Teaching Expertise Worth Striving For

By Hilary Harper-Wilcoxen

Hilary Harper-Wilcoxen is the Founder of Bear Pond Learning, a nonprofit in Bridgton, ME.

This blog was inspired by the workshop Hilary presented at this year’s National College Transition Network Conference in Cambridge, MA from November 12-14, “Professor-Proofing our Teaching”.

Professors are smart. They have to be. After all, they are the expert in the classroom. But, as comedian Chad Daniels says, “My wife has a Ph.D…but not in everything.”

The troubling fact is that if you ask almost anyone about their experience in college and their professors’ ability to teach they will nod knowingly and say, “I had one or two great ones. The rest? Not so much.”

Why is that? Here are two possible explanations:

  1. Professors are not taught to teach. Instead, they are taught, and encouraged to get better at what they are already good at – their discipline.
  2. Professors are not rewarded for putting the needed effort into becoming great teachers. All the brownie points (like promotions and tenure) go to those who continue to grow their expertise, not to those who focus on a skill they were never taught – how to effectively share that expertise with students.

Until the brownie points go to the best teachers the motivation to improve our teaching has to be intrinsic. For me it was an uneasy feeling that, although I knew what to teach, I didn’t really know how to teach it. I think I assumed that someday someone would show up and tell me exactly how to help students who couldn’t write, how to grade papers fairly, how to develop effective course curriculum. That day never came.

Our epiphanies happen when we are ready to accept them. My efforts to improve my teaching brought me to Dr. Eric Mazur from Harvard University, who said, “I never asked myself, ‘How am I going to teach?’ It was clear, I was going to lecture. I had learned by listening to lectures.” Dr. Mazur goes on to show us how his success as an instructor was really an “illusion” that one day was shattered. I had been teaching long enough to realize that, like Mazur, my students were not retaining the knowledge I thought they had obtained. Why? Because they hadn’t really understood it! I knew by then that you had to connect new knowledge with prior knowledge for the students to understand. I just didn’t know how to do that.

I had been directed to Mazur’s video by Jay McTighe, author of Understanding by Design (UbD), and after watching it I became even more committed to using the principles of UbD and Mazur’s Peer Instruction in my classroom.

Neither method or framework was a perfect fit, so I went about picking and choosing what worked for my department, my students, and my discipline. It was frustrating, exhilarating, and ultimately, transformative.

Here are some take-aways from my work that I hope will be helpful:

  1. Reduce content to what is essential for understanding. This is a core UbD principle and one of the first things I tackled as a new UbD adopter. It required me to distill my course (which spanned 2,500 years of dance history) down to one Big Idea. Then, I worked on developing an “essential question” or EQ for the entire course and, later, for my units. The EQ I finally decided on was, “Why do people dance?” It brought focus and clarity to everything else I did, and allowed the students to have an anchor, a question they could keep going back to as they waded through all the information. True, it is very hard to delete content that we love as experts. It is easier if we ask ourselves honestly, “Is this essential and, if so, does it help answer or enrich the EQ?”
  2. Design your classes to give greater student agency. What does that mean, exactly? Well, for me it meant giving up some control. To design homework and projects (connected somehow to the EQ) that require students to practice what they will need in the 21st century. Skills such as collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking; and to do it with as little direction from me as I could muster. I found that if I had the Big Idea and EQ in mind it was a lot easier to create experiential learning projects and assignments that incorporated the material we had to cover. That, in turn, allowed my students to create something that was truly theirs, but which incorporated the essential knowledge we were working on. I found that agency=engagement in almost every class I taught. It’s a lot messier than lecturing or small group discussions, but it is well worth the mess.
 Here are some more ideas on student agency.
  3. Bias. How a seemingly ugly word can help us. A master kindergarten teacher I know, Patty Poulin, says this about bias, “You have to know you have it, or you can’t do anything about it. And everyone has it.” But what, exactly, is it? There are a number of definitions, but I find the most useful one as a teacher is, anything that causes me to decide something, based on a stereotype and without the facts, that might affect how I treat my students.

