Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Reflections of a Transitional to College Math and English Teacher

Contextualizing Factors

I need to get this post written before too much time has elapsed since I completed the four classes I taught this past semester in preparing nurse's aides from the 1199 Training Fund in Hartford to enter a community college program in the fall. The eight students who completed the program worked hard this semester even as they will have a long way to go in the challenging work of completing an associate’s degree and working full time and raising a family while also maintaining a time consuming commitment to their church religious participation as a pivotal foundation to their lives of faith.

In addition to these time consuming endeavors, there is the ever present specter of threats of nursing home closures, the demand these important health care workers to give up ever more of their labor contractual agreements to the pressing demands of corporate management, and the looming possibility of strikes against nursing homes that not only refuse to honor the contracts they had negotiated, but show very little room to compromise as they press the health care union to give up already agreed upon benefits. As SEIU workers, these students are active participants of one of the most progressive labor unions in the country at a time when labor organizations are under threat, if not of their very existence, of their viability in the so called "post-industrial" era where the right to organize has become a dispensable add on, neither central to the contemporary progressive movement or the Democratic Party. The following reflection is meant to be considered with these contextualizing factors in mind.

Programmatic Issues

Transition to college work is a complex phenomenon, in part because the recidivism rate of college students who need to take developmental courses, as will virtually all of these students, notwithstanding our 15 weeks of classroom time, is quite high. TCC work focuses on a wide continuum of student abilities, needs, and related life challenges. The continuum may extend from those who simply need a modicum of support and training to those for whom the transition between adult education and community college represents a quantum leap. In terms of academic development as well as that of negotiating the very different landscape of the college terrain, the students that I taught were clearly in the latter realm, compensated in part in exhibiting a great deal of maturity, possessing a rich and complex wealth of life experience, and in their capacity for persistence, all of which may help to overcome some of the problems they are likely to encounter next year. The need, among other things, which the 1199 Training Fund counseling staff will provide, is to follow up on all of the participating students to make sure that they navigate the college environment in a reasonably satisfactory way.

TCC English

The English classes covered a great deal, including college prep counseling and written assignments focusing on student college and career plans. This focus provided the basis for some initial assignments in writing two five paragraph essays. This initial work in writing helped us to break ground on the longer science essay (science being the third course that these full time employees took!) which required challenging collaborative work between me and the science facilitator. This more extensive project consumed several of our English sessions which involved the hard work of helping students focus in on their topic ( cancer, diabetes, or heart disease) and to identify a workable body of research articles from a much more extensive collection of web-based articles on such websites as and and

The work required the writing of several drafts, putting text on a flash drive and importing it to the program-based computers as well as basic work on English syntax and grammar, coherent paragraph construction, and organizing the essay through specific topic headings. Working through these issues required subtle scaffolding in assuring that the students had sufficient support to move forward, but not so much that they would not have to use a great deal of their own initiative in handling an academic project much more complex than anything they had encountered in a formal schooling environment. Working out the collaborative dynamics between the two principles teachers also required a great deal of discernment. The students as well as the teachers felt more than a little challenged with this project, but we did get through it and several of the essays were quite well written.

TCC Math

There was a great deal packed into this course beyond "pure" English. This was not the case with the math course where we had three solid hours each week to bear down on the fundamentals of introductory math. The content was basic: prime factorization, orders of operations, positive and negative integers, fractions, and decimals. My approach was to teach deeply and extensively the content that we did cover, combining extensive board practice through both teacher modeling and student participation. This was buttressed by extensive explanation at what I envisioned was an exacting as possible level of understanding a given student or the class as a whole needed at any given point.

Since our classes were small we were able to provide a great deal of support for students who were having more difficulty with the math in which some of the other students acted with considerable effect as peer tutors, sometimes providing clearer explanations than I was able to. I would describe the math course as a working laboratory in which all of us were learning new things taking on and analyzing one "experiment" at a time as we put each problem on the board and dissected it. There was very little application to real life math, but a great deal of cognitive probing as our "situated learning" was geared toward grasping the mathematical basics that would be needed to succeed in community college math courses. In short, the course was focus on the context of preparing for basic college level math.

Concluding Reflections

There are many challenges in the transitional process. Close attention is needed not just in the arena of transitioning from adult education to college, but from community based literacy to adult education programs, where many students fall in between the gaps of being too advanced for one level of programming and not sufficiently prepared for a more advanced programmatic level. Critical issues obviously revolve around instruction, but also that of acclimating to the institutional focus and educational culture of the higher level program. Many subtle support systems are needed for students in large numbers to succeed in mastering their transitional goals. Among the most important is that of extensive bridging on both sides of the transitional divide, including providing timely and adequate assistance in mastering new instructional challenges, as well as dealing with such matters as effective time management, coping with changing emotional disposition, and the perpetual issues of coping adequately with changing scheduling needs and pressing financial challenges.

