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Small Successes Lead to Love of Learning

"You know Pat, you were right. I can do it. I am somebody." -Student reflection at end of the program


"My biggest goal was for the kids to develop a love of learning," says Pat Marabella, referring to the vision he had for the young people who went through the "remediation" component of the Summer Youth Program in rural Havre, Montana.

"Our youth are disenchanted about school, often having little success. I wanted to provide them with a program that would give them some small success," he told us. Pat's program, which served a multi-cultural population that was 30% Native American, turned out to be a huge success in terms of academic achievement and increased motivation for learning.

Most of the students in his class had tested "academically deficient," and all were at least two grade levels behind their peers. Some were behind as much as six grade levels. One thing was clear at the outset: everyone was in need of improvement.

Pat hoped to increase his students' skill levels in reading, writing, and math, and chose the Career Choices curriculum to help focus them in this task. But what really made a difference for Pat's students was the caring and dedication he brought to the job. His positive attitude and genuine interest in his students' progress was the catalyst that changed their motivation to learn.

"The results were phenomenal," Pat reports. "We pre- and post-tested them and found that the majority went up two grade levels. About 10% went up six grade levels. I had one youth who scored a 3.5 grade level for language and a 4.2 for math at the beginning, and tested at the end with 10.5 in both areas."

When asked about this remarkable success, Pat described four winning strategies he used:

  1. Give students a sense of responsibility for their own learning
  2. Make the content culturally relevant
  3. Involve the community and the worksite supervisors
  4. Build trust in the classroom

 

Responsibility for Learning

"We had a very innovative program, Pat explains. Students were paid for class time as if it were a job. "We wanted to place the responsibility for learning on the students, give them a sense of ownership for their own learning process."

One way Pat accomplished this goal was to teach academic subjects in the context of students' experiences from their summer jobs. One youth worked at the local fairgrounds and used math to calculate how much paint was needed to cover an area. Another had a job that entailed mixing chemicals and required math to determine the correct balance. Yet another worked at a newspaper in the advertising department and needed to practice written communication skills. By teaching reading, writing and math as it related to immediate, real-life experiences, new sources of motivation emerged for students.

Pat also experimented with different classroom activities as part of his strategy to transfer ownership for learning. "I had several youth actually take a lesson and teach it themselves. When that happened, the classroom just blossomed. They used a lesson from Career Choices, the one on budgeting. I had two students plan the lesson, working very closely with me, and they had a lot of coaching. When they got up in front of the class, which was arranged in a circle, everyone was very comfortable. I was just amazed. I was waiting for jeers, goofing off, but they responded really well. It even made me jealous at first, because the class liked them so much!"

Cultural Relevancy

For the Native American youth, the program became more relevant when Pat invited Elders from the Tribal Council to came into the classroom and teach certain lessons from the Career Choices curriculum. One prominent and well-respected Native American guest speaker told the class how important it was for the growth of their people that this learning take place. He talked about making wise decisions and about self-actualization, both of which are basic to tribal spiritual beliefs.

"Even the non-Native American students loved it and thought it was fantastic. A lot of them made connections with their own beliefs," Pat reported. The result was to inject cultural relevance and meaning into the school and academic environment. Students were encouraged to develop their own cultural stories based on talking with their families at home. Many were written up as part of the daily journal exercise and published in a program booklet.

Involving the Community

Pat invited more guest speakers, including the "elders" - experts and authorities - from the white community as well: insurance people, travel agents, bank managers.

How did he do this? "Basically, I used the Speaker Bank concept and strategy in Career Choices to set this up. I looked for people who really cared about young people, and I met with them personally, one-on-one." He found that when he showed community members how much he cared about his students, they were more than willing to participate.

Pat believes that the Speaker Bank part of his program is very transferable, and could be done in the inner city, as well as rural towns like Havre. "What you need is people who the kids can identify with. In Philadelphia, ex-gang members who have become successful through employment training, now go into the classroom to teach and counsel, and it works," he said.

To further integrate community with classroom, Pat took students on field trips to the "old town" of Havre, a restored section that had been buried under the streets. This provided students with an understanding of the rich cultural heritage unique to their area and a sense of common roots.

Getting the cooperation of worksite supervisors was another step Pat took to insure community support for his program. "I spoke to each of them personally, and visited the worksite to gave each one a copy of the book. When they were asked to monitor what the kids were doing, they were more than happy to do so. Teachers would be surprised how many employers really care. They see the students as being their future employees, and want to invest in their success."

Pat firmly believes that we're not going to see the drop-out rate go to zero, or young people develop a work ethic, or teen pregnancy disappear, unless we see a strong and supportive community involvement. "These are community problems, and the responsibility belongs to all of us," he said.


Building Trust

Running the gamut from cooperative learning to individual instruction and peer tutoring, Pat kept his class moving with a non-traditional, student-centered format. Building trust in the classroom was one of the keys to his program's success. "The classroom was very open and students were encouraged to speak their minds," he reports. "Every day, we sat in a circle and talked about our personal lives for at least a half hour. I kept things very informal, and let them set their own rules and goals. Complaints were listened to, and reasonable changes were made, such as holding classes outdoors on sunny days.

Being willing to talk about himself and his personal life was another trust-building strategy Pat employed. "The first thing I tell them is that many famous people have learning disabilities and have to learn differently than the norm. When I included myself in that category, the students really opened up."

Asked for an easy formula that works to build trust, Pat offered this: "If you just follow the curriculum itself, you can't help but build trust. I followed the steps and procedures straight down the line, and the kids started opening up, they started listening."

Trust permeated the classroom and spilled over into student relationships: "Students started caring about themselves and about each other, which is really exceptional these days. Instead of picking on each other, I saw them actually defend one another. The curriculum was designed so this could happen. It stresses cooperative learning, not competition."

Bridging the Gap

"I think Career Choices completely bridged the gap [between learning and real life] for these kids," Pat told us. "It's one of the best curriculums out there, and I've seen a lot in the four years I've worked for Summer Youth. Career Choices makes it real for the kids, and they can see it working in their lives."

Students particularly liked a selection from Possibilities, "The Bridge Builder," a poem about an old man who crosses a dangerous river and returns to build a bridge for those who would follow. They talked about how it brought them hope and made them feel a personal sense of responsibility. "It really hit home, as far as seeing how their actions affect other people. They said that they wanted to do something for the freshmen, like build a bridge by visiting the junior high and talking to the students about high school."

And then there were those unforgettable moments when Pat Marabella was reminded exactly why he took the job. One of these involved a Native American student who had pre-tested at a 3rd grade level in math and language.

"This was someone who hated school, couldn't get along with his teachers, trouble with the law, and everything else. He told me he couldn't do it, he was just too dumb. I asked him to give me a chance and make the effort, that he'd even get paid. He came in every day. When post-tested at the end of nine weeks, his scores had gone up to the 10th grade level. When he saw them, he came to me, tears in his eyes, and said: `You know Pat, you were right. I can do it. I am somebody.' It was a very powerful experience for both of us."

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