Parvoneh Shirgir, Teacher and Education Department employee at The Fortune Society

Fortune’s Education Dept. Students Often Become Advocates For Much-Needed Reentry Changes

Saturday, September 12, 2015

“You learn when you fall down,” a student suggested while discussing previous school experiences during a class last year.

She went on to share that making mistakes in her life had been difficult, but that she has grown as a person and learned along the way as a result. It hasn’t
always been a linear path, but each moment helped shape her into the young woman she is today.

Like this young woman, many Fortune Society students come to our Education Department equipped with at least hints of a trait that’s rather difficult to teach — resilience. When individuals carry the ability to “fall down” and get back up when faced with challenges in lives full of conflicting responsibilities, after court-involvement, or upon reentry, they’re also prepared to engage new subjects, debate about differing perspectives, and implement new skills.

In high school equivalency settings, as in any realm in life, mistakes are certainly going to be made, but each mistake allows the student to analyze what went wrong, reassess their approach, and then strive towards success. This, to me, is what justice and education look like.

In a climate invested in achievement over all else via high-stakes testing, grade fixing, and the like, it is refreshing to hear that some students value the learning experience as much, if not more, than the end result.

Education is valued in our society as a general idea (in name, if not in resources), but we don’t often pause to think about what it means to be educated. Is the credential most important? Familiarity with major texts, key ideas, or concepts? Hard skills? Critical thinking? Problem-solving? Grit and perseverance? Our institutions are quick to punish those who misstep as a matter of routine, without a moment’s pause or analysis of our goals in doing so. In math class, so many of my students work in pencil and yet still request new paper, crumpling their mistakes in order to maintain perfect pages of calculations. Yet, lasting learning requires that we acknowledge errors not as egregious but as opportunities. It is certainly challenging, but it is worthwhile. We all fall down from time to time.

Many of us were educated in “I Do, We Do, You Do” environments wherein a teacher demonstrated a strategy like long division, the class practiced together, and then students worked independently on drills. Many of us forgot those strategies not long after, or cannot explain why we “bring down” digits while carrying out the steps. What’s missing in this situation is choice, the room to explore, to make an attempt and analyze the results. What do the steps of long division symbolize and why? When we make a mistake, is it due to a calculation flaw or a fundamental misunderstanding of the concepts underlying division? If we view education as the ability to problem-solve, we see that students must practice resilience and, in doing so, make vital discoveries along the way. Making a mistake encourages a pause, which is so necessary but so overlooked.

A “You, Y’all, We” sequence de-centers the teacher as an all-knowing authority and instead allows students to struggle productively with concepts individually, grapple with the concepts in peer groups, and reflect as a class to theorize the learning that has been done. The resulting understanding and sense of accomplishment prepare students to take on later challenges in and outside of the classroom. Fortune Society students inquire about subjects in greater detail, build a curiosity about our world, and acquire methods to investigate, challenge, and enhance existing ideas, beliefs, and structures.

Ultimately, my goals as an educator are to encourage and enhance students’ abilities to effectively communicate, organize ideas, collaborate, investigate and question, and seek and evaluate answers in any discipline or field. As a member of the adult education community, I’m able to learn from whole lifetimes of knowledge and experience carried with each student. While students are sometimes in a hurry, there must be time and space for students to fall, get up, reflect, try again, perhaps even leap. Our testing-driven culture does not always measure the mistakes made along the way, but we can celebrate the knowledge gained in a dynamic learning process nonetheless.

We are often so engrossed with success and perfection that we may forget that a supposed setback is actually an asset. With this in mind, we can be empowered by the very moments that challenge us. As such, education in a classroom can and ideally should transfer to non-academic settings; students enhance their tools to problem-solve in daily life as well as to challenge injustices on a larger scale. As an agency dedicated to public policy as well as direct services, we are able to access outlets for the vibrant voices in our classrooms. Students in our program often become advocates for reentry issues, educating others and pushing for much-needed change.

The student who shared that she had learned from stumbling attained her high school equivalency diploma last month and will attend college this fall. Not only is she pursuing her personal goals, she has become a youth justice advocate and seeks change in our city and on a national level. She already carried many tools with her, including the wisdom that falling down may help you grow, but she had limited experience practicing her skills.

Our Education Department gave her the opportunities and guidance to harness these tools, to ask questions about our neighborhoods, city, and world, and seek answers in a supportive community.

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