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Focus On Basics

Volume 7, Issue A ::: June 2004

What Is the Magic Mix? Teens in Adult Education

by Virginia Tardaewether
While the adult learning community struggles with how to include teens in adult education, the teens are here in the classrooms teaching us how to include them. Ask and they will show you how. When the adult education classroom focuses on creation of a learning climate of mutual respect and fairness, a way to include youth and adults can be negotiated. This involves creation of an open and equal interaction between and among youth and adults. Based upon my experience, I don't favor a separation of the two populations. I also enjoy multilevel classrooms and students learning English mixed with native speakers. To me the joy of teaching is the mix. The more diverse the mix, the better.

Is this a radical approach to adult education? No, it is a realistic approach, one that links life outside the classroom to life in the classroom. Our communities are multiethnic and multilevel mixtures of Americans, and our classrooms should reflect that mixture. Our classrooms should model classroom standards and expectations that help our students understand and apply the standards set by the wider society. Our students need to know about change, about the process of changing attitudes, and ways in which they can go about aiding that change process. Our classrooms should teach tolerance so that it transfers from the classroom to the community. What better place to teach tolerance than to model it within the class? Often youth are left out of thinking and planning, so the resulting programs are often less than stellar. What can we do about it? We can easily include youth within classroom structures for planning curriculum and activities. This gives us an opportunity to model tolerance and equity on a daily basis for all attendees.

While some suggest that youth need different things than adults, such as rules and attendance policies, I think we all need ground rules to live by within our community and within a classroom. If the students develop these rules, it helps them to "see" the rules of society and the workplace, that rules change through time, that rules are not always easy to discover and uncover, and that each of us must ultimately take responsibility for the rules. Students need opportunities for creative and critical thinking processes around their discovery of "the rules." Members of gangs may not think they have "rules" binding their behavior, but they do, and those rules have an impact on people outside the gang. Dialogue about rules and enforcement of them may open doors for solutions within the classroom, the workplace, and the community. These communication strategies can often carry over into parenting discussions as well.

Linkage between the workplace and the classroom can begin the reality shift for teens as they engage in the real-life application of skills learned in the classroom. Adults bring the gift of skills gained through life experiences and teens bring the gift of challenging and questioning the usefulness of those skills. Clarifying real-life situations can acknowledge the "collective wisdom" of a class and solicit solutions from all students, no matter their age or experiences. Open communication teaches the group that all have something to offer, all are learners, and all can learn from each other. Expectations should not differ for teens, but should be consistent across programs. Adult education students should be held accountable to the college community as a whole and abide by the same set of expectations.

Adult students bring personal learning experiences that enrich all our lives. Teens can use help in developing their short- and long-term goals, in understanding budgets, in learning how to drive. Older adults can use help from teens in computer applications, Internet use, cell phone operation, and enthusiasm for life. Teens tend to question the system and the instruction they receive; adult students may be complacent about learning and so focused on goals that they forget to have fun. Teens rarely put up with anything boring for long without saying something about it. Complaints or low attendance rates are our prompt as educators to do something about it: change our structure, change our content, explain ourselves, connect, enjoy.

In Conclusion
Since teens and other adults are our customers, it is our duty to deliver good service to all of them. If this means that we need to change our delivery system so our customer satisfaction numbers improve, well, that's what we need to do. If I were a car dealership, I would ask my clients how I was doing, and change my delivery to get higher numbers on the evaluation. Our programs may need to adjust times, formats, delivery, context, content, to better serve our clientele, but isn't that what a good adult education program does already? Our challenge continues to be implementation of the best possible basic skills instruction within the current environment of limited resources, changing economics, and ever-increasing student diversity.

About the Author
Virginia Tardaewether is the Watershed Education Coordinator for MidCoast Watersheds Council and the Learning Center Coordinator for Chemeketa Community College Outreach Campus in Dallas, Oregon. Her current teaching position includes watershed and environmental education, adult basic education, preparation for the tests of General Educational Development, developmental classes in reading, vocabulary, spelling, phonics, writing, and mathematics. Approximately 50 percent of the students enrolled in her classes now are 16 to 18 year olds. She also has taught and coordinated family literacy and English as a Second Language programs.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL