Making School Work for Students

7 Oct

In my last post, I mentioned the disappointment I experienced when only three of the nine girls I recruited for the after school FLL program decided to join the club. My disappointment was compounded when, after speaking to the entire middle school, only three boys signed up for the program.

It didn’t make sense. My presentation went well. The kids were actively listening. They were clearly interested. They appeared super curious, so I couldn’t understand why, after such a positive reception, there were only three names on the club sign-up sheet.

Staring down at the empty spaces on the sheet, I felt defeated. Quite honestly… I felt a little embarrassed too. I had been pushing this robotics club for two years; I had not only registered two FLL teams for the season, but I had also agreed to collaborate with the University of Pennsylvania to host an FLL Qualifying Event. What was I going to say to them… “I know we agreed to host the FLL event, but as it turns out I’m completely useless when it comes to recruiting students for after school clubs.” Ugh. My stomach hurt.

I gave myself a few hours to just be disappointed and to get to the point where I could “accept what is so”. I pulled it together and started to think through the situation. I knew there were students who wanted this club on campus. They had been asking for it. So where were they now?

Obviously, I was doing something wrong. There was something about what I was offering that didn’t work for the students.

I realized I was asking for too much too soon. A four-day a week commitment spanning nearly two-trimesters was way too much for most young people to commit to, especially for something they had never tried. In retrospect, I realize it would be too much of a commitment for most adults I know.

I went back to the original set of girls, the sixth grade girls who participated in the SeaPerch program last year and asked, “If you were able to cheer on Mondays and Wednesdays and come to robotics on Tuesdays and Thursdays, would you be interested in coming to robotics?”

“Yes!” Our girls team went from three to nine in an instant.

I headed down to the lower school to speak to a few sixth grade boys. I realized I had not even spoken to two of the potential candidates, again students from the SeaPerch program. An oversight. Bam. The team was up to five. Another boy at the table who was new to the school over heard our discussion and said, “Can I join?” Six.

For two of the boys who I knew would love and excel in the program it was something else that didn’t work for them: commitment to something thing they had never tried.

I said, “You can try robotics and engineering now in the sixth grade, and you can decide that it’s not for you. You can enter seventh grade and do something else, no big deal. It’s more difficult in the opposite direction. If you get to your junior year of high school and suddenly decide you want to pursue an engineering or science degree in college, you can’t go backwards and make up the years of opportunities and clubs you missed out on. I have a proposal. Tell me if it works for you. You can try robotics for two weeks. If you don’t like it, we’ll talk to Mr. S about switching after school programs.”

The offer to “try it” was all it took. After one meeting, both boys were ready to commit to four days a week. The team was up to eight. Two more seventh grade boys were added to the roster and our boys team maxed out at ten.

When I was originally told I could offer robotics four days a week, similar to the athletic programs, I was thrilled. All I could think of was how much time it would give the students to learn and prepare for the competition. I imagined the kids would be thrilled too, but for many of the students the four-day schedule was the deal breaker.

Young students want to explore their options. Their after school time is precious. In hindsight this seems obvious.

The funny thing is that the four-day schedule has turned out great. We made it work for us. Our boys team meetings are held on Mondays and Wednesdays and our girls team meetings are held on Tuesdays and Thursdays. There is also a cohort of nine students who have elected to attend all four days. On alternate team days, I post activities to their Edmodo group page and they work independently.

All it took was a little tweak in the schedule and an offer to “try before you buy” to keep an additional thirteen students involved in an after school STEM program. I can’t help but wonder what other minor tweaks could be made to make school work better for students and to boost their participation in academic offerings. 

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2 Responses to “Making School Work for Students”

  1. Sarah Kinder October 11, 2011 at 2:13 am #

    Steph- thanks for sharing this! It turned out great, but your openess and honesty are so amazing. It is hard to get new programs up and running. The time and commitment are difficult for students to make – and somehow you have to have both – all the time! Bravo to you for staying flexible! Our Engineering is not taking off yet – but we are revamping our approach and hoping for a winter program. We know it’s worth it!
    Sarah

    • missgreer October 11, 2011 at 4:47 am #

      Thanks Sarah! My colleague and I are heading to the EiE workshop in early December and we’ll be starting the curriculum with the new year. We’ll have to exchange notes. Hope to see you in the near future. I appreciate the comment.

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