Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Bridge over Academic Troubles

Next Friday at midnight ends a first half-of-a-semester class for fifteen fledgling Medical Assistant students. Their next seven-week class, Health Care Customer Service, begins the following morning at 8 a.m.. That gives them, I reminded them in class yesterday, a whole eight-hours to kick back and take it easy until we meet again.

They smiled, but did not complain.

This group of students, a mix of ELL and Adult Basic Education students, are enrolled in a Career Pathways Bridge program. The Bridge is a class that offers low-level students supplemental instruction concurrent with a real-live program course. While I don't teach the content of the class, I do team teach with a state-certified Medical Assistant instructor who does do content. My job is to stay out of her way, assist when I can, and help Bridge students work on basic skills such as reading, writing, computer fundamentals, study skills and motivation. In some courses, I even teach a little math.

Low level students and English language learners struggle in a traditional classroom because they have not had the academic background of traditional college-bound students. So Bridge planners, curriculum writers, and faculty -- like me-- try to adjust the traditional schedule and give the students little extra help -- like me -- to give them the chance to be successful. Most of the time, that is all they need. My college has successfully implemented this pathway strategy in nine separate programs and dozens of courses in business, trades and health sciences. The curriculum is not changed in these courses. That is an important point. There is no difference in course competencies between a Bridge Health Care Customer Service class and traditional Health Care Customer Service class; we just help out a bit.

Fortunately, motivation is usually not a problem for Bridge students. They know that hard work and overcoming academic and personal obstacles are the pathway toward success. Their hunger for education is inspirational and reminds me of a story reported by NY Times columnist, David Brooks, some years back about a speech given by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio at the Jack Kemp Foundation's Leadership Award dinner.

First a little background: Sen. Rubio's parents came from Cuba in 1956 and worked their way up to a middle class life: his mother as a maid, cashier and retail clerk; and his father as a convention banquet bartender. The night of 2012 Kemp speech, the service staff, remembering those stories, gave Sen. Rubio an honorary hotel name tag which said, "Rubio, Banquet Bartender."

Success and dreams, Sen. Rubio later told the dinner crowd while applauding the work of the service staff, "starts with our people: in the kitchens of our hotels, in the landscaping crews that work in our neighborhoods, in the late-night janitorial shifts that clean our offices. There you will find the dreams American was based on. There you will find the promise of tomorrow. Their journey is our nation's destiny. And if they can give their children what our parents gave us, the 21st-century America will be the single greatest nation that man has ever know."

For my Bridge students, their success and dreams articulated by Rubio, continues at 8 a.m. next Saturday morning. I expect to see them there early, eager and ready to work hard.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Average White Bread Definition of Equity

I have lived a Joe Average life: an ethnic mix of German and French grandparents, Caucasian with a bit of Menominee, blue-collar from my Green Bay west-side upbringing, raised Catholic, more cousins than I can count, public school graduate, Packer fan since forever, married to one lady for many happy years, home-owner, two cars, two televisions and four computers. Just an average white bread guy, a bit puffed in the center, found on the middle shelves of any local bakery.

Thinking about this, I realize I have been living an idyllic Northeast Wisconsin version of midwestern life described in the Saturday-night narratives of Garrison Keillor. I am very fortunate to have found a comfortable place and, until recently, I had not given my ethnic, racial, economic or cultural privileges much thought. Why should I? Everywhere I looked, I saw people who looked like me and lived in a place where, as Keillor famously says, "All the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average." And all our faces are white.

What could change?

During an Equity 101 session in our 2014 Fall Inservice Days, Jennifer Higgs, Green Bay Area Public School District Equity Coordinator, burst my self-satisfied bubble. She reported that people like me (that is, white) are still in the majority in the local schools, but not by much: 51-percent of public school students are white, while 49-percent are not. The mix of non-white populations is 26-percent Hispanic, 8-percent Black, 7-percent Asian, and 4-percent American Indian.

Breaking down the figures by grades shows a steady advance of students of color through the grades. In Green Bay Area elementary schools, 49-percent of the students are students of color; in middle schools, 49.5-percent; and in high schools, 43.5-percent. Compare that to the classrooms where I work: according to 2014 NWTC demographics only 12-percent of students self-report as students of color. This gap between the K-12 system and my college rosters predicts a steady increase in the number of students of color enrolling in our classrooms. Change is coming. Am I ready for it?