Whenever the topic comes up I am reminded, shamefully, of a time when I almost failed a student. This particular freshman kept arriving late and unprepared for my class. She missed a scheduled meeting and did almost no work. When I finally got her to my office she broke down in tears. She told me that she had to leave school because of a family situation. All I could do at that point was tell her I was sorry and wish her well. My bias — seeing her as a disinterested freshman who was lazy and irresponsible— had not done either of us any favors. It was a stark lesson for me, and one I never forgot. It was my job to make the effort, to seek to understand, but I had been more concerned with papers and attitude than with her.

My elementary school colleagues understand this. They are trained educators, and they have a name for it — Social Emotional Learning, or SEL. We need to pay attention to the current conversation regarding best practices. David Gooblar states in his article, Yes, You Have Implicit Biases, Too that we can become “conscious of the existence of implicit biases, and the probability that you yourself might be influenced by them, before you can do anything about them.”

I guess Patty knew what she was talking about.

As higher ed educators we still need to seek to understand in order to develop empathy. We all know that the demands of time, burn out, and personal needs can drop empathy and listening to the bottom of our list, but we have to challenge that. Our students really are more important than our discipline, our lesson plan, or our biases. If we are going to reach them we need to “learn from each other’s lived experiences.” (Beegle, 2007)

Learn, and then put what we learn back into our meetings with students, our classes, and our sense of who we are and why we wanted to teach in the first place. My superintendent, Kevin Richard describes the work we are all here to do, “To empower our students to get the skills they need to fix their own problems.”

Now that’s expertise worth striving for.

Beegle, D. M. (2007). See poverty…be the difference! Discover the missing pieces for helping people move out of poverty.  Tigard, OR: Communication Across Barriers, Inc.

Gooblar, D. (2017, November 20). Yes, you have implicit biases, too. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved December 27, 2018, from https://www.chronicle.com/article/Yes-You-Have-Implicit-Biases/241797

Happy Mother’s Day!

In honor of Mother’s Day, here are stories from 3 women who against all odds are pursuing an education to better not only their lives but, their children’s lives too.

Education Provides New Opportunities

By Mary Crumble, GED/College Transition Student

My name is Mary and I was born and raised in Washington, DC along with three other siblings. I attended the public school in my area, however, I never completed high school and had to drop out because I became pregnant.

In order to get my GED, I began going to Academy of Hope, a program that helps individuals obtain their GED. I was struggling with the program and decided to switch to the National External Diploma Program, a high school completion option for adults. Four years later, I graduated and received my high school diploma.

When I first told my oldest daughter that I was going back to school, she was proud of me. I will never forget that moment. Now, my dream is to attend college and receive a degree in early childhood education. I’m taking college prep classes to help me prepare. Once I finish the prep classes and save enough money, I plan to attend community college.

SInce I graduated high school, I can now fill out applications on my own and no longer have to worry about the part, ‘Name your high school.’ I’m happy that I made a change for myself and pursued my high school diploma. Now, I have so many new opportunities that I never had before.

Education Empowers Individuals

By Camille Myers, ABE/GED Student

My name is Camille Myers and I am a mother to a son and a grandmother of three. I was born in Utah but I was raised by a widowed mother in Idaho with an old-fashioned Midwestern upbringing. My schooling was varied; I was diagnosed with seizures and was given a wide variety of drugs starting at 6. Because of the drugs, I was labeled mentally challenged and spent my first four years in a state school for people with severe mental retardation. In the fifth grade, I went to a special school for mentally challenged students until I was 16.

At 16, I became a mom and quit school. At the time I quit school, my reading ability was at the 4th grade level. It was a struggle to be a single mom. It was very hard to get employment as I could not fill out the applications. I missed many opportunities for work even though I was a good worker. Because of the misdiagnosis on my educational abilities, I felt that I missed out on the opportunity to fulfill my dream of becoming a nurse. Yet somehow, even though it was a struggle, I managed to raise my son and provide for us.

