This page is located at:

Separate Yet Happy

Separate Yet Happy

by Barbara Garner
Youth have always been a big presence at Dona Ana Branch Community College (DABCC) in southern New Mexico. In fact, the college solicits lists of dropouts from neighboring school districts. They send letters encouraging these former high schoolers to go back to high school, but remind them that if they do not, they should consider adult basic education. Over the past few years, instructors of General Educational Development (GED) preparation courses were reporting that the adult/youth mix in their classes was difficult to navigate. The younger students were interested in technology, wanted activity-based and hands on learning, and were moving at a faster pace than the more mature students; the older students were more traditional. Last summer, the adult basic education instructional (ABE) team discussed ways to enhance the program. They decided to separate the younger and older students by creating an additional GED class specifically for 16- to 21-year-olds who had stopped out of school no more than three years before. Focus on Basics talked with the instructors who are teaching the new class and the original class, which now has only older students.

In the fall, 2003, DABCC started a GED preparation class for younger students with 26 students enrolled. The first accommodation they made to meet the needs of this age group was scheduling. The class started at 10 a.m. rather than 8 a.m. because most of the students arrived late when the class started at 8. It was held twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, for four hours a day, 10 to 12 and 12:30 to 2:30.

Lilia-Rosa Salmon taught the class. The age range of students was 16 to 22. She has only good things to say about it. "I had heard that most of the instructors were complaining about the younger students because of discipline issues," she explained. "When we decided to form a youth-only class, people asked, 'Who would teach it?' I said I would.

"I don't know why, but I never had a discipline problem at all. Since they're surrounded by [students] their own age, they didn't act up. They were more comfortable joking around and saying silly things and we would all laugh. I told them to watch their language and respect others, and not laugh at others asking questions. And that was it.

"Most of them were very fast learners. They did homework. Every one of the [13] students who completed the semester moved up a level [one went on to college]. I wouldn't be scared to send these students to college. I know they would be ok."

Using AMI and Internet
Having recently participated in a study circle on adult multiple intelligences (AMI), Lilia-Rosa decided to integrate a lot of AMI techniques into her class. The activity-based instruction gave the students more time to move around the class and suited their energy level. She also split class time into group activities and individual time. This was especially necessary because despite the narrowed age grouping, the students' academic levels were diverse. This semester, she is using similar techniques with the class. She has also arranged to have the class spend part of each week in the computer lab. Lilia-Rosa was surprised to learn that although her students could do anything on the Internet, their word processing skills were very weak. The students work on their GED essay-writing skills and computer skills in the lab. "We did the IQ test that is available for free on the Internet," she remembers. "I was amazed that only one of my students was average: the rest were above. I even had two in the genius category. Of course, this is the Internet. But I was surprised. This is a group of young adults who are not very informed about the world, and who were not successful in schooling. The IQ information was very encouraging for them."

Lilia-Rosa is 22 years old, and admits that her youth is probably a contributor to her success with this age group. "I need instructors to keep me active and focused. I try to give the same to them," she explains. "I do think it [her age] has an impact. I can probably relate more to their stories, to what they have to say [than older teachers]. They are comfortable telling me things. It's a huge responsibility to me because they see me as a young person like them, but yet I can work and be in college, so I'm a role model. They see that perhaps they can do it."

She feels that the students feel themselves to be part of adult basic education now. In the mixed age-group class, she says, she thinks they felt out of place: neither part of the public system or the ABE system. And they felt that as dropouts they couldn't do the same work as others. This semester, Lilia-Rosa took them on a field trip to New Mexico State University; they have been doing a lot of talking about how they can get into college with GEDs.

When other teachers ask her if she is having any problems, she responds that she's sorry they had such a hard time, but "I haven't had any problems at all. I can't even say I'm such a good instructor. I didn't even have to work to make a community in the classroom: they all started talking to each other and found their common interests. During the break, they all sit together and have lunch. Now they are all friends."

The "Elders"
How did the "elders" do without the younger students? Anastasia Cotton is teaching the older students. She feels that separating the age groups has been working out well for both groups. Her students know they need their diplomas, she explains, and "they know they don't want to be stuck at $5.50 an hour. They want to work. They're focused. This year, I have had a lot fewer complaints from students about other students. We could focus in on certain area, for example in reproductive health, AIDS, and homosexuality. Before, the older students didn't want to talk about potentially taboo topics. The younger students made some [older students] very self-conscious. Now, the older students are a lot more open. But, again, I don't have really older people in there; probably the oldest is 38.

"Nevertheless, the interests of a parent with two or three kids is very different from the interests of a 16-year-old who is still trying to date. For example, their music is different, so if you want to use music in the class, it's easier to do with the students separated by age.

"I've never seen a class participate more than this semester. I don't know whether that's because the "kids"b under 18b are not in there, or what."

About the Author
Barbara Garner is the editor of Focus on Basics.

Please visit the NCSALL website at (see Teaching and Training Materials section) for the Adult Multiple Intelligences (AMI) Study Circle Guide. Intended for professional developers and practitioners who want to organize and conduct study circles that help practitioners read, discuss, and use research to improve their practice, this nine-hour, three-session study circle introduces teachers to Howard Gardner's theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI) and its application in adult basic education. The study circle incorporates findings from NCSALL's Adult Multiple Intelligences Study, the first systematic effort to examine how multiple intelligences theory can support adult literacy education.