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

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II. What We Do and Have Learned, part 2

A. Themes, part 2

3. We see outreach work as a developmental process.

Just as Piaget delineated stages of intellectual development and Kohlberg of moral development, we see a series of stages through which all of our participants must pass, in an inflexible order. Some will move through them faster than others, and built-in time for reflection and discussion with others will accelerate the process, but stages cannot be skipped altogether. And people on one developmental plane simply cannot “speak the language” of a stage too far ahead of them. For example, as Jean Piaget and his followers documented, for a baby at a certain level of intellectual development, when an object is placed under a cover right before her eyes, it no longer exists —because she can’t see it. At a later stage, a young child will be convinced that the water he pours from a tall, skinny container into a short, fat one is now less water—because he is not yet able to grasp the concept of conservation of matter. Lawrence Kohlberg has similar fascinating examples to offer of how people cannot grasp ethical concepts too far ahead of their developmental level. The point is that we should not be discouraged to see the same pathway of growth traversed by one person after another, with each of us seemingly unable to learn from the mistakes of others. Telling them what we know is not enough to make the light bulb come on in their heads—they have to go through what we did to get here. The process looks something like the following for the typical volunteer.

  • They begin warily (Are these guys for real?) or for the wrong reasons (White Knight, résumé-builder, do-gooder).
  • Once out in the field, they quickly experience horror at the low level of academic functioning of their kids. They are surprised at the depth of misconception or ignorance from which many see the world.
  • Next, they feel anger and frustration. (This is terrible! We need to do something!)
  • They engage in the blame game. (The teachers are incompetent! The parents don’t care! The kids just don’t try!)
  • Finally, some internal switch gets thrown. One can almost hear the “click” as they realize the complexity of problems, grasp the interconnectedness of lives and roles, confront the shallowness or inauthenticity of their own previous social commitments, and reach the conviction that we are all responsible to take action for change. They begin to see shades of gray, to reconsider their earlier verdicts. (Wait a minute, these kids aren’t stupid. They know more than their test scores show. I may not be able to “fix” a kid or change the system, but I can help, with just encouragement and support.) Now they are in the passionate, True Believer stage: wanting to give testimony and to convert everyone around them.
  • The final step, which volunteers are not always around long enough for us to see (they graduate and leave the area, but continue to communicate with us by e-mail), is the transformation from an impatient and sometimes rude passion to a quiet conviction that we believe will last a lifetime. Having become explicitly aware of the developmental process in themselves, they know that others cannot be rushed from the beginning to the end, that they must go through all the stages personally and develop insight from experience, that modeling can teach better than proselytizing. They are, in the end, incredibly wise and mature for their age, prepared to be remarkable spouses, parents, employees, citizens, community leaders.

Squeezing a colloid
Science at Bethel AME Church

    We have noted, in previous progress reports, the same sort of incremental conversion processes in the adults at sites where we work. Teachers, for example, will tend to be defensive and wary of our high school mentors at first, since their very existence is an implied criticism, and teachers are now accustomed to being treated as societal scapegoats. Eventually (and it takes a while!), they learn to trust and to appreciate mentors as collaborators. We become team members, all pulling in the same direction.

    Adults at the schools and community sites hosting our science clubs are also skeptical at first: the activities are too messy, the children are too loud, it looks too much like play and not enough like learning. They assume that the learning process should be orderly, lecture-based, and focused on factual knowledge and recall.

    I didn’t see any purpose for what was going on [at science club]. I mean, all this mess and talking and carrying on. Then I started to thinking that the kids really like this and the UM people, they like this, too. Sometimes I jump to things too fast, I mean, I think now that the kids are getting a lot out of this. They come and tell you about it, like what they are learning or making. I couldn’t believe it when they told me about [dissecting] the cow eyes. I never thought they’d be doing something like that  
- Mother of a child in a science club

    Our aim is to teach children how to think like scientists, to be unafraid of science, to have confidence in their own ability to do science. While they can’t be rushed, the adults do come around to appreciating that the change in their children’s motivation, interest, and confidence will be important to their future learning, and that conceptual understanding based on concrete experience is more valuable than rote recall of facts.


4. Outreach is positively transformative for the mentors.

As best we can reconstruct it, we switched from tutoring and short-term-project models to long-term mentoring for the sake of the children and teens we were serving. Their needs were so great that they obviously required a more committed intervention. We were pleasantly surprised—after fearing that an up-front commitment for mentors to come weekly for an entire semester would be too much to ask—to find that most enjoyed their volunteer work much more and became very faithful about fulfilling their commitments. The relationship inherent in mentoring was very rewarding to them, as well as to their mentees. We all need accountability in our lives, and mentoring provides a context for learning that—we depend on one another as coordinators, as mentors, as site teams. These teams include partnerships with older volunteers like Si and Mike, who offer a wisdom and perspective often missing from our lives. They help us to see the bigger picture and the larger impact we are having, to realize that we are all role models and can all learn from mistakes and choices we made when young.