My college, obviously, is preparing me for the changes in the student population coming from the Green Bay Public Schools. Diversity/Inclusivity classes have been put in place in order to help everyone understand and work with the minority/majority who will be seeking our services in the coming years. And, to guide our staffing and student planning, the college drafted its own definition of "equity" this summer that asks all staff (support, faculty and leadership) to meet "all students where they are and remove barriers to student success so they can achieve course and program completion and attain a career."

In past semesters, my students have been a mix of white faces and students of color. This year, while teaching supplemental instruction in entry-level Medical Assistant and Electrical Systems classes, I find that I am one of very few white faces in the classroom. Before the Equity 101 presentation, I had not given that much thought: a student was just a student to me. Now, I wonder if that is still a valid instructional point of view?

Should I treat students of color different than I treat white students? I could be wrong, but I don't think the college is asking me to do that. What it asks is that I acknowledge that the world that these student come from is not the Wobegon-world that I have grown up in. Students of color face barriers that I know nothing about and shouldn't pretend to understand. I can't know what it is like to grow up and live in a community dominated by people different from you and your family. White pretense around diversity issues seems a little insulting to me. I think all I can do is re-double my efforts to treat each student as valued customer with unique needs, wants and abilities.

While working toward student dreams for program and career success, differences in race and ethnicity are not forgotten -- how can they be -- but can be set to one side during school time. My students, white and of color, hope for the things that every student hopes for: fairness, honesty, inspiration, knowledge, understanding, patience, rigor, professionalism and the chance to succeed. We have that bond in common if nothing else. When I look into the faces of my students, what I see are not others who are a different color than me, but a reflection of myself not that many years ago, as an aspiring student in the classroom. That, I do understand.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Autumn Colchicum

We moved the petunia pot a little to the right in order to see the star spray of petals beneath it. Oops: we forgot that we planted the bulbs in that spot. A half dozen rosy purple Colchicum, a sort of fall crocus on steroids, hovered only six inches above the ground among the leaves. It didn't care that we had forgotten it. It was just happy to appear during the early hours of a glorious fall morning.

It's always a surprise when the Colchicum blooms because the flower emerges quickly and in full force suspended from a single, almost translucent stalk. I've seen the flower grace late season gardens and pop up in the middle of lawns where a corner garden once lived. Once established, the bulb will stubbornly return year after year. Because the Colchicum flower is not clothed in supporting leaves, a common name for the plant is the Naked Lady and so she is. Surrounded by a carpet of Kentucky Bluegrass, the bloom boldly shows her charms to new homeowners who wonder where the botanical Godiva came from.

Colchicum autumnale (its official botanical name), a member of the order Liliales (thus the slender leaf shape), is said to be the only species of its genus native to Great Britain. I wonder how they know that, though demeanor of the species does seem to be in sync with the Brits' national temper. Most of the time, the Colchicum quietly builds up strength beneath the surface, hidden from the limelight, and bides its time before the spectacular day that it chooses to appear. Then, it's as subtle as a ribald Christmas pantomime.

I learned in my herbaceous classes that all parts of the plant are as deadly as arsenic, so it's not the sort of plant you choose for the garden of a young family. The toxic chemical of the plant, called colchicine, was once used, I assume guardedly, as a herbal remedy for inflammation. That caught the attention of a group of cancer researches at the University of Bradford in West Yorkshire, UK, a few years ago who were looking for a "smart bomb" to destroy cancer tumors. After an initial flurry of publicity and notes in the Cancer Journal, I have not heard much more about their progress.

Perhaps the researchers were not able to make the flower palatable to the human body, its toxicity overwhelming its usefulness. Perhaps it was not as effective against the deadly cancer as it was once hoped. Or perhaps, it is just too early to judge the effects of research or clinical trials. Perhaps the autumn lady is just waiting, quietly, patiently to reveal her benefits to medicine in her own time. We should never underestimate, overlook or dismiss the benefits that lay all about us in the natural world. One never knows when a forgotten treasure will pop up.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

RLCs: Start Small. Go Anywhere.

