Final CUOS K–12 Education Outreach Program Report, March 2002

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II. What We Do and Have Learned

We have spoken at length among ourselves about what we need to communicate, to whom, and how, in this final evaluation. While we are bursting with insights and anecdotes to support them, it has been tough to organize them. We settled on the idea of presenting our findings according to major and recurring themes—but those themes are overlapping and interlocking. They resist a hierarchical outline and insist upon a more circular model, in which ones leads to and feeds another and is, in turn, reinforced by others. So, while we label and discuss them separately in what follows, each is just an aspect of a more organic whole, and there is inevitable repetition of ideas. Moreover, because we believe that the voices of participants communicate what we do with an eloquence and impact beyond that of any dry, organized reporting, we will recount those in a parallel track on the right.
We urge you not to skip them—they are the story!

A. Themes

1. We are about community-building.

We link generations, classes, and cultures in common enterprise. We do it not just because we can, or because we’re so desperate for volunteers, but because we all need and benefit from that richness of acquaintanceship. It is the antidote for the inherently discouraging nature of our work. It can be downright depressing to see how our children live: how lonely they are, how needy, how deprived in social, academic, emotional, physical, and intellectual ways. But together, we can do so much to fill those needs, to show them how to fill their own needs, to fill the needs in ourselves that we did not realize were there. Older adults, with the perspective of decades and a natural concern over their legacy to the world, can inspire young adults to think beyond their own needs and desires. Young adults, who have yet to learn society’s lessons about what “can’t be done,” help middle-aged adults overcome the inertia and helplessness common to those who have spent years bumping fruitlessly against the same barriers. Children and teens help all of us see that the world can be changed for the better one person at a time: maybe we can’t “fix” schools or families or society in general, but we can literally save lives, who will go on to save other lives, and we can inspire others by our example to do the same, who will spread through society exponentially. We are convinced that true systemic change must start at ground level and spread upward and outward. Part of the Learning Community philosophy is that we are all responsible for helping our children learn— and they are all “our” children.


2. We are about empowerment.

Our organizational structure is looser and less hierarchical than people are used to; this is consciously intended to develop leadership and other personal skills, and to take advantage of the richness of ideas and depth of enthusiasm that stem from self-direction. We all agree on what our mission is: to connect many facets of the community in a common effort to improve the math and science literacy of all children, as well as to inspire, encourage, and support the aspirations of young people to pursue study and careers in science, math, engineering, and technology (SMET). But we need not prescribe or even agree upon the means of reaching those goals. As Peters and Waterman put it in their ground-breaking 1982 book, In Search of Excellence, we are “tight” on ends or expected results and “loose” on means and procedures.

Empowerment of young adult volunteers. In part, we choose to organize this way because it works so well: we often note that our young Reach Out! activists have done more, and more ambitiously, than we ever could have thought to prescribe. And, obviously, we assume that there is no “one, right answer” or prescription for attacking the problems we deal with; if there had been, it would have been found and implemented long ago. There cannot be a simple answer because the nature of the world and of people are both complex and constantly changing; we must be just as flexible in order to succeed. For example, some of our volunteers wanted to take science “on the road” for an alternative spring break. We helped them plan and procure materials, and two groups went to Boston in 1997 and to Miami in 1998 to do hands-on science with disadvantaged children instead of taking a more normal vacation.

2000 Reach Out! Site Coordinators
2000 Reach Out! Site Coordinators

    Another example would be the guidance given to our undergraduate science club coordinators. Program Coordinator Deb Hamann provides them with a notebook of suggested themes for the semester, along with related activities for which we have assembled the needed supplies. Some site leaders use a lot of this, some parts of it, some none at all; but all do a great job! Those who “throw the book out” and plan their own activities do so because they have a vision and a passion about what they want to accomplish (usually in their last semester with us, when they are both experienced and determined to make a difference). Because they are guided by what they have learned with us previously and the values they have clarified in doing outreach work, it always turns out just fine.

    Empowerment works. But we also choose to empower them and let them go because of what that does for them: it makes them self-directed, adaptable, well-rounded, sensitive to nuance, open to new ideas, accustomed to collaboration, skilled at consensus-building, humble rather than dogmatic, and focused on results. This is a description of the kind of person we all want our children to become—and of the kind of citizen and employee demanded in a world where change is the only constant.