    This raises the deeper unexpected benefit to the mentoring process for college-age volunteers: it spurred and accelerated and shaped the kind of developmental changes that late adolescence and young adulthood should be all about:

  • Who am I—really—underneath the facade? Is that who and what I want to be?
  • Am I at UM because I’m “all that,” one of “the leaders and best”—or did I have a lot of advantages and support that others lack?
  • Can I work with others very different from me (both children and fellow volunteers of different cultures and generations)?
  • Do I have any responsibilities to others and to my community and society?
  • I want to do well here in college, but it’s not enough anymore; what is missing?

    These “life passages” should be the essence of education, as opposed to training or schooling. Part of The University of Michigan’s mission (see Appendix B) is to “develop leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future.” This mission acknowledges that the university’s purpose is broader than the production of people with employability skills—because human beings are more than robots. Yes, we have a deep need to be functionally competent and productive, and we would prefer to be creative and imaginative about it. But there are entire domains of human potential beyond those, what William Spady calls “collaborative” and “constructive” living:

   

Collaborative living is the wellspring of emotional development, human bonding, and the formation of stable and constructive social units. It is both the source and the expression of our deeply felt sense of connection, belonging, loyalty, and love toward others. [It is essential] because without it life can be little more than an isolated, alienating, often hostile, and indifferent array of experiences.... [Those who live collaboratively are willing to] take the interests and viewpoints of others fully into account in carrying out common endeavors.

    Constructive living is the pathway to individuals and societies becoming truly “civilized”—that is, where one’s endeavors are positive, useful, and valuable to others. It is both the source and the expression of our desire to make the world a better place.... [It is essential] because without it life becomes little more than an individualistic pursuit of personal gain, status, and advantage with little regard for its impact on others or the welfare of humankind.

 

    These are the dimensions that are often missing in the lives of college students and the areas in which they desperately need opportunities to develop. There is little of a collaborative or altruistic nature required or encouraged of them. Although group projects are now routinely expected in school settings, students are given little guidance in how to collaborate. The overall atmosphere on campus is extremely competitive—which is only natural in a system where students are graded in relation to one another’s performance. No wonder they are starved for and refreshed by fun, non-judgmental, noncompetitive human interactions. No wonder their spirits are revived by the call to be more than they have been—in a sphere outside of academic performance. They want to be whole.

    One reason they learn and grow so much from their volunteer mentoring is that they experience diversity up close and personal, on an ongoing basis. Outgoing UM Provost Nancy Cantor noted (May 2001) that “most of our students come to campus never having had sustained contact across the boundaries in our country of race and ethnicity, class, and geography.” Reach Out! provides all of that—out in the community and within the organization’s membership. It offers practice in “learning to speak one’s mind, to give and to receive criticism, to see the world through another’s perspective, to change one’s mind, ... to live and work in a pluralistic society”—all “valuable, though intangible” aspects of a high-quality education, in Cantor’s words. In doing so, we are part of the university’s “contribution to civic engagement and democracy beyond our campuses.”


Individual Mentors, 1995–2002

Academic Mentors 779
Science Mentors 503
Career Mentors 24
Total: 1,306
(Ongoing, not one-time service; counting each
person again for each new season of volunteering)
   

B. Voices, part 2

There’s a lot going on here besides science, even though that is wonderful all by itself.

- Coordinator of a subsidized-housing community center

Your program is very important for our kids. Many of them, I think, just don’t believe they can do science, or be good at it. I really think that some of them are already scared of math and science. I hear their parents, too, and they say they aren’t good at math and science. I watch the kids every week. They love this. They have fun. The university students are so wonderful with them, too. There’s a lot going on here besides science, even though that is wonderful all by itself. I had this gut feeling myself that science was lectures, books, studying. Watching this going on all year has changed my ideas about science. In the middle of this fun and sometimes chaos, our kids are learning a lot.


I like trying things to see if they work.

- Child in science club

You have to be open. I mean you have to be open to try stuff that is, well, different and sometimes kind of hard. I like trying things to see if they work or fit or do something. We do a lot of that here. I miss it when we don’t have [science club]. Sometimes we run out of time, too.


The beauty is we can work with each other’s kids and grandchildren.