A great deal is on the table in adequately assuring that students will succeed in transitional programs. Much substantive analysis of the pivotal issues at hand as well as high quality programmatic reform and innovation beyond rhetorical nostrums may well be needed. The field will have to rise to the occasion in order to move beyond pilot programs and local experiments in order for solid transitional work to become a core staple of adult education programming in a manner that merits sustained public and private support. Agencies that have taken on such work have made a good start, but there is a long way to go before the level of success envisioned by transitional visionaries is truly attained.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Transition to College Math: Some Initial Reflections of a Math Neophyte

This winter/spring semester I've had the privilege of teaching two math courses to a hard working group of nurse's aides who are gearing up to enter the community college in the fall. As one might assume the students are at different places in their understanding and knowledge of math, yet work together quite well in the small group formats that comprise each of the two classes. It has been a stunning experience for myself as well--someone with more than a bit of perhaps well deserved math phobia who yet stood up when the opportunity to teach these courses opened up to me--an opportunity that perhaps many administrators would be reluctant to give me because of lack of formal experience in teaching math or significant formal educational training in the field. I spent over an hour almost every day in December and January beefing up my knowledge of math, starting with basic algebra and working backwards.

I experienced a good deal of frustration in the process and was stymied for what seemed like long periods of time learning how to compute prime factorization, least common denominators, greatest common factors, and even more, trying to figure out what role their function served. I eventually did get some eureka moments, but had put in some serious sweat equity to get there. I struggled with other basic computations also like learning how to subtract negative numbers and realizing finally that there were two steps: changing the subtraction sign to an addition sign and changing the second integer into its opposite. I couldn't for the life of me figure out that to subtract 7-2 really involved 7+(-2).

By show time I was finally at the level of knowledge that I felt confident teaching, feeling as well that I gained a concrete appreciation for the struggle that my students also experienced as they sought to learn "this stuff." What I learned as well is an appreciation both for a knowledge of the steps in working through various computations as well as an understanding of some of the thinking that went into such problems. This, along with the importance of pacing, giving a chance for each student to learn at her own rate and to experience a sense of empowerment in the process. I can't say that my teaching was always successful in establishing viable methods to teach the course content, though attention to the learning eneds of my students were uppermost in my mind.

What also stood out were persisting limitations, not in the sense of not being able to present in reasonably appealing ways the content focus of our lessons, but in the capacity to reach inward as deeply as I would have liked to both understand and explain why any given rule or procedure pertained. The underlying impulse prompting this thought is the seemingly paradoxical reflection that the more abstractly and comprehensively an instructor understands the "deep structure" of a given procedure or mathematical rule, the deeper is that person's pedagogical repertoire in providing a potentially broad range of cogent explanation. That may be the case, I would add, with someone who is reasonably attuned to the specific range of learning needs adult students have and can create a bridge between deep content and the learning challenges of specific stuents. This capacity is not necessarily a function of deep knowledge possession in itself, which, without effective pedagogies could lead to a distancing stance where the educator's very knowledge would very wellfunction as a barrier to facilitate a climate of engaged learning.

In my case I knew the materials sufficiently well to establish an engaging learning climate in our class room for most of the students most of the time. Yet, I could also sense there were levels of explanation desired by some students in some cases to which I was unable, or perhaps at some level unwilling to stretch deep enough in my own understanding to provide either the mode of explanation or a concrete enough example to bring a potentially "teaching moment" to fruition to have opened up a "eureka moment" within a particular student. To be sure there is much more for me to learn about the world of math, especially now that I have more of a taste for it, which I did not previously possess. Overall, the course has been a memorable learning experience I think for the students as well as myself, in which among a sense of seriousness, fun, has characterized our class encounters.

In these respects the the math course was much more than I anticipated would be the result when I took my initial preparation steps in December and January with much trepidation. It was, in the final analysis, as much as I possibly could have wished for and learned that I could be both successful and invigorated in the process. Thanks to my students and those administrators and a very supportive wife who had faith in me even as I doubted myself.

Adult education--you gotta love it!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Additional Reflections of a Busy Writing Center Tutor: Living on the Edge

Today was another jammin day at the Writing Center--virtually non-stop for four hours with me working in-depth as needed with several students with a little "triaging" on the side for waiting students completing final assignments for the semester. I'll concentrate here on my first two students.

My first student wrote a spiffy essay about "living on the edge." It had a few ambivalences built into the piece, which at this late stage of essay development can be difficult to untangle. Under such time constraints that both the student faced as did I, with students waiting, it often seems better to work with the draft largely as written rather than asking the student to rethink the piece in any fundamental sense. To be sure, when the writing assignment simply doesn't work--one that I encountered today—I work with the writer in a more foundational sense in engaging the hard work of radical reconstruction.

