills needed to be developed and enhanced through writing, reading, vocabulary expansion, casual conversation, and effectively making one’s needs known under a variety of circumstances. Public Speaking Forums, School Debates, Senior Portfolio Presentations, and Infographic Team Projects, as well as learning the correct pronunciation, meaning, and use of new college words each week, were standard practice. So was calling out grammatically incorrect statements in casual conversation. Generally, the adage of one’s writing linked with how they speak, motivated our efforts to prompt students to write and speak well at all times.
Cultural relevancy was maintained by granting students the freedom to select research topics; and if they were participating in debates or preparing info graphic sources, these had to be accurately cited to avoid plagiarism. College-level concepts and vocabulary words like motif, pun, and symbolism were researched by finding examples of favorite hip hop artists, whose mastery of their play on words provided an abundance of examples of motifs. The students dissected the artist’s lines to discover the meaning of “motif.” They posted their findings and images of the artists on a wall to share with others. But it was the opportunity to write their own rhymes or spoken word poetry, where they could showcase their own examples of how well they understood those concepts, that heightened their enjoyment in learning and crystalized their true understanding of the terms. Playful play on words was all it took to inspire them to take ownership of lessons they learned.
Also impressive was the way the instructions were delivered by a rather intimidating but commanding voice in charge of sharing riddles needing to be solved within a specific time frame while in every chamber. In fact, the riddle had to be solved in order to be able to proceed onto the next chamber. The theatrical elements sounded quite convincing when all were informed that if the riddle was not solved correctly and within the time specified, everyone in the chamber would suffer an unimaginable consequence. Just because students weren’t told what the consequence was doesn’t mean they didn’t try to imagine what it might be. Those chambers had our students’ imaginations working overtime, and they were hyper-aware of the clock that ticked down the minutes and seconds. Students alternated between focusing on solving the riddle to sharing what they imagined the consequence might be; like maybe the floor under their feet suddenly collapsing and dropping them down into a mysterious tunnel or rabbit hole, never to be seen again. Seriously, that’s how convincing the voice was in putting fear into their ears, hearts, and heads. But two very important features that made this explorative learning work exceptionally well were that it required group collaboration for solving riddles in every chamber of horror, and each chamber had a more rigorous and challenging riddle to solve than the last. It was one of the most truly multi-sensory experiential and adventurous learning experiences my students and I had ever participated in.