Two Chances at the Same Lesson, or, It’s Nice to Have a Do Over

At the end of last week, I had the fortune to substitute teach for an evening class and then the subsequent morning class because one of our teachers was, unfortunately, out sick.

I led a 1.5 hr group project lesson, where groups of 3-4 students were given a tuition schedule from a CUNY or NYC private college, an information sheet with a few challenging paragraphs that would – if read carefully – give them some critical information on what Associates Degrees and Bachelors Degrees are, and a problem packet, asking them to figure out various figures for different scenario students. I.e, for a student who takes 9 credits per semester at KCC, how many semesters will it take her to complete an Associates degree, what is her cost per credit, how much does the entire degree cost and how long would it take to complete a Bachelors degree? How much would it cost?

The first night’s lesson went ok. I hadn’t had much advance time to think through my strategy for leading the project, and so I approached it with student-centered vigor. I wanted to give the students power and agency to lead this themselves and so I asked them to pick their specific college group in advance before they knew what we were doing, and then I handed each group their packet of materials, with instructions included, and basically said “Go.” Students quickly got lost and overwhelmed. There was a lot of new college terminology in their materials, and they didn’t know where to start with either the reading for understanding or the inexplicit math problem solving, or the conceptualizing of the problem as a whole. Students struggled through and some felt successful, but certain individuals checked out by the end of class and others became emotional, upset, really frustrated.

When I got the chance for a do over the next morning, I realized I’d given the evening students too little of a foundation. I didn’t do what we need to do in all adult ed classes – explain what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. And, I (appropos of a piece Cathy posted about Holding a Space) didn’t heed some of the tenets of Holding a Space. Namely, I gave them more information than they could handle without an appropriate amount of guidance, and thus I didn’t give ENOUGH guidance in areas where my students were clearly already vulnerable. Throwing this confusing project on them without much of an explanation did the opposite of its intended effect. It made students feel unsafe, and set up to fail.

Needless to say, I approached things differently on Try #2 (with a different group of students). I chose students’ groups for them, and prefaced the activity with a class conversation where we brainstormed some terms that they would need to understand the project and struggle through, but have a better foundation for succeeding in. I encouraged students to ask their classmates for what the terms meant, so I could act as facilitator and not provider of knowledge, and they were able to get excited about college learning before delving into tuition equations. And as the groups dove in enthusiastically, I circled the room to check in, but didn’t give answers. I asked them to trust themselves, to trust each other, to lead their own learning.

There is a fine line between giving too little and too much guidance, but we as educators need to hone our skills when it comes to perceiving where our students are and what they need to feel both safe (discussion of terms, having groups in place) and empowered (coming up with their own answers, trusting their minds). We need to, in other words, lay the foundation for their own discoveries.


The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309