The ambivalence in this essay was my uncertainty as to whether the writer, reflecting back on his childhood, actually thought his father was a "cool guy" or not in bringing his young son to the bar with him. One of the key points of the essay is his recounting in favorable, even exciting terms, the theme he was writing about; living on the edge. The ambivalence I picked up was based on his first sentence where he recounts being raised by his mother and his "so called father." Even with the ambivalence unsettled the essay captured what seemed to me a very authentic voice, including such gems as a child "throwing glass on the floor" and "hitting people just for the hell of it."

The student finished the essay recounting that as a kid how initially having ridden on "the stupid tricycle" without head gear he became socialized to ride without protection once he graduated to a bicycle and how when he fell off the bike he would "cry the pain out and continue on nothing happened." In short, he liked "being a little adventurous" and loved how he "lived on the edge. We worked a bit on grammar and I told him I liked the essay a great deal.

The second student (the first and second student were together) had the same assignment (funny how that works), though he took a different slant. His essay was titled, "A Risky Childhood." There was also some ambivalence in this piece, which, if more time were available, I might have explored it with him--though here there was enough uncertainty on my part that I did ask for some clarification of meaning. The student recounted his experience as a child growing up in Puerto Rico where parents didn't make a "big deal" of kids not riding bikes without helmets, driving in cars without seat belts, and leaving the doors to his home unlocked.

Where I thought he was going with the essay was noting that in Puerto Rico such precautions were unnecessary, which when he came to Hartford, he realized they were here because of the different way of life in the two areas. Thus, in P.R. his family didn't worry about locked doors "because we knew everyone in the neighborhood." As I probed with him where he was going with the piece, he eventually concluded that in Hartford he learned that his way of living in Puerto Rico was dangerous once he noticed the various customs, laws and safety precautions that were evident in Hartford, which he didn't notice in his homeland.

I'm not sure what would have developed had I pushed him further to explain the various perceptions that he was seeking to convey as he described his experiences in Puerto Rico and Hartford (attempting to capture them in real time sequence) and how immigrant memories can subtly shift in various recountings based on an emergent socialization which perhaps never ends. In short, while both of these students constructed interesting essays, a bit more time for deeper probing may well have opened up some even richer reflections that might have emerged with another substantive draft. Whether my imagination was possibly suggesting more than what seemed evident on the surface in each of the papers is also an issue worthy of much deep explication--a thought for another day.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Jammin at the Writing Center

Jammed packed day today from the moment I walked in to the moment I left.

My first student with whom I worked with before, wanted me to check his essay for grammatical errors. I'm a tutor, not an editor I said to myself, the predominant position of a great deal of writing center pedagogy. However, I am also an adult educator and am closely attuned to the importance of scaffolding focused at the nexus of where a student is somewhat stuck and what he/she could accomplish with a little assistance. The student had previously worked with another tutor on this essay focusing on content, which was reasonably solid, but some basic, mostly minor grammatical/punctuation issues needed to be addressed. My "compromising" strategy was to make notations on the paper where grammatical errors were evident and to ask him to identify them and to fix up the paper himself. I worked with this fellow before and was gratified to see the progress he has made this semester. He's been plugging away at his writing as was evident in this last assignment of the semester for his developmental class.

I spent over an hour with the next student who had presenting me with her hand written, difficult to read essay, asking for help on writing a concluding paragraph. We reviewed her textbook notations on writing conclusions to get at what is expected in a conclusion, which she had previously read. She got the "theory," but still had no idea of how to write a conclusion for this particular paper. The short essay was a several paragraph assignment discussing the role of parental discipline in childrearing (the second time I had encountered this assignment). Like the first student I assisted last week with this same assignment, this student thought parents, especially of inner city youths had to take a firmer stance with their children in disciplining them and were basically failing to do so.

Fortunately my student had part of the essay written on her flash drive which helped us in our work together a great deal. As it turned out there was a lot of work to do before we could even begin to address the issue of effectively concluding the essay. The primary problem was that she was all over the place in discussing parenting issues and the various dangers (her emphasis) inner city children and youth were facing in terms of violence in the home and street, drugs, and popular media, and the necessity of effective parental discipline and guidance to help inner city children and youth counter these deleterious influences. One of the primary problems with the essay is that the student did not have these problems conjoined. Another problem is she added text that was off topic, which would either require additional elaboration or deletion.

We spent the bulk of our time addressing these issues, along with some focus on minor grammatical issues. The cumulative result of our work together is that by the end of the session she had a much tighter essay. Still, she did not have a conclusion or even a basis for one. I discussed with her the two major themes in her paper: the difficulties parents were having with enacting effective discipline and the consequences of not doing so. I suggested that she could conclude the essay by drawing out summary statements on these two issues, and that, moreover, at this point in her essay development, she might be better served by just noting what she would say before attempting to write full statements. As the rest of the paper was in fairly decent shape, she felt she was in a position to give this effort at least a shot. I recommended that she give a solid effort at writing a concluding paragraph based on the two points suggested and that she come in once again for me or another tutor to take another look.