When I was 50, I realized that I wanted to continue my education. I started going to an adult literacy program, Del Norte Reads in California. Much to my amazement, I loved attending classes and was able to learn many new skills..

I feel that getting an education, even at my age, sets an example to my family and to other learners. I made sure my son finished high school and he then went to culinary school.  In addition, my self-esteem has skyrocketed. I am able to fill out applications, read books and understand what I am reading. I can now balance my checkbook, and I even have the confidence to tutor others and counsel prospective learners to encourage them to pursue their educational goals. The most exciting thing is that I have found that the “labels” put on me as a child were not merited. I am a strong, intelligent woman who is capable of fulfilling anything I can dream.

Education Makes Dreams Come True

Mary Mach, ESOL Student

My name is Mary Mach and I was born in South Sudan. I attended school there until 2nd grade but, due to war, I had to drop-out and flee South Sudan to Kenya in 1992. When I was in Kenya, I never had the opportunity to go to school because I was tasked with taking care of my younger siblings. Daily in the refugee camp, I had to cook and fetch water for my family. In 2004, my family and I moved to the U.S. for a better life.

After being in the U.S. for some years and having my own children, I decided go back to school to learn English. However, being a mom and going to school is not easy and I have to juggle many responsibilities. On a day-to-day basis, I have to take care of my six children, bring them to school, cook for them, and help them with their homework.

When I went to see my doctor, I used to need a translator, and that was my motivation to go back to school because I wanted to be independent. My son encourages me a lot. He said, “Mom, you don’t need a translator now. Mom, you can read and return the teacher’s notes back to her.” Because of my children’s support, I have found the willpower to overcome the obstacles and have received my CNA license.

My dream is to be a midwife. In my country, women die every day in their villages because they don’t have the proper education and guidance.When I was working for two years in Kakuma, a refugee camp, I witnessed pregnant young girls dying from labor. I want to help change that.

Support for mothers’ education is one of the best education investments a society can make. It brings multiple returns to the family, community, and to the mother herself. In the United States, that investment is limited in relation to the amount of need. 36 million adults in the United States need to improve their pre-college level academic skills. Yet, the publicly funded adult education system has the capacity to serve only slightly more than 2 million young and older adults per year.

Donate to World Education, where your gift helps mothers achieve their educational goals, provide for their families, and inspire their children to succeed.

The stories were originally submitted as part of World Education’s Mother’s Day campaign in 2014 and have been edited for this blog

World Education Staff Workshops at COABE 2018

Every year, our staff delivers engaging workshops across a range of topics. This year we have 18 workshops being presented by staff members, and we are sponsoring two strands at the conference!

Below is a list of all the workshops our staff members are presenting, but don’t forget to check out the “Transitions Strand” sponsored by the National College Transition Network, and “Digital Literacy & Technology Strand” sponsored by the EdTech Center @ World Education!

Sunday, March 25th Preconference

12:30pm – 3:30pm
  • Digital Literacy: Essential Element of College and Career Readiness presented by Priyanka Sharma Laveen A

Monday, March 26th

8:00am – 9:15am
  • Building High-Quality Professional Development Programs Using LINCS presented by Kaye Beall and Chrys Limardo* CC 102B
  • Teaching Digital Literacy: Working with Tutors, Teachers, and Volunteers to Meet Diverse Learners’ Needs presented by Jenifer Vanek, Jill Castek, and Kathy Harris Encanto A
11:30am – 12:45pm
  • Inspire Excitement about Writing: Use The Change Agent Call for Articles presented by Cynthia Peters, Hazel Robin, Luz Elias, and Carlos Contreras Ahwatukee A
  • Learning Circles for Adult Basic Education (Including ESL/ESOL) presented by Priyanka Sharma and David Rosen CC 102C
2:00pm – 3:15pm
  • Preparing Adult English Language Learners for the Workforce: Models and Resources (LINCS) presented by Andy Nash CC 102B
3:45pm – 5:00pm
  • Characteristics of Effective Online Learners and Online Learning Coaches presented by Sandy Goodman and Leah Peterson CC 104A

