Putting it All Together

 It’s a jigsaw puzzle. How do our schools merge the Design Principles of a Middle College, the philosophy of an Early College, Conley’s College Readiness Indicators, local and national curriculum requirements and sustain the affective, cultural, and community components necessary to create a successful middle/early college student? Like all MCNC schools, this is the challenge facing Mott Middle College.

Written by: Dr. Chery Wagonlander, Principal, and Amy Cox, English Teacher and GAPS Coordinator, Mott Middle Early College High School, at Mott Community College, Flint  MI

To this end, MMEC has re-envisioned its GAPS curriculum, a week-long intensive summer orientation/transition program. At MMEC, students are provisionally accepted into the school with the requirement of successful completion of the GAPS program.  MMEC generally offers two sessions of GAPS during the summer and one session after the start of the new school year, using school time, time after school and two Saturdays.  In total, over 160 new students this academic year have fulfilled their GAPS commitment.

The Full Value Contract

The Full Value Contract is the first major curriculum component of the GAPS program. As a whole learning community, the students answer the question “What kind of school do you want?” We tell them to dream big, to include everything. We instruct them to think about what they don’t want as well. Students totally get that this is what they are creating—it gives power to the student who is essentially at the center of the circle. We refer back to the social contract often. We also use things like “Let’s keep it in the circle” as quick reminders of what we “do” or how we act at MMEC.

The main purpose of the GAPS Transition Program is to help new students transition smoothly into their new learning community, which is an early college high school and very different from what they have previously experienced.  Four faculty members work intensively with clusters of 40 – 60 students to proactively address affective, academic, procedural and cultural issues. Typically, the admissions process clusters the new students in groups ranging in numbers from 40-60.  To this mix is added six to eight returning students who function as peer mentors to the new students.  Designed to help new students adjust to and internalize the Mott culture, the GAPS curriculum deliberately and immediately immerses students in procedures, rituals, and activities typical of MMEC, which may be, at first, unsettling to newcomers.  Right from the beginning, students quickly begin to see how different MMEC really is from other schools. Gentle reminders are given from the outset to “be open-minded,” “go with the flow,” “play along.” Students soon learn MMEC is a safe learning community, so it is okay to take responsible risks. Our first major curriculum component of GAPS is to write our own social contract. This we do by asking students what they want in a school. Through dialogue and consensus building, students declare what it is they want and don’t want in a school.  This is a foundational element to the creation and maintenance of the MMEC culture.

Language is another key element of school culture, and students participate in several activities that help them quickly grasp vocabulary and concepts that are crucial to MMEC. For example, MMEC is made up of scholars and so understanding what a scholar is and how a scholar thinks is crucial to learning how to become a scholar. Using the work developed by Art Costa and Bena Kallick, students learn the “16 Habits of Mind,” which are considered to be inherent characteristics or habits present in “scholars.” Students learn these by joining forces with a partner to develop a solid understanding of two of the habits in order to effectively teach them to the rest of the group.  Not only do students develop a working understanding of these 16 habits, but they also realize rather quickly that peer learning and formal presentations to other students is a cultural, as well as scholarly expectation at MMEC.  Likewise, students quickly learn what is expected in a safe and scholarly audience.

In another activity, students are asked to assess their operational use of over 70 specific words or concepts deemed crucial for success at MMEC.  These words, such as meta-cognition, consensus, David Conley, Choice Theory, mastery learning, the individual versus the collective, etc were selected by MMEC administration, faculty, staff and students.  The activity begins with a quick assessment of current knowledge, which usually reveals a lack understanding of more than half of the words.  Students are then put into small groups and asked to come to consensus on all the unknown words to the group.  Through this process of peer learning and consensus building, students realize that between them, there are only about 5-10 words unknown.  This simple activity yields a rich harvest.  It reveals the power of collective knowledge and peer learning, demonstrates that learning can be fun, provides students with greater familiarity and comfort with MMEC by making sure all are included in the language of the culture, and creates curiosity about the common concepts that are unknown and still to be learned. In addition to these two major GAPS components, students learn the indicators of college readiness, take a math module placement test, read a scholarly article, understand the tools of effective communication, learn about the financial implications of a college education, develop media literacy, engage in group building activities, recognize the relationship between the early college, the college and its larger community, and demonstrate the interconnectedness of these components to what it means to be a MMEC scholar and learning community member. Throughout the week, students are deliberately guided through the curriculum so that each day they can peel away a new layer and go deeper into what a Mott Middle Early College experience will require.  Granted, many, if not all, students are less than enthused to give up an entire week during the summer or Saturdays during the summer.  Rather than resist this sentiment, the faculty and student mentors embrace it by acknowledging that it is a big commitment to give up precious free time and it is also acknowledged that MMEC is worth the commitment.  Usually, it is the student mentors who make the most convincing arguments.

One activity, in particular, embraces students’ disenchantment with school by asking them to list all the reasons they can think of as to why kids don’t like school.  We use this “survey” and ensuing lively discussion to bridge to reading an excerpt from a scholarly research

The Human Knot

The human knot is one of many group building initiatives we do with students. The GAPS curriculum is so intense, serious and scholarly, but we also want it to be fun, so we are constantly interspersing the scholarly stuff with initiatives or with fun methods of presenting new ideas.

article by Daniel Willingham entitled, “Why Don’t Students Like School.” The main answer to the question, students learn from the article, is that the brain is not meant for thinking and therefore, humans, if they are to be scholars, must develop strategies to help the brain think.  This carefully constructed lesson coaxes students toward a more serious and scholarly conversation centered on college readiness and the role of the individual in community committed to scholarship.  The scholarly reading method, “Accountable Talk” is introduced as well as other college readiness indicators: i.e., cognitive strategies, academic skills and behaviors, content knowledge and contextual awareness.

Not only do students make a commitment of time to the Mott Middle Early College learning community, parents do so as well.   A recent addition to the GAPS transition program was the inspired decision to require that all parents take an MMEC Parents’ GAPS workshop.  The two-hour workshop is packed with vital information for parents and is divided into the following sections:  Introductions and rationale; Rules, regulations, and procedures (e.g. parentweb, where parents can have access to student grades and attendance and can be empowered); Office procedures; College readiness; Teaching methods; Focus Groups and a mini version of the “Full Value Contract.”  The workshop is concluded by showing parents a video about MMEC that was entirely recorded, edited, and produced by MMEC students in a Video Production class taught by Matt Osmon, MMEC Art Teacher.  Six such workshops have been presented and parents responded favorably.

Although there is a deliberately designed curriculum in place so that students are able to experience the school culture, there is always room for the teachable moment and for learning opportunities to unfold organically throughout the week.  Instructors constantly assess students’ levels of energy and enthusiasm, giving multiple breaks through out the day when needed and interspersing challenging, academic sections with quick initiatives that get students up and moving.   The overall objective is to provide incoming students with an authentic sampling of what life will be like for them once the semester begins rolling, so it is important to offer students rigorous academic activities that give them the opportunity to practice the scholarly behavior that will be expected of them. At the end of the intensive week, transformations are evident. For the most part, a week that began with audible, sighs of “Why do we have to be here?” concludes with a public declaration of individual strengths, a personal commitment to succeed, a celebration of what it means to be a maverick and public exclamations of “I can’t wait to start school here.”