- Kiwanis career mentor

I think we have to start out slowly. First, people have to see that they really have something of value to share with kids. And some have to get beyond being a little intimidated, well maybe even afraid, of being with teens. But I think that now that we have people who have been career mentors, they can tell the others about it, how it meant something to them and their kids and how it didn’t take up too much time. I know that my own boys don’t really want to listen to me or their Dad on things like careers and where they are going, but kids will listen to other people. That is the beauty of this, we can work with each other’s kids and grandchildren and be there for them, share with them, help them really think about who they are and what they can do.


We needed someone else to help him.

- Parent of career mentee

[The career mentor] made such a difference in our son’s life. He was so moody and just didn’t seem to care about much of anything. And he was drifting away from us and didn’t want to talk to us. And, I’m sure, he is just normal, thinking that we (parents) just don’t get it and understand him. We needed some other adult to be in his life. [The mentor] helped him see it was okay to be different from other kids. He helped him see that he could be an entrepreneur and what that would mean. He introduced him to other people who could share how they planned and started up a company of their own. He made him think, too, that to be an entrepreneur, you have to be self-motivated, a self-starter, stay on track with your goals. It’s like this all turned and turned inside of him, and we saw a real change. He woke up, I guess. I mean, he started taking care of himself, doing better in school, seeing he had to get going to get where he wants to go. And he has somewhere he wants to be in two years, now. He even talks to us more and about what he can do, what he will do, what he is doing. I’m so thankful for this program and for [the mentor] taking time for my son. He even said that he thinks this is the best thing there has been for him in high school. He thinks all kids need this. I think he is right. I can’t do it. We needed someone else to help him.


We need community and service. We need it.

- UM mentor and, later, site coordinator

I see for us [UM students] how much we need many of the same things—like people letting us come to work to see what kinds of careers we could get into if we are in this or that major. We often would really benefit from a community person mentoring us. Our professors don’t know very much about the world of work, just like our kids don’t. How many of us are spending 60, 80, even 100 thousand dollars on a degree [when] we really don’t know what we will do with it? And what would we have gone into if we had had the chance to really explore what was out there in middle or high school? No, education, I think at all levels, has to be more of a community responsibility. Everyone thinks they can drop off kids at school or college and whatever they do to us will educate us and prepare us for something. That’s not true. We need community and service at all levels. Not just to be nice or because somebody thinks it’s “good.” We need it. And I mean both the kids and the adults. It’s being human. It’s caring and being a part of each other’s lives.


I got mad. It looked like they were just playing around.

- Mother of child in science club

I kept picking my daughter up and I got mad. I mean, it just looked like they were playing around. Then this UM person told me to wait a minute, to ask my daughter what is going on for a while. She told me that kids learn by having fun and doing things, with their hands, with trying things out. I guess I thought she’d get more school or something. I’m talking with her, though, and she is picking up things—words and ideas that are new. She really likes science club. She really does.


He was a steady thing in her life. Frankly, we didn’t have anything steady going on at home then.

- Mother of a career mentee

My daughter was so down on herself, and we were going through so much as a family. The divorce and moving and everything just came down on all of us. I know I was struggling just to keep going myself, and I just wasn’t there for her. We were all hurting. [Her career mentor] came along in her life at just the right time. She opened up to him about so many things. He was a steady thing in her life and a grown-up that she knew, I guess, she could confide in. She knew he’d be there every week when he said he would. Frankly, we didn’t have anything steady going on at home then. It’s really hard for me to put in words what he has done for all of us. He is so calm. He listens. He cares. He didn’t have some other motive, you know? I’m sure he didn’t know what was coming when he started working with my daughter. I don’t know if he knows even today what a source of strength and hope he was for me and her, but he was. And he wasn’t anyone like who I would have thought could come into our lives and help us. This may sound odd to you, but I really think God sent him to her and us. It was just too crazy how this happened. It had to be Him. I was so down on men and she needed a man in her life, a man to care and listen and hear her. [Her mentor] did that.


My whole idea got turned upside down.

- Academic mentor at Pioneer High

I tell you, my whole idea about who can learn and what teaching is and all this school stuff got turned upside down this year. And I saw that I wasn’t just being some nice person by helping a kid with math. I got to seeing that I had a responsibility to help her learn and to feel good about herself and to deal with her teacher and the tests and homework. I saw that she was smart. I saw that she just didn’t learn the way the math was being taught. I can’t tell you how crazy that was for me at first. I did fine. My friends did fine. I bought the whole thing that some kids just aren’t as smart as me or can’t learn math. That’s a lie, you know it? I do. Things have to really change so kids like mine can succeed. And I think we [Reach Out!] are a part of that change. It’s going to take time, but I think we are making a difference, for sure with our kids, but I think in the whole education business, too.

 

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