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"Learning Different" Students



"Once students find out they aren't stupid, they are excited and pursue learning." - Eric Stephens


The inner city of Los Angeles is hardly a place where you'd expect to see a classroom full of cooperative, responsive students, a teacher excited about the curriculum, and an overall atmosphere that encourages success and achievement.

Yet this is exactly what happened in Eric Stephens' Summer Youth Program classes, in spite of a population that included 85% minorities, many with learning disabilities and gang affiliation, and most of whom had long since given up on ever making a positive contribution to society.

Credit for this miracle, in part, can be attributed to Cities in Schools, Inc., the national organization that coordinated the Compton, California, program for over 200 youth last summer. With locations in Washington DC, Atlanta, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Cities in Schools has served over 100,000 at-risk youth in the last decade. Its mission is to offer those young people who are not fulfilling their potential in the regular school system, another chance to succeed.

But it's teachers like Eric Stephens who are the real miracle-workers. Truly a dedicated and compassionate teacher with 40 years of experience behind him, Stephens has been so involved with volunteer teaching and tutoring, or working through programs such as Cities In Schools, he hasn't had the time to go back to school to get his teaching credential. In spite of this, his commitment to disadvantaged youth has enabled him to demonstrate what is possible in the classroom today.

"I work with people who get overlooked," Stephens expressed in an enthusiastic tone. This has included special populations, such as offenders in the California State Department of Corrections, as well as probation camps, Juvenile Halls, community literacy centers and pregnant minor programs. He found that many of his students had different styles of learning and required different teaching approaches.

Learning Style Differences

As a youth growing up in Watts, Stephens had his own experience of what it means to be "learning different." "I was bright and tenacious, but I needed to move around a lot and actively participate in class. Today, I might be classified as `learning disabled.' Later as a teacher, I recognized this in others, and looked for tools and programs that could address this kind of learning."

In his three summer classes, each meeting for 40 hours over two-week periods, Stephens found many opportunities to demonstrate that all students could become involved in the learning process, regardless of differences in style. He tells how Career Choices provided a springboard for this to happen: "The activities in Career Choices promote interaction through cooperative learning, and so kids are not afraid to speak out because the environment is safe. There isn't one person standing in front of the room `on high' and laying out a lot of information," he told us.

"This helped the learning different students immensely, because everyone would come to the aid of the student who was having difficulty. Real sharing happened, and that is how the learning different student really learns. Once students find out they aren't stupid, they are excited and pursue learning."

Working cooperatively together, students discovered that they could support each other rather than compete. The issue of conflict resolution, so dominant in this gang-infested community, was never far from the surface in Stephens' classroom. But hostilities dissolved when students learned to solve problems in groups and performed skits of real-life situations.

A favorite activity was "You're the Boss" from Chapter 11 in Career Choices, in which students role play a work situation. The owner of a restaurant has to give advice to his employees, all of whom need help with work maturity skills, such as being on time, dealing with customers, and calling in sick. "All of my classes did this activity, and they all loved it. The point was how to handle situations in the real world, and this got them interested and involved."

Students Voices Heard

The magic really started to happen, Stephens recalls, when students became interested in what they were reading in the book, and responded to it with their own ideas and feelings. "Career Choices gave students an opportunity to address their important issues, and so they felt empowered," he told us. "Then there was a possibility of discussion, and this led to real listening, something that is absent in so many of our classrooms. Kids don't learn because there isn't enough listening about what's really important to them. When a student feels his voice has been heard, he has an investment. He can contribute-and everyone wants to contribute."

The key, Stephens believes, lies in the ability of the teacher to create an atmosphere of what he calls "special listening." To be a good listener, an "empathic listener," a teacher also needs to be a learner, and to be open to how students learn. Then he or she will see the differences and be able to address them.

During the program, students worked at summer jobs before and after the two week session of academic enrichment. Classes were part of the job, and organized similarly, with students clocking in on timecards, getting paid for attending, and completing the class by taking an exit exam. Those who didn't pass the exam stayed in the class until they did, and when finished, got another job in the community.

Stephens' original vision for the Summer Youth Program was to give his students some exposure to the real world. "Many of the kids from our area have no concept at all of what the job market is like, how to earn a living, or how a whole big part of the world functions," he told us. "They're in school, and that's it. They certainly don't think in terms of: I'm in school to prepare myself for life, for raising a family, for being a part of a community. "Career Choices gave me a structure so I could introduce these kinds of possibilities to them."

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