Saturday, March 28, 2009

Making it all worthwhile

On Monday morning, before classes even started, Markus, a senior, came into my room and gave me an envelope with my name on it.

"What's this?" I said, as I began to open it.

"You'll see," he said.

A little white dog running like crazy was on the front of the card. Inside, it said "help is on the way!" Under it, he has written: "The Army to the rescue! I just received a call from a staff sergeant Haan from the University of Dubuque ROTC unit. They are offering me a full scholarship. I want to thank you, because I never could have achieved this without you or AVID Thank you for Everything, Markus"

Awwww!! I gave him a big hug. "It was just like you said," he said. "The college has scholarships to give themselves."

The next day, his mother saw me and said that the night he got the call, he insisted that his mother go out and buy him a card for me! :-)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

And One Heroine

Earlier, I wrote about the three mentors who blessed my life. But, I also had one heroine, and that would be Mary Catherine Swanson, the founder of AVID. I could search the Internet and dredge up all the articles about her and the awards she's won, but I would rather tell you what I know, or think I know, about her. (Above: me, AVID student Carlo Abcede, and Mary Catherine in Sigonella, Sicily, 2007)

In 1980, long before I ever met her, Mary Catherine was an English teacher in a high school California near San Diego. This school had always been a high-performing school for high-performing college-bound students in the suburbs. Then, integration and busing changed it all. While many of her colleagues felt these new, strange students (many of whom could not speak English) would drag the school down, Mary Catherine felt that they could perform as well and also go to college if things were done a little differently for them. She and a colleague put together a program designed to do just that and started with thirty-two of these non-traditional students. By trial and error and "just plain hard work," the teachers and students employed best practices to make these students successful in college prep courses instead of the "throwaway courses" into which they had been slotted. Four years later, they all had college acceptances, and eventually all of them achieved their dream of a college degree. The "experiment" found a name: AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination).

Word of Mary Catherine's success spread to neighboring high schools, whose teachers wanted the program, too. It was a teacher-to-teacher program, a "bottom-up" program, which you rarely find in education. Mary Catherine became a teacher of teachers, too. Soon she was elevated to the San Diego County Office of Education and AVID became a countywide program. Still, teachers were the focus. More often than not, it was a teacher who brought the idea to the administrators rather than vice versa. Teachers (like me) wanted to teach this program.Today AVID reaches over 300,000 students in grades 5-12 worldwide. It is the longest-lived educational reform movement in America and the only one started by a classroom teacher. In my thirty-seven years in education, I have seems dozens of programs, maybe hundreds, come and go. Only AVID is still around and still growing.

But, back to Mary Catherine's story . . . what makes her my heroine? She basically turned the whole idea of "tracking students" upside down. From her earliest days, she was a champion for the "forgotten" students, the underdogs, the ones who fell through the educational cracks, the underachievers, the under-represented, and even the unwanted. She saw in them what I had also seen in my first twenty years of teaching: the potential to do so much more! These were kids who were smart and didn't even know it, who could go to college and didn't even know why or how. They took the wrong classes, hung with the wrong crowd, and didn't do any of the things that successful, college-bound kids did. Most often, their parents were not college educated, and many did not even finish high school. But who says certain students can or can't take algebra or Honors English? Why not?

So, what Mary Catherine (and AVID) said to them was, "Look, you are smart! You could go to college, too, if you just did things a little differently." And AVID was born, nurtured, and grown. Mary Catherine fought the battles, with administrators, school boards, teachers, and even parents who resisted this idea. It had never been done this way. Outrageous! Just imagine, putting "those kids" in college prep classes? But AVID was put together brilliantly. As Mary Catherine says herself, "It's just common sense." Nothing in AVID is "new," but the combination of elements makes it powerful. Kids are "accelerated," not remediated. They are put in rigorous courses and then given the support to succeed there. "Hard work makes you smart," says Mary Catherine.

As AVID grew in southern California, Mary Catherine surrounded herself with other teachers, like herself, who were successful with and believed in AVID. They were all teachers, and that is another reason for its success. Teachers believe in other teachers, and when they believe in kids, too, and their potential, they make great AVID teachers. The heart of AVID is the classroom teacher, the one who makes that connection with the kids and their parents. Because Mary Catherine did it, we knew we could, too.

As the program grew, spread, incorporated, and even became gigantic, Mary Catherine remained at the head of it as a teacher-leader. The highlight of every AVID summer institute was her address to the participants, whether in Sonthofen, Germany, or Richmond, Virginia. Thousands were inspired by her story, her ongoing work to grow AVID, and the successes of the students. Mary Catherine was like a rock star at the summer institute, and her presence there today is sorely missed and greatly needed.

I am extremely fortunate to have met this great woman whose philosophy so matched mine and to have become an AVID teacher and then a leader for the program. I even had the privilege of working directly for the AVID Center for a year. Like my mentors, Mary Catherine inspired me and empowered me. To this day, AVID is pretty much like it was designed by her from the beginning, which is why it still works. But without her vision and determination, it never would have happened and the world would be significantly different for tens of thousands of college graduates and for me.

Gloria Ollhoff, Mary Catherine, me, Anne Muse, and Candace Ransing

Wiesbaden, Germany 2000

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Kids Write the Darnedest Things, Too

In AVID, we often have guest speakers who talk about their college and work experience to the students, who take notes and then have to write an article based on those notes and what they heard. I just posted some of their best comments HERE. But there were some cute and funny ones, too:

"Ms. Rettie walked into our class on the twenty-third of February, and told us a bit about herself."

"Right now she is a school nurse, a really good one if I may say."

"After fighting through it getting good grades, she got her Bachelors in Nursing."

"She went to big nurse type meeting in an autotorium and then she ran into a DoDDs' person. And was offered a job overseas."

"Till her time is up as a nurse she would like to enjoy her life as a nurse."

"Her favorite slogan or quote is children are 1/3 of our life and 1/3 of our future."

"Usually you don't find many people with a motivating motto, but for Ms. Rettie hers was "Children are 1/3 of our population and all of our future."

"Her hobbies are reading and traveling, sometimes both."

"She had encountered two deaths up until now."

"Ms. Rettie went to a university in California, the name I failed to recall."

"Later on she graduated with a 4-year degree and was ready to rock 'n roll."

"To me, Ms. Rettie is a hero, because everyday she wakes up, comes to school and is putting herself in danger."

"In high school she knew she wanted to be somewhere in the doctor region."


Saturday, March 7, 2009

AVID, Part One

Okay, this is how it really happened . . . in 1991-92, I was an English teacher at Ansbach and my friend Phyllis Walton was working at the Nuernberg District Superintendent's Office in School Improvement. She told me to sign up for a briefing on something called AVID when it came to our school because it might mean a trip to San Diego. I had never been there but certainly wanted to go! In those days, DoDDS had a seemingly limitless pot of money for training and travel.

Sure enough, sometime during the schoolyear, the opportunity came up to hear someone from Caifornia talk about AVID. I was right there. The "someone" was Kathy Deering, who, at that time, was one of AVID founder Mary Catherine Swanson's right-hand women. Only a few of us showed up to hear her, and I think I was the only classroom teacher. Within five minutes, I knew I wanted to teach AVID! It wasn't that Kathy was the world's greatest salesperson, although she is very charming and smart and "together." When I heard what the program was all about, it fit perfectly with everything I believed about students and achievement. It was all about the kids who are smart but who don't take the hard classes or go to college for one reason or another. I had studied and taught a lot of study skills over the years, and I had been a fairly successful athletic coach, too. Some of those skills fit perfectly with AVID.

Before you could say T.D.Y., it was summertime and I was in San Diego with two colleagues, Beth Cunningham and Sandra Bruce, along with teams from six other schools in Germany and our superintendent, Larry Philpot, and his business manager, Bud Korth (also in photo left and below). We attended the 1992 AVID Summer Institute along with a few hundred other people on the University of San Diego campus. When we weren't in Tijuana, on the beach, drinking bird-bath size margaritas in Old Town, or betting on the horses at DelMar, we were learning about AVID right from the experts, Mary Catherine and her staff. In fact, Cyndy Bishop, her other right-hand woman (see photos below), taught me all about how to coordinate the program and teach AVID. We were given two HUGE binders (about 6") with everything you needed to run this program. That was it in those days. I don't think there were even page numbers on them.

Beth, Cyndy, me and Sandra in San Diego, 1992

It was sink or swim when we came back to Germany for SY 92-93. I had one AVID class of nineteen freshmen (see photo below). I had given up all extra duties to devote myself to making this program work. I have to say we got great support from the district office and from AVID. They made frequent visits and we had a lot of meetings. The kids, the tutors, and I struggled to discover what AVID was. They resisted, the teachers resisted having them in honors classes, tutors came and went. But, when the consultants from the San Diego AVID Center visited us late in the year, according to one of my tutors, "Aliens invaded their little bodies and they became perfect little AVID students!" Well, we learned a lot, and the second year was 100% better and easier!

My first AVID class at Ansbach with Cyndy Bishop and Bud Korth

DoDDS-Europe was the first place outside of California to adopt AVID. Today the program is established in nearly every state in America, parts of Canada, all the DoDEA schools worldwide. It has grown from 32 students in 1980 to over 300,000 today. It's the longest-lasting educational reform movement in America. And why? It works; that's why. "It's not rocket science," as Mary Catherine says. It's good teaching practices, belief in the student, partnerships with the parents, high expectations and a structure for reaching them. AVID works for a lot of reasons, but I believe the most important ones are belief in the student, rigor and support, teaching kids to think (writing, inquiry, and collaboration), and the commitment of the AVID teacher and the student. I believe it is a teacher-driven program, and when it was a grass-roots, bottom-up program, as it was then, it was most powerful. Unfortunately, it is not that way today, but it's still good at the school level.

AVID "happened" to me at a time in my career when I was rather bored with the classroom and teaching English. It revitalized me, renewed me, and, to this day, I will say it was the best thing that happened to me in my career. It is still my favorite course to teach and program to coordinate and, by far, the most rewarding.