Tuesday, March 27th

8:00am – 9:15am

Digital Revolution: Leveraging Technology for Increasing Adult Learning & Employment Outcomes presented by Alison Ascher Webber Encanto A

11:00am – 12:15pm
  • Problem Solving in a Digital World: Using PIAAC’s PS-TRE to Support Learning presented by Jenifer Vanek CC 102A
  • Engaging Your Students with Mobile Learning and Apps presented by Priyanka Sharma and Alison Ascher Webber CC 106A
2:00pm – 3:15pm
  • Digital Literacy Curricula and Teaching: What Works Well presented by Jenifer Vanek, Tom Cytron-Hysom, and Eric Nesheim CC 104B
3:45pm – 5:00pm
  • Work and Civics: Breaking Down the Silos presented by Andy Nash and Cynthia Peters Alhambra
  • How Investment in Technology Can Accelerate and Expand Collective Impact in Adult Learning presented by Alison Ascher Webber, Jenifer Vanek, and Mitch Rosin CC 105A

Wednesday, March 28th

8:00am – 9:15am
  • We Learn By Doing!: Authentic Practice Outside of Class Through Technology presented by Alison Ascher Webber and Jenifer Vanek CC 104A
  • Using the Adult Education Teacher Competencies (LINCS) presented by Andy Nash CC 102B
11:00am – 12:15pm
  • Digital Literacy, Computer Vocabulary, and English Language Learning: An Inseparable Combination presented by Jenifer Vanek CC 104B
1:45pm – 3:00pm
  • What is Blended Learning? Real Implementation Examples from IDEAL Consortium States presented by Jenifer Vanek, Stephanie Bulgrin, and Christy Nelson CC 104B
3:15pm – 4:30pm
  • Updating Digital Literacy Assessment for the Future: Northstar 2.0 presented by Jen Vanek, Tom Cytron-Hysom, and Eric Nesheim CC 104B

*Presenters in italics are partners for World Education, Inc.

Math and ESOL, A Winning Combination

Pam Meader is a math consultant for TERC in Cambridge, Massachusetts and a national math trainer for LINCS. Pam is co-facilitator of the Mathematizing ESOL series serving as the math expert. She is co-author of the Hands on Math series from Walch Publishing and is a member of ANN, Adult Numeracy Network.

Integrating curriculum is nothing new to ESOL teachers, but many times ESOL teachers feel less prepared to discuss math topics with their learners. Many ESOL teachers may not feel comfortable with math themselves, as math was taught procedurally requiring memorization to get through a math class. Since the Mathematizing ESOL series was introduced three years ago, some ESOL teachers have approached this course with trepidation but soon found their fears diminished. There were many reasons for this change.

First, many participants appreciated the experiential approach to teaching math topics: using manipulatives, incorporating visuals such as number lines, and acting out a problem directly related to approaches ESOL teachers were already utilizing in their classrooms.  They also appreciated the real-life context for introducing math such as creating budgets and shopping, tasks that were already part of the ESOL curriculum. As one participant wrote, “The content of the course and the teaching strategies validated a lot of the work I’m already doing, which makes me feel that I’m on track.”

Secondly, the course provided insight into better ways to teach math concepts than ways the teachers may have experienced as learners themselves. Teaching conceptually, making the math more accessible or more challenging, realizing the different ways to think about numbers and operations, and being more aware of various math notations or strategies used in other countries, helped deepen teachers‘ understanding. “The different algorithms, commas, decimals, etc. were interesting and informative. I found myself struggling with some of the various formats and it was a good lesson on how my students must sometimes feel.”

Many participants have already started implementing ideas from the course into their classrooms. “My class did a shopping activity today, and I introduced estimation prior to asking for a total spent. That step made the activity more accessible for all students.”

