Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Working with Reluctant Learners

Yesterday I had the opportunity to present two workshops for middle school students. These students are reluctant learners, lacking fluency and confidence in their ability to read or express themselves, and thus had been selected for a special summer session to continue their learning. My usual experience has been to work with a classroom, where I find a wide range of interest and ability and confidence in the students. I had not worked with such a concentration of at risk students before. But I had worked with the teacher and organizer of this program as a volunteer in her classroom when she used to teach at my sons' high school. It was great to reconnect with this very dynamic and gifted teacher, Dr. Edyth Young.

Here was my original plan, as expressed in an email to Edyth:

"I would like to talk with your students about how I use my journals to create all my art and writing. And I would like the students to have the opportunity to make some art, using collage materials, which I will provide, and to write in response to that art. If they have journals of their own, that would be the ideal place for them to work. If they do not, I can provide paper for their collages, and perhaps you would have some writing paper and pencils. I would also want a blackboard for group brain-storming. The students should be at tables or desks."

I had intended to brain-storm language about "my favorite things about summer" on the blackboard and from that language, have the students create collages and write poetry or descriptive phrases about their artwork. I hoped that they would have experienced keeping a journal and therefore could relate to my own journal writing. I was not prepared for the passivity and absolute reluctance of these kids to play with either language or art-making. No wonder they are considered "reluctant learners." I could sense their hesitancy, almost fear, of doing something wrong or stupid. There was a total absence of energy in the room. My journals did not connect with most of them.

However, Dr. Young has been working with these students on the concepts of visualization, perspective (point of view) and prediction. She quickly made the connection between visualization and making a collage--the students had to visualize their picture in order to piece it together. Next came perspective and prediction--the student artist knew what he or she had created, but would a viewer see it the same way? It became a game to say what you saw in someone else's collage and see how close you came to what the artist intended. Lastly, she asked each student to write a single "Comcast sentence" to describe the collage--a sentence that contained all the vital information, the way TV shows are summarized in a single sentence to entice the viewer.

With my materials and Dr. Young's energy and understanding of her students, these reluctant learners became artists and writers for the morning.

What I learned is that I need to have a very tightly prepared presentation for this age group that flows into the art project quickly. When dealing with reluctant learners I need to limit the amount of material presented and really generate excitement for the art-making. And the more closely I can relate the project to what they have recently been working on, the better they will connect with it. And you can't beat working with a real pro, like Dr. Edyth Young.

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