I pity the poor NWTC delivery van driver. His weekly route is east and north, west and north and then, north and north, and north. The NWTC District is large, ungainly and spread out over the rural and wooded northeast corner of Wisconsin with the cities of Green Bay and De Pere anchoring the bottom of the map. Think of the thumb and first two fingers of your right hand, palm up. That's our District.

The main Green Bay campus sprawls over the old Larson Orchard site on the southwest side of the city, just north of West Mason St. There are satellite mini-campuses in Marinette an hour north of Green Bay, up the first finger, and in Sturgeon Bay about 45-minutes north north-east just over the Bayview Bridge on the thumb of the Door Peninsula. Regional Learning Centers fill in some of the spaces between: Luxemburg-Casco, Niagara, Crivitz, Oconto Falls, and Shawano. In addition, NWTC regional managers and central planners extend our classes into local high schools and community and job centers. We've got the District covered.

Up to now, I have split my time between the West Regional Center in Shawano and the Northwest Regional Center in Oconto Falls (thus the name of this blog playing on the title of the 1959 Hitchcock movie: North by Northwest). Either center building could fit inside the gymnasium of the Green Bay campus with parking spaces to spare. But size does not indicate amount of learning that's happening at each of these small sites every day.

Though the buildings are modest, both of  "my" sites schedule full-grown programs in business, health science, ag and general studies. On any day (or night or weekend) in-person and video-conference classrooms at either site run concurrent classes in Nursing Assistant and Healthcare Business Services as well as Accounting, Leadership Development and Human Resources and other courses. This is in addition to a full schedule of General Studies courses transferable to 28 other four-year colleges, including the UW-system.

Our students, especially those in trades and other lab-intensive courses know they will eventually have to travel to take some of their classes in Green Bay, Marinette or Sturgeon Bay. Car detailing and phlebotomy just don't work on VC. Until that time, however, students at the Regional Learning Centers experience college on a small scale, but with no less rigor. I give credit to the leadership who has spread a strong network of student success west, northwest, north, east and central. I may be a tad biased, but I give even more credit to the RLC staff and part-time faculty (formerly called adjuncts) who are key to the success of the regional centers. They are the front-line faces of post-secondary education for many students of the district.

When you serve a District that spans half a hand, and a couple of tanks of gas, it's important for both economic and political reasons to provide equal opportunities for certificate, vocational diploma and associate degree programs across the entire area. NWTC students, all 42,000 by last count, are confident that wherever they go -- main campus in Green Bay or auto tech classes in Wausaukee -- they will receive consistent, quality education. Your zip code shouldn't limit your dreams. As our billboards put it, "Start Here, Go Anywhere."

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Talking Them Down from the Ledge

The chilled reality of the new fall semester settles in when students (especially adult students in school for the first time in many years) turn to the back pages of the syllabus and see a long list of readings, exercises, worksheets, papers, presentations and projects they will have to complete in order to successfully complete the course. Vision blurs and their eyes take on a vacant look as they look up at you but through you, the whiteboard and out past classroom walls toward a dread of failure. It's a kind of academic shock.

The problem is that these students base their fear on the totality of the course as one unpalatable slab that has to be digested before breakfast coffee in the morning. Then, to escalate alarm, they realize that they have four other course schedules just as daunting. "Do I belong in a college classroom?" they ask themselves.

Students need instructors to provide context and support in those first moments. Students have 15-weeks not one day to plan and work and complete all the assessments of the semester. Sure, instructors will make students work a bit -- you need to earn the learn -- but we are not going to make college impossible. What would be the point of that?  Sometimes, I wonder if we shouldn't hide our expectations a little to ease the shock and then issue a new 2.0 version of the syllabus a month in: "Surprise! There are four papers due in this course not two." Well, maybe not.

So, many instructors, like me, spend quite a bit of time that first week in the classroom, through emails and during office hours, talking students down from the ledge, as one of my colleagues puts it. We help students plan a study schedule that makes college doable whether it's through a planning app, a student planner or a week-by-week email reminder. Planning is important, but during the initial days of the semester, I just want students to start breathing again.