“Soon after completing the exercises to explore the meaning of subtraction, I had a lesson on completing a timesheet in 15-minute increments. We would calculate the total time for various blocks of time worked. While I was demonstrating how to add them, some of the students were taking the blocks of time to the next full hour and then subtracting the quarter increments. We were able to discuss the different ways of calculating the timesheet to reach the correct answer. This course helped me see the various ways subtraction could be used and I was comfortable working with the students from their perspectives.”

Another strong component of the Mathematizing ESOL series was building a community of ESOL practitioners. Many responded that they enjoyed sharing ideas with other colleagues and learned new ideas as well. “I enjoyed reading what other teachers are doing in class, their discussion, and your comments.”

You could feel as upbeat about math as the teachers who have participated in the Mathematizing ESOL series. We hope you will consider enrolling in Mathematizing ESOL, beginning with MESOL I. As one participant shared, “This course was the first time that I was really exposed to ideas and strategies for how to integrate math into an ESOL classroom….Prior to this course, I was a bit intimidated by the prospect, but the class has helped me to recognize both the necessity for teaching math as well as some concrete ways to contextualize it so that it remains relevant to learners (and can still be seen as a part of ‘English class’).”

Learn more about the Mathematizing ESOL series:

Adult Learners Engage with the Drivers of Persistence

By Laura Porfirio

The 6 Drivers of Persistence offer a powerful framework for program improvement and learner leadership development. As a participant in Arizona’s Adult Education College and Career Readiness (CCR) Implementation Project, I knew I would learn a lot from the findings of the New England Adult Learner Persistence Project.

The 6 Drivers of Persistence quickly became a lens for me to re-examine everything we do:  from new student registration and orientation to classroom management to civic engagement and digital storytelling. The research affirmed our long-time practices in promoting community building and student voice and participatory philosophy in our program at Pima Community College in Arizona. It prompted us to make sure we meet these needs of adult learners: Sense of belonging and community, Clarity of purpose, Agency, Competence, Relevance, and Stability.

This research on learner persistence solidified our commitment to leadership development and civic engagement to help students build skills for success in future college and career endeavors.  Students (and teachers) reap the benefits when we provide them with opportunities to connect with others through leadership teams and training, take action outside of the classroom, and develop their voice in order to advocate for issues they care about.

In 2015, student leaders and I were asked to do a panel presentation at the Arizona Department of Education Directors’ Institute.

Adult Learner Persistence Panel from the Perspective of Adult Learners

This was our opportunity to highlight two powerful models for student engagement. We called our panel “Student Voices for Transformative Learning and Student Achievement.” I wanted the students to have some context to guide them in their remarks for the directors and other administrators from around Arizona. On a whim, I sent the students the 6 Drivers of Learner Persistence document. To my surprise, they wove the persistence research into their own observations and reflections. The following are excerpts from their panel presentations:

Sense of Belonging: For some adult learners, the decision to go back to school can be anxiety provoking. They are stepping into unfamiliar territory, possibly without an expectation of belonging there. When the director says, “This is your program, you can do whatever you want”, obviously we are going to learn but these words help us to feel part of this community school. We create connections that help to connect jobs for people looking for them, and we start friendships that continue for many years.

Clarity of Purpose: Research shows that learners who establish goals and see their progress are more likely to persist. Although our purposes, needs, and goals may be different, we students know exactly what we really want to learn and achieve.  As a cancer survivor, it increased my clarity of purpose. I decided that I needed to stay busy and do something to improve myself mentally, physically, and emotionally.

Agency: Agency is an action that a student takes to accept responsibility for its consequences in order to achieve his or her goal. Both students and teachers are constantly in a struggle with the challenges of teaching and learning. Good communication is essential. If students express opinions and preferences, teachers can make curriculum adaptations, change routines, and promote discussions that generate a democratic environment. Both teachers and students should apply the “agency driver” for success.

Competence: People who feel competent visualize success and those who doubt their competence visualize failure. Belief is very, very important. We must believe that our dreams can come true and goals can be reached. The better I get in English, the more I believe! When I see other students as competent, it helps me to believe that I can be competent, too. Leadership training and doing public presentations helped me feel competent.

