Lessons Learned: Will in DC

Over this past week, I’ve learned (or rather come to understand) the dilemma facing our students, here in DC. After a week, it is clear that the largest, most pressing concern in these students education is literacy and math. Many of our BDC students fell behind in elementary school, and are at least a grade level behind in reading and math. However, their teachers in middle school have not taught based on the student’s current knowledge (to catch them up), but rather teach solely from the DCPS curriculum standards, which expect very high-level work (such as the study of chemical reactions) out of middle school students. Because the teachers do not teach to the students and the standards are far above the student’s current ability, the students struggle to really learn, and not just memorize to pass or make it through a class. An example: last year, all of my students took Life Science, and when I asked them the most important subjects, they named cells, mitosis, etc. However, they cannot speak at all about the cell structure or the function of mitosis because they did not actually learn any of the material (as they did not have the base from early middle school, etc.). It really is a vicious cycle, and neither teachers nor the standards are completely to blame. However, our BDC students (and I can only assume many others in the DCPS system) are left behind. With that said, I have been reassured by my students, as they certainly are capable of thinking at very high levels. For example, they independently came up with wind and sound as examples of non-matter, a subject which has stumped many a college student.

Honestly, I doubt there is an easy solution to the problem. Curriculum’s must be challenging to allow development, but obviously we can’t proceed along the same path as we are now.

More on the topic of Breakthrough, I have learned to appreciate the “small” but exciting moments. Two examples from this week: first, after much pressure, our host school finally agreed to let us use a balance, several beakers, and hotplate for our science labs! Second, our entire staff spontaneously broke out into “Lean on Me” at staff meeting Thursday. These moments help all of us maintain our sanity throughout the long days, but also generate an undeniable excitement for the remainder of the summer!

Until next time,

Breakthrough is…
Commitment – Stand with it, once you’re in it
Breakthrough builds…
Confidence – No matter what, no one’s going to stop us
Breakthrough strengthens…
The community – We can do it together, all in unity
Breakthrough has…

(Breakthrough DC’s new affirmation, emphasizing four of our core values)

Response from Bobby:
“I think an approach to take is to move from a focus on teaching
content to teaching skills. Even if your students are a year or two behind in content knowledge in the subject, effective note taking, active listening skills, and an appreciation of self-responsibility can be worked on this summer and can have a huge impact.

What I want to warn you away from, however, is “teaching down.” Nobody learns basic skills through remediation (you don’t teach grammar by “teaching grammar” – you teach reading and the grammar comes along). Don’t go back and use your few summer hours to teach them what they should have picked up in 5th grade. Pick something difficult – decide where you want the students to be, and teach your students how to ask questions, how to find answers, and what to do when they get stuck. That can be done in the context of the summer. If you want some resources around that, let me know and I’ll share what I have.”

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