Friday, August 12, 2011

A Teachable Moment


I was facilitating an 8-week bridge program for adult students who had a high school diploma or a GED and who wanted to go to college. There were 14 women in the class. They were all parents, all unemployed, and all receiving benefits from the Department of Human Services. We met twice a week at the Adult Learning Center of San Michez Community College.
A few days into it, one of the students accused me of having “all book smarts and no street smarts.”
I replied: “First of all, we need both. Second, you might be surprised. Third, ‘book smarts’ expand our options, so anymore, the kind of ‘street smarts’ I want are the kind that help me find and afford a better street to live on. That wasn’t an option when I had all ‘street smarts’ and no ‘book smarts.’”
One Tuesday morning, one of the women asked if I knew where she could find a part-time job. I said, “Not right off the top of my head, but let’s dive a little deeper: Are there any ways—legal ways—that a person can pick up some extra money other than a part-time job?”
Diving deeper is an idea I learned from Dr. Skip Downing, author of On Course. I had no clue where the conversation was going, but I’d learned long ago to trust the process.
A moment or two went by then one of the students told us about how she sometimes made extra money by trying new products and giving them her opinion. Sometimes they’d rearrange things in a grocery store or a big box store then pay her to shop there and tell them what she liked or didn’t like about the layout. She said, “Last week I made 40 dollars in about 20 minutes. It’s not steady work, but they call me every once in a while.”
That woke them up. All of the students were paying wide-eyed attention, taking good notes, and asking questions only for clarification. Where do I sign up? Who do I talk to? What’s the name of the place? What’s the phone number?
Another woman said that she sold plasma a couple of times each week. She told us all the details—where to go, how much they pay, what the rules are, how often a person can go, how the procedure works, what the plasma is used for, what it feels like, how long it takes, everything. She got into some pretty intricate details about incentives and bonuses.
I pointed out that what they were doing is exactly what a successful student does in every class: Paying attention, taking good notes, asking relevant questions. They just blew me off and continued their lively exchange of information, so I started taking notes, too.
The following Thursday, I gave them a quiz over the product sampling and plasma selling information we’d heard on Tuesday. Every one of them scored at least 90%. I said, “Again, you’re exhibiting successful student behavior; it’s obvious that you looked over your notes and transferred the information into your long-term memory.”
I asked them why they went to all that trouble to remember so much of the information.
They looked at me like I was the most ignorant and clueless thing that ever lived. Someone said, “Because money was involved!”
“How well,” I asked, “would you do in a history class or an algebra class if you paid such close attention, took such good notes, asked such good questions to make sure you understood everything correctly, went over your notes right away, and did your best to remember what you’d learned?”
One of the students, the one who’d besmirched my street smarts, snorted and said, “Yeah, but you don’t get paid for taking algebra.”
After they’d all hooted, high-fived each other, and paraded their yeah-buts down Main Street, I let things get quiet and said, “I do.”
“You get paid for taking algebra? Uh-uh!”
“I really do because if I hadn’t taken and passed College Algebra back in 1989, I could not have earned my associate’s degree. That gave me the confidence to continue on for a bachelor’s degree which led to the master’s degree, and this job I have now requires a master’s degree. If I hadn’t passed that algebra class, we wouldn’t be talking right now because I wouldn’t be here. Yeah, every two weeks SMCC writes me a pretty nice little paycheck. I get paid for taking algebra, psychology, history, English, biology, every class.
“It may not seem like it today, but payday is coming for you, too. Five years from now, odds are, you’re going to still be alive, and if you are, you’re going to be doing something. You could be working at a new career, one of your choosing this time, having more fun being alive…or, you can still be sitting around here bragging about all your street smarts and sweating the bills. Someday, you are going to be paid—or not—for the work you do today.”

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