This student felt that she made progress during our in-depth session as did I.

For the final student I could only spend about 20 minutes. She had a U.S. history paper focused on the theme of freedom. The problem was primarily a language issue in that the student was from Egypt and lacked native fluency in writing English. She said she knew what she wanted to say and when it "translated" onto the page in English, what she had written at least in sections of the essay was not exactly parallel with what she wanted to convey and would have if she were writing in her native language. My strategy was to probe into her meaning when I encountered text that was either not exactly clear or seemed to be off-base in some capacity. Through discussion I was able to help her better clarify her meaning in English prose. We got through a portion of the essay and had to quit. I encouraged her to come back to an afternoon session so she could more fully address the issue today (Monday) since the essay would be due on Wednesday.

There may have been another student with whom I worked, but if so, memory of that has eluded me.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

All About Copying and Pasting Internet Documents into Word Seven Documents

What follows is the second student sheet I've developed, this time to help students follow the copying and pasting procedures of Internet documents into Word documents. We have practiced these steps in the past two sessions without written instructions in which I did a great deal of modeling and coaching while working with students often one-on-one as they work through these various steps. Now that they've gone through it several times perhaps having the steps available in written form while working through the process once again will have a positive impact. What will be instructive as well is once we've worked through the steps with the written guidlines, how successful students will be in attempting the process independently. What may be worthwhile probing into as a broader pedagogical issue is if learning is best enhanced in having written instructions available from the onset or whether, by and large, it is more instructive to experientially work through such procedures through modeling and verbal instructions and in the process fostering a modest level of uncertainty, building up a desire for such formalized guidlines.

All About Copying and Pasting Internet Documents into Word 2007

Copying a document
1. Identify the article and the format of the article you want to copy.
a. In a Hartford Courant article it is best to scroll down below the photo and click on the print button.
b. For a Healthy School Lunch Document, just begin with the identified article you want to copy.
2. Place the mouse curser at the beginning of the article.
3. Keep the mouse steady, click the left portion of your mouse and hold it down.
4. Keeping the left click held down, drag the mouse until you get to the bottom of the article.
5. Let go of the mouse. “Look Ma, no hands!!”
6. Without clicking bring the mouse into some portion of the copied material.
7. Click the right button of your mouse. You will see “copy.”
8. Left click on the copy.
9. Minimize your document.

Pasting a Document1. Open up or go to Word.
1. Open up or go to Word.
2. Go to Office Button and Click Open.
3. Find the appropriate folder.
4. You may have to go to one or more subfolders. For the computer lab, the sequence is as follows.
a. My Documents
b. George
c. Word 2007
d. AM or PM Students
e. Your Name
f. The appropriate folder for the document you want.
i. For the Hartford Courant it would be General Articles.
ii. For the Healthy Lunches Curriculum it would be Healthy Lunches.
g. Once you have found the appropriate folder, cancel that (lower right on your screen)
h. Go back to office and click on “New.”
i. Double click the blank document.
j. Bring your mouse curser toward the top of your new document page.
k. When you see the rectangular box with small arrows pointed up and down, click the right button of your mouse. (This may take practice!!)
l. Left click onto the paste button. The document will appear.
m. Go back to the Office Button. Click Save As.
n. Name your Document. Otherwise the first word of your document, which is not always the most descriptive, will be automatically saved.
o. In naming documents you want to make sure that it is something that you will easily remember when you see it later.
p. Go to the Office once more and click on close if you are not going to work on that document any more for the time being.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Sending and Recieving E-Mail Attachments


In the course I teach on Basic Word 2007 application, I worked with students on sending and receiving word documents through e-mail. There are many steps, and likely too many for our students to remember. One of my students suggested I make a list for them to follow. This is the list of steps that came to mind. In the next post I'll provide a companion copy and paste from Internet to Word procedure. Next Friday I'll find out how these sheets actually work in our class.

All About E Mail Attachments

Sending Email attachments
1. Open email and write email addresses you want to send the document to in the “To" Box
2. Write an appropriate subject topic in your subject box
3. Click on attachment button
4. Find the appropriate folder and file you want to send
5. Click on the folder you want
6. Check your sent box to make sure the email was sent
7. Make sure the attachment was sent

Receiving E Mail Attachments and Placing Them in Appropriate Folder and Naming the File if Needed
1. Click on the appropriate email
2. Double click the Word attachment
3. Click on download instructions
4. Open the file
5. Go to the Office button and click Save As
6. Find appropriate folder where you want to place the document
7. Once you are sure you have the file in the appropriate folder, click Save.
8. Close the file or begin working in it if appropriate

That’s all there is to it!!!