Empowerment of children. And empowerment is not just good for grown-ups. It is not simply that children are potentially much more capable than we may have thought; rather, treating them that way allows them to become more competent. Our science clubs don’t just communicate the process of doing science, they use it as a metaphor for taking charge of one’s life. For whatever reason, many children are very passive consumers of life. They need to be prompted to ask “Why?” and to actively think about how and why things happen. Whether they become scientists or not, this habit of mind will surely affect their lives for the better, if only because an understanding of cause and effect opens the mind to the whole notion of personal power and responsibility. If things happen for predictable reasons and they can alter the terms of an experiment, that means they can also take active steps to control their own lives—rather than living as powerless victims.

    Youngsters have also gained immense poise and power from actively taking on responsibility in our programs—as science wizards teaching others and as Youth Task Force members researching a community problem and reporting on it to their neighbors. We have never forgotten that every one of Pontiac Owen School’s first group of wizards received AAA Awards for improved attitude, achievement, and attendance after their training. The first Youth Task Force on the Environment investigated the problem of leaking underground tanks on city-owned property and reported their results to the Pontiac City Council. Our young people can do more than we typically imagine—and, in the doing, become more capable still. Perhaps we have forgotten how much genuine responsibility children used to exercise in an agrarian society; they are just as potentially capable today.

Empowerment of teens. Teens, too, grow tremendously when empowered. While many of our high school mentees have appalling deficits in basic skills, they all need much more than subject-matter tutorials. They need help with analyzing their motivational problems, with learning to set study schedules, with devising strategies to get out of the deep holes in which they find themselves. Many have no clue, for example, how to deal with being in over their heads except by denial: ignoring homework, cutting classes, and flunking out. They need to be led through determining what can be salvaged, and negotiating with teachers and counselors over the best step to take next: intensified tutoring, makeup work, alternative assessments, changes in sections or entire classes. They need to become convinced that they are not just victims, that there are things they can do to improve their situation. Moreover, they need to learn that only they can rescue themselves. Mentors can diagnose and work on gaps in basic knowledge, can provide hand-holding and confidence-building, but the students must internalize the fact that no one can pour knowledge into them. They are the only ones who can guarantee their own learning. This realization transforms them in a way that no amount of factual knowledge about science ever could.

Some summer algebra teachers & students
Some summer algebra teachers & students

    A presenter at one Coalition meeting reported on the profound effects of the Trailblazers program, which matches Ann Arbor high school students with elementary students for ongoing mentoring, on the teen mentors. Partly inspired by that, we welcomed teen volunteers to work alongside our college volunteers. They have done this with great success at three of our science clubs and as counselors in our Camp Discovery in the summer.

    Our intergenerational community has been a source of great strength and synergy. The natural idealism and optimism of the young adults in Reach Out! frees their elders from the cynicism and tendency we have to see only the roadblocks to a new endeavor. Our child and teen “clients” are encouraged to take responsibility for their own lives and to reach back to help those younger than they. In doing so, they become leaders and surprise their parents, their teachers and, probably, themselves with their competence. Older people (we have many retired but take-charge, high-powered volunteers) are encouraged to let go of the leadership methods familiar to them and to adapt to the teamwork-oriented, collaborative style that works for cutting-edge corporations today. They learn firsthand how capable and responsible the young can be when allowed to exercise some control, and how many of their own instinctive reactions and methods were based upon assumptions that may not be true. We all grow so much that sometimes we find ourselves unable to communicate with others who have not had our experiences: “She is so far behind the power curve on this that we can’t even talk about it; she doesn’t have the vocabulary.” This may sound condescending or arrogant, but it is rooted in the reality that people cannot understand or answer questions which are in a developmental sense too far beyond them (more about this below). So, we wait and watch and bring people along slowly. We let them go and free them to make the same mistakes we did—not because it is the best way to learn but because it is the only way. Empowerment is not a luxury; it is the necessary precondition to becoming our best possible selves.


Individual Children Served, 1995–2002
Science Clubs 1,174
Science Days 303
Science Wizard Training 24
Summer Camps 37
Career Clubs 21
Career Workshops 26
Career Mentoring 28
Academic Mentoring 804
Summer Courses 14
Total: 2,431
See note about our figures
   

B. Voices

They need us. We need them, too.

- Kiwanis mentoring coordinator

Look around at Monday’s lunch meeting. Our organization [Kiwanis] is a tremendous and rich resource of adults who have life experiences, and time, to share with young people. If we can match them up with our kids, they can listen to them. They can help them get a little more perspective on their life. They can help them think about values, commitments, goals, options. They can care about them and maybe share some of the mistakes they made or the choices they made that could have been different. We need to match these kids with us. They need us. We need them, too.


I sometimes wonder who I would be today without this experience. That scares me.

