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Letting Students Move at Their Own Pace Proves Successful

"They did some wonderful math they weren't supposed to be able to do." - Jessy James

Working through the Career Choices curriculum was more difficult for the nine 14- and 15-year-olds in Jessy James' remedial JTPA program than it is for many young people, but they stuck with it anyway, he says, and succeeded. While pre-tests in math and reading showed students performing at levels from fourth grade, fourth month to sixth grade, seventh month, "when we finished the program quite a few of them jumped all the way up to the 12th grade level."

The success wasn't transitory. James offers one young man's story as an example. "Everyone thought he had learning disabilities and he thought he was just plain stupid. But, once it got down to things like `this is what I want out of life and this is how I have to figure it out,' he suddenly realized, `hey, I can do this.' Since that time, his math grades have gone from Ds and Fs to Bs and Cs." Once easily distracted from his studies, "he was so intrigued with [the program] that he'd keep working after the rest of the class had gone on to something else."

James attributes much of the success of the program to its relevance. "It was so real. How many kids are you going to have and what kind of house are you going to live in? The kid who was going to have ten kids and a ten bedroom house got to the point where he figured out how much he would have to pay for clothes each month. Once he figured that out, he decided, `maybe I'll just have eight.'"

Rural Marshall, Minnesota, is hardly the location most people think of as typical for JTPA. And yet, Jessy James' program has some valuable lessons and ideas for instructors in any location. For example, this was an independent study program in the sense that participants worked at their own pace. While this is not feasible in every situation, in small groups it offers distinct advantages. It allowed James to customize the learning experience according to each student's abilities and needs, making it more relevant.

Because students could go on as they completed each assignment, there was none of the boredom associated with sitting around waiting for the others to finish. In addition, overhearing questions and comments about what was coming up next in the curriculum kept slower students motivated and anxious to continue the process.

It is important to note, too, that James completed the entire program himself as part of his preparation to teach the class. "I enjoyed it," he says estimating that he spent about five hours doing the activities. This process is invaluable because it gives instructors a deeper understanding of the way the curriculum works and how successive activities build on skills and ideas previously introduced.

In the Minnesota program, students, too, had a kind of orientation. Before the class sessions began (five days a week for six weeks, three hours a day), they spent three days at an area vocational college. Each young person was allowed to pick a program of interest, and spend time watching and participating in classes.

Besides sampling out some of the activities they were considering as careers, the JTPA youth also had a chance to observe the need for academic skills in various occupations and school took on a new relevance for them.

James' class was sponsored by the local Private Industry Council. Participants received $2.50 an hour, but no class credit.

Here are some additional factors that Jessy James credits for his program's success:

  1. The Marshall program included a word processing component. So that students wouldn't have to learn how to use the computers at the same time they were learning how to write, James had them transcribe portions of the book or sections of career catalogs that interested them. End result: the class learned word processing; took away copies of relevant information; and had to really focus on the materials being copied, thus reinforcing the lessons learned.
  2. When students ran into trouble with the materials, James was always there to help, and so too were the other participants. By enlisting their help, James bolstered their confidence, and also fostered feelings of camaraderie within the class.
  3. James credits the success of facilitating discussions to the small size of his class. While not every program can keep its number of participants low, remember that breaking out into smaller groups is often a good way to get the whole class involved.
  4. Once they had decided on a desired lifestyle, the young people in Marshall were able to find catalogs of jobs and careers providing an adequate income in their school library. Does your library have such resources?
  5. Because some of the math worksheets went beyond what was needed in the class, James highlighted those sections he felt would be helpful, and coded them to pages in the text.
  6. James believes that the relaxed atmosphere in his classroom helped his young people succeed. To that we would add that his own caring and enthusiasm were instrumental in making this an outstanding program.
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