High Hopes, Small Successes

They were one of those adults people have reduced expectations of - my favourite kind of learner.

There seemed to be some fine-motor difficulties. Maybe a cognitive delay due to processing challenges. The learner self-diagnosed as having memory problems (though they never actually seemed to forget much). The person received long-term disability support and other kinds of state care, suggesting they had been sent to us for "quality of life" reasons.

The learner was what we sometimes call a "lower-level" learner. They entered the program in late January, assessing at an independent reading level of 4 on an informal assessment scale (0 to 15), and a math level of 3 on an informal assessment scale (0 to 10). This placed the person at the lowest of the 5 internationally used adult literacy and math skill levels.

Learners of whom we - the great societal "we" - have reduced expectations are my favourite kind because, in these cases, they - the distant governing "they" - give me permission to deviate from a government scripted curriculum. I am allowed to do reflective practice. I am allowed to draw from a shared well of learning about how to scaffold adult learning. I am allowed to try this, try that, watch and learn, and, with the learner, find something that works.

What worked in math was workbooks. I provided close assistance, verbally explaining and demonstrating the hows and why of whatever they were working on. I also created additional math word- and arithmetic problems tailored to the learner's current focus.

The skill-sets we worked on first were long-hand multiplication and long division. Later, we moved to adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing decimals. At one point the learner asked for instruction in algebra - mostly out of curiosity - and I provided it. I kept the math simple, showing how a problem like 5 + "something" = 8 was set out and solved with algebra. This seemed to suffice, and after a week the learner returned to decimals.

What worked in reading-writing related learning was reading the Hollywood memoir of a star from a television and movie series that the learner found entertaining. (Watching this series was the only response they gave to the question, "What do you like to do for fun?")

The memoir was written for the general public, and tested above this learner's independent reading level of 4; something that caused some basic confusions. Still, the learner's interest in and background knowledge of the show made up for some of the reading difficulty.

Each day, the learner wrote out summaries of what they were reading (often copying out short passages wholesale). They then typed these into an MS Word document on our in-class computer. Becoming able to locate and open this file, type within it, and save and close it successfully was another skill-set they acquired.

I made a second informal skill assessment in May, after about 200-225 class hours. The learner had progressed from a math level of 3 to a math level of 5. Their independent reading level had stretched to from a 4 to a reading level of 6.

These skill-improvements aren't life-changing. This isn't exactly "rubber tree plant" stuff. And certainly, there are things I could have done better.

For example, they would have profited more from a memoir or history of the show written at a lower level. The book the learner chose to read was one I had at hand in my classroom. I couldn't lay my hands on a more appropriate one immediately. I guess I might have written one. But I was uncertain about the message I would be sending if I tried to replace a text they wanted to read with one I thought would be more helpful. Maybe I could have offered to read some sections aloud, or put them on tape (/mp3) for the learner?

Too, the learner would have benefited from more guidance (verbal, modeled) in things like finding the main idea(s) in a passage or in putting a passage in one's own words. With my support, this learner could have produced a short booklet of their own about the series using in-class computer tools.

But all that would have taken more time and effort on my part. In truth, there were other learners I was more concerned about. And even if I had not been especially distracted, this learner needed to share me with seven others, plus all my administrative tasks.

So, I'm not unhappy with how the "year" ended for this person. (Program funding cuts impose a 16 week "summer break" on most adult learners in New Brunswick.) The learner left the program with a justifiable sense of success, and my copy of the memoir so they could keep up their reading.

Just what makes that little old ant
Think he'll move that rubber tree plant?
Anyone knows an ant, can't
Move a rubber tree plant!

But he's got high hopes.
He's got high hopes.
He's got high, apple pie in the sky hopes.
So any time your gettin' low,
'Stead of lettin' go,
Just remember that ant...
There goes another rubber tree plant
- Cahn/Van Heusen


ballet girl said...

...."this learner needed to share me with seven others, plus all my administrative tasks.": THAT sounds familiar! I am often aware of how much more I could do with each person... "if only" ....

The other thing that grabbed my attention in this post is: "Watching this ... was the only response they gave to the question, "What do you like to do for fun?")" :-

I have often been surprised at how little is offered by students, in response to similar questions, such as "What are your interests? or Hobbies?" or "What's your favorite movie?" etc

It's as if the only honest answer to hobbies or interests is possibly "drinking" or "smoking" or both, but the student thinks that's not an acceptable answer - so they have nothing to say. Just a vague facial expression in response ...

I think I got the most UN-censored/UNreluctant answers recently, when I included the question (actually a sentence, to complete in your own way, as part of a lesson about conjunctions): When I go home the first thing I do is.............

I found it refreshing to read these. One especially was hilarious, from a student whose spelling is truly original and often charming.

He wrote that the first thing he does when he gets home is "crack a bear". This conjured up, for me, an image of him lifting a cute fluffy polar bear and snapping it like a twig ... (WAIT, wait - I'm an animal lover!) Of course he means a BEER!

ballet girl said...

Oh hang on! Another thought: 16 weeks break!?:

How do you (teachers)support yourselves through that? And do the same students 'remember' to come back after the break, or do their paths take them elsewhere in the meantime?

A 3-week break at Christmas is the longest 'we' have, where I live. Thank heavens!

Wendell said...

Yep. 16 weeks. I'm finished at the end of May, and won't get called back - if at all - until Sept. 20+

How do learner's fare? Some come back. A few remember how to add fractions and such.

How do staff fare? We're encouraged to go on (federal) gov't assistance ('Employment Insurance' @ two-thirds wages). The trend is toward hiring retired public school teachers, so they have their pensions and some benefits. (I think I've put up small, bitter posts about this already.) I go get a summer job, and then volunteer to provided 6-8 contact hours a week with any adult learners who want to hang out with me at the public library or a community centre or coffee shop. *sigh*

(The retired teacher thing drives me nuts because it means learners who were malserved and experienced failure as school-aged students are now 'served' by teachers trained in the very same system, and sometimes by the same teachers!)

Anonymous said...

WOW - May to September off! Scary.

And what an insult to your profession, to look for retired people whose income source is already assured, as if this should really be volunteer work.

This seems to be the opposite to what is happening in Australia, where the baseline qualifications being looked for, for people to teach adult literacy, is getting so high as to be absurd (when you look at we get in return) ...