- UM Reach Out! volunteer mentor

I came to UM being really selfish. I just cared about me, my grades, my major, my life. In the last two years, I’m nothing like the person I was. Reach Out! started out as a nice thing to do—but it became who I wanted to be. Who I wanted to be. Funny, until Reach Out!, nothing on campus really made me stop to think about that. That’s sad. I learned to really care about someone else, and I saw what an impact these people and kids had on me. I became part of a real community on campus and in Ann Arbor. I sometimes wonder who I would be today without this experience. That scares me. Thinking about things deeper. Thinking about the future of not just me but our society. Well, I’m thinking so much more now, and it has a lot to be with this experience, I tell you.


Teachers can’t do it alone.

- UM mentor and site coordinator

I thought education and school was up to teachers and administrators. Now I see that our society has cast off parent, family, and community responsibility for education to just the schools. I never really thought about that until this year. We’ve talked about long ago when everyone learned so much at home, on the farm, from each other. I’ve seen how important it is to bring back together parents, communities, business, and community people to really take on educating kids. We all have a role. Teachers can’t do it alone. But almost everyone else really isn’t thinking about [this]. Reach Out! is helping lots of people and groups think about what we all have to do to teach our kids.


One day I woke up.

- UM student from a fraternity

I started this all [working with Reach Out!] thinking I was just being a nice guy, who was proving that by doing some service work. Then this struggle kept growing inside of me. And one day I woke up and saw that service is about who I am, who we all are supposed to be. It turned everything around for me—who I talked to and what about. Some thought I was crazy because I kept talking about my kids, what they said, what we did, and what they mean to me. For me, this is going to be a way of life and it will make me and my own family something so much more that it would have been before. I guess a key was how selfish I was, and I think most of us are. Reach Out! makes you finally hit a wall and see that about yourself and you deal or quit going out there with your kids!


I was really offering my kids me.

- Science club mentor

I thought I was offering my kids fun science projects. One night I went home and saw that I was really offering my kids me—and they were giving themselves back to me. They shared so much about their lives, so openly. I learned so much about them. I saw that I was really living a pretty superficial life. That made me really sad and then I got mad, too. I need my kids. And my kids need me. We need each other, you know? I hear them talk and sometimes I share things I wish I hadn’t done when I was younger. I’m hoping they can learn from me. It’s like everyone says: “I’ll learn from my own mistakes, thank you.” Well, I think I might have made some better choices if somebody had really shared their mistakes with me and what happened—not preaching at me or anything like that, but just sharing. Well, I think I am doing some of that with my kids. And I like to think it may help them. I really care about my kids. Who would have thought that last fall? Not me, but I do.


I think all of our young people are what they call “at risk.” We need to take time for each other. I guess we older people have some value.

- Kiwanis career mentor

They just need someone to be there. To listen. To care. To ask a few questions to get them thinking about who they are. They need our time. They need to hear that they are special and worth something. I have learned that parents are real busy. Children that I would have thought had things, you know, a nice home and nice parents, and didn’t need our time proved to need us just as much as other children we think are needy. I think all of our young people are what they call “at risk.” They are at risk of not having people steady in their lives to be there, to hear them talk, to help them know they are really valuable to all of us. They don’t know where they are going, and some don’t know where they have been. I thought to myself, how much can I do in just a few weeks? Well, I can tell you we can do a lot in a few weeks. I think the parents learn from us, too. I think they see us- strangers, you know-taking time out of our lives to go to the schools to just be there for their children. They might think, am I taking time to just be there for my children? This person is. And I’ve talked to my students’ parents. They need mentoring, too, I mean someone maybe a little older to listen and to care. We are all so busy, you know. We need to take time for each other. I guess we older people have some value, you know, I mean I think that our young people can gain something from us, and their parents, too.


I see things aren’t just black and white.

- Science club mentor

I got so mad at schools and teachers and parents last semester. I mean, why aren’t they teaching my kids science, and even reading? This thing just gnaws at me and I wanted a simple answer. I guess somebody to blame, you know? But now I’m seeing everything is so much more complicated. I mean my kids, they are struggling to just keep going. Their mom is struggling to just keep going. Did she ever have support? Does she know how to help her kids? I don’t think so. I took for granted so much of what I had growing up. Then the teachers ... I mean, my kids are so far behind that how can she deal with them and 20-some others? Then my kids have these attitudes and I can see why. I think they feel stuck and lost. They can’t catch up and they know they are behind and they have no way out. And they’re kids, you know? They can’t handle all this pressure and they don’t have any help to make things better. My dad says I’m just growing up and seeing things aren’t just black and white. I don’t know, I just know my kids are smart but I worry about their futures. And I can see that we have to get in there to help them out and to help their teacher out and their mom out. I’m still mad at what is going on and how we all are letting it happen.

 

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