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.

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