I look for determination, dedication and discipline from students during those first weeks, not despair. I need them to trust that I will get them through the first days, weeks and months. Past that, they need to drive. Planning is critical to carving the semester into reasonable chunks. But so is common sense. How do you eat the elephant that is a semester of work, the parable asks? One bite at a time -- after you climb down from the ledge.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Happy: Back Home in the Classroom

I got the keys from the front desk envelope after two weeks too many days of well-meaning but soul-draining in-service meetings. It's good to be home again -- back in the classroom. This is where a teacher belongs.

It doesn't matter that bookcase cabinets of the classroom had been emptied, moved and reshuffled again or that the color of the classroom flipped from a neutral beige to an edgy palette of dark maroon and the kind of fluorescent green you usually pick up off the floor of a calf pen. It didn't matter that no one seemed to know where the attendance sheets from summer classes were or that some of the students on the roster only existed in the imagination of PeopleSoft. It didn't matter that all the summer projects that had been planned and promised in April had not been delivered. Most had. The rest don't matter. Life is good.

None of that matters when you flip on the lights in the classroom for the first time in the fall and see rows of stacked chairs, polished tables and an unopened package of markers on a whiteboard tray. Heaven. There's nothing quite like the promise, hope, anticipation of the first days of a new school year. It's part busman's holiday and part New Year's Day. It's a clean marker board for everyone. For the instructor, the students, the staff and leadership, a brand new school year is the best sort of gift that summer can give you.

When I don't have this feeling come some September, I'll know that it is time to make that appointment with HR to talk about Wisconsin Retirement System benefits. Some day I know that will happen.

But now. Not today. It's good to be back in the classroom.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Yellow Tablet Surrounded by Laptops

My colleague to my right sat down and pulled out a silver HP laptop.

Then another sat across from me. "Ready for another meeting?" she said and opened up another HP laptop. A third, pulled out a chair at the long nondescript conference table, laughed at the comment and opened up her HP. Triplets. After she keyed her password, she pulled a smartphone out of her purse and placed it alongside the laptop. Multi-tasking, As I looked around, I noted there was more raw computer power in the room than all of NASA during the Apollo 11 mission. We were working on a PowerPoint presentation for the next day's inservice meeting. Apollo 11 landed Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon.

I pulled out my yellow tablet.

To be honest, I bring a laptop to meetings when I think I need to do a lot of writing, but I'd rather not. I'm a quick typist, so too often when I am in typing cruise mode the words go in the ears and out the fingers without engaging the brain. Laptop-induced notes go on for pages and pages and have been prescribed as a natural sleep aid. Afterwards, if I do look at the notes, it's as if I wasn't at the meeting at all: "We agreed to do what?"

My meeting recording device of is the Pilot G2 retractable rollerball pen (blue, not black, green or purple). I love that pen. I use it to scribble notes, record main ideas, recall people to contact, and connect disparate parts of the meeting with a shorthand of circles, arrows, stars and checks that make sense to me and mystifies my HP neighbors. Because the notes are cryptic and, ok, sometimes a little messy, I transfer them to other sheets and notes by the end of the day. That's a newspaper reporter habit: review the notes while they are still fresh. When that's done, I staple the translation to the original. Mission accomplished.

I find that handwritten notes engage the brain at a deeper level than do typed notes. The action of picking up a pen and decoding information into the hieroglyphics we call letters creates active neural pathways where learning and retention circle about. The best, most effective learning travels through active neurons, not those who have put up their toes for the night. This summer, I read that players of the Cleveland Browns were given e-tablets in training camp for play books and for film study, but those e-fads were banned from meeting rooms by first-year head coach Mike Pettine. Instead at each seat lay the old-fashioned pencil and paper. Pettine told the Wall Street Journal, "To write is to learn. When you write stuff down, you have a much higher chance of it getting imprinted on your brain"

Coaches know this. Teachers know this. Even those in my meeting of the day knew this if they gave the notion an unplugged moment of thought. That is why a best practice is to encourage and plan for notebooks and notetaking in the classroom rather than passive input through a keyboard. Technology works in many classroom activities, but note taking is not one of them. Not if the purpose of the presentation is to actually learn something. Of course in meetings, it's usually just toes up.