Starting Up… Where the Student Is (With Goals)

One of my teaching mantras is “start where the student is.”  I’ve even a recent post on this blog with that as the title.  Whatever we might want or believe should be, each group of students we face in the classroom has its own strengths and weaknesses, and these need to be factored into any plan we make for moving students to where they are meeting our end-of-semester expectations.  Or end-of-degree-program expectations.  Or life expectations.

This week, the new high school that I’ve been promoting here and here, the Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-Tech) here in Brooklyn, opened.  Today, Rashid Davis, its Founding Principal, contributed a piece to the blog Building a Smarter Planet entitled “Crossing the ‘Great Divides’ to Save Our Children.”  He writes:

As an educator, I want to shepherd my students through their transitions from members of what the Harvard Pathways to Prosperity study calls “the forgotten half” to personifications of potential. That means understanding who they are, where they’re coming from, where they need to be, and – most importantly – how to reach them.

You can’t reach students unless you spend the time listening to them, discovering just where they are.  Davis understands this, and I hope he and P-Tech can build success on this understanding.  He also points something else out: it’s not just where the students are that’s important, but where they want to get to and what life is like there:

  • The majority of good American jobs require some form of post-secondary education or training; and
  • As a cultural institution, the corporate workplace – where most of the good jobs are – operates on middle class values and behaviors.

Where the student is provides nothing but a starting point.  There also has to be a goal, one the student understands and buys into, one that schools can help clarify.  I’m glad P-Tech is aiming for that, too.  Whatever  we may think of ‘middle class values and behaviors,’ it is these that students of today will have to negotiate in their future lives.  A school that ignores them does the student no service.  However you slice it, “young people from difficult circumstances must overcome the dual challenges of getting an education and navigating unfamiliar waters to move from poverty to meaningful, long-term employment.”

Davis is right.  Starting where the student is remains important, but understanding where they could possibly go is just as important.  P-Tech, in recognizing the former has not forgotten the latter.  By doing so, it is giving itself a structure for success that few new schools that I’ve encountered recently have established.