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Friday, June 29, 2012

June 29, 2012: College Prep

[As summer gets underway, this week’s series will be on American Studies topics connected to summer jobs I’ve worked. Your experiences, thoughts, and job stories—good, bad, or ugly—very welcome in comments, and for another crowd-sourced post this weekend!]
On the illusions shattered and yet the ideals confirmed by my summer teaching in a pre-college “bridge” program.
I’ve highlighted in various posts here the many reasons I had a great graduate school experience at Philadelpha’s Temple University: my peers and colleagues, my mentors, my other professors, and, perhaps most of all, my students. Temple was founded as a genuinely local and urban institution, one hoping to cater to the city’s own young people; although its identity has of course evolved and changed over the century and a quarter since that founding, I would certainly argue that it remains one of Philly’s most genuinely local and grounded institutions, a part of the city’s history, identity, and community in a way that continues to define it into the 21st century. And while there are many reasons for that continuity, I would say that a crucial one is this: as Philadelphia’s only public university, Temple offers a unique, affordable, and irreplaceable educational opportunity for the city’s more disadvantaged residents.
Some students who come to Temple from those more difficult situations need a bit of extra work to prepare them for college, and so are required to participate in the Summer Bridge program before they begin their studies. During my last summer in Philly, I had the chance to teach writing for Summer Bridge, and to meet about fifty of these incoming local students. Yet I have to admit that many of the moments from that six week period which stand out the most for me do so because they were deeply disheartening, particularly in what I learned about the students’ lack of preparation. To cite only the most shocking such example: I had three different students tell me, on three completely separate occasions, that they had been told by high school teachers to cut and paste material from websites as part of their papers; that such work, far from being the plagiarism that I was trying to convince the students it was, represented “research,” finding and using resources in their writing. I fully understand the challenges with which inner city (and all public) high school teachers were faced then and face just as fully (if not more so) today; yet I was still blown away that, in at least these few cases, students were being instructed to cheat, presumably in order to achieve a certain level of writing without, y’know, actually doing the writing themselves.
But if such shocking and disheartening moments stand out individually, my overall takeaway from my summer with the Bridge program was precisely the opposite: a deeply inspiring sense of just how much this group of young people cared about the opportunity to attend Temple, just how much they valued their educational opportunity and how determined they were to take advantage of it. During the summer, while their peers were earning money at summer jobs or going to the beach or watching daytime television, these students were taking intensive courses in writing and reading, math and critical thinking, not for a grade or credit but simply for the chance to attend college. It was an incredibly diverse group in race, ethnicity, community, and other aspects of identity (which was pretty inspiring too), but it was very homogenous in this one key way: every single student wanted to be there, and demonstrated that desire in class every single day. However much I was able to give to them, I guarantee that I took away even more from, was better prepared for the rest of my college teaching career by, the chance to work with them for those six weeks.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend, so add your summer job experiences and thoughts please!
PS. You know what to do!
6/29 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two very distinct but equally courageous and influential 20th century political and social activists, Julia Lathrop and Stokely Carmichael.


  1. Greetings Ben,
    I think you touched on the most important aspect of teaching that many Americans over look: the students need to want to learn in order to truly succeed in school.

    With all the talk about teacher accountability, folks are forgetting that the educational process is not a one way street. The teacher and the student must be active participants.
    The product of our educational system will not change until society deems it a priority. You excel at what you value. Society would have to change. This change is much harder than yelling at teachers.

  2. Hi Matt (I think this is Matt),

    Thanks very much for the comment and good thoughts. Totally agree, and if anything I think the way we should be holding teachers accountable (or at least measuring them) is by finding the ones who most encourage that feeling in their students, and rewarding them for it! However they get there.

    Thanks again,