Relevance: I lost my job last year. It was a catastrophe. I felt hopeless and totally lost my confidence. Then, a thought came to me. Are all these problems from language proficiency or lack of confidence? I knew the answer. I participated in Ms. Jackson’s leadership class. All the lessons are relevant to my needs – inspiring lessons and hands-on experiences.

Stability: Learning is difficult in an environment that is chaotic or unstable. There are some fears in the minds of adult students that stop us from believing that we can do whatever we want. In this program, we receive information that is very inspiring and that motivates us to feel stable in a safe environment for learning.

Those are the words of Queen Creek Adult Education students: Maybelin Rodriguez, Patcharaporn Phupaibul, Ana Morin, and Maria Alvidrez.

Our students’ experiences provide powerful testimony to the value of the learner persistence framework and how we are implementing it with a strong focus on leadership development and digital storytelling while building a sense of community and belonging. Our students express it the best. Just listen to Matias and Israel.

Matias' Story

Matias Rodriguez

Israel's Story

Israel Gonzalez

*Adult Student Persistence E-learning courses:

Queen Creek
That’s me (4th from the right) with my friends from Queen Creek.

Laura Porfirio is an adult educator in Tucson, Arizona at Pima Community College. She has spent her entire 23-year career in adult education looking for ways to help students take charge of their learning, break down the walls of the classroom, and promote student engagement in social justice oriented education.

Creating a Welcoming Community through Social Gaming in a Library

By Edward Latham

welcoming-week-guest-blog1Since February, 2016, I have tried an experiment that brings together US-born and immigrant residents of my rural community in Milbridge, in Downeast Maine. As I believe that libraries should be community hubs, I approached my local library to learn about their vision and goals as well as the librarian’s perception of the community’s needs. I learned that the library wanted to increase the community’s use of its physical space and resources, and to have activities that bring together different populations in the community.

I proposed to use social gaming as the activity that would bring new and established community members together and that would promote nonformal learning. Social games require all players to interact, and each player must choose from a number of options in every turn. These options may include picking from several available roles, whether to buy, sell or trade resources, or choosing how aggressively to pursue a goal in the game. The games came from my collection of European-style games and included board games, card games, scale model conflicts with miniatures, simulations, roleplaying, and storytelling games.


By the third week in February, I sat in the library with my best friend all set up to play some games. We had set up the games Puerto Rico and Pandemic, hoping to gain some interest from library patrons. Many patrons stopped to ask questions, but no one joined in to play even though we had advertised the activities for two weeks before the event. It was disappointing when no one showed up for that first activity meeting, but I knew it might be difficult to “sell” this activity.

In our second week, we got two families. Both had read about the event on the library’s Facebook page. Two mothers each brought a child about the same age. The two families came from different cultural backgrounds: Long-time, local, English-speaking Americans, and Spanish-speaking Mexicans. I was very excited to have someone show up, shared four game options, and together the group picked the one they wanted. I was a little concerned because the choice they made, Puerto Rico, is a complex game. I was pleasantly surprised. The activity was a great hit for all and, to my delight, the two families asked if they could bring others in the following week.

The families did bring in others; after a month we had an established rhythm going. On average we now have 6-10 participants every Saturday from 11am through 5pm. Their ages range from eight to 58 with slightly more females than males. I originally set the times to be 11am to 3pm, but the participants continued to ask for more and more time. The participants currently push for 6+ hours every Saturday, and we have played dozens of different games, including those found in the list at the end of this article.  The Librarian and I emailed a summary of our Community of Social Gaming project efforts to two game manufacturers. As a result, the library has received over $300 in games donated by the manufacturers.

I provide a mix of games that sometimes require competition and sometimes cooperation. In some games, the entire group succeeds or fails based on the choices of each individual. In other games, the group may fail but some individuals may have more personal success. In still other games, success is up for each individual to snatch from the others. This variation from individual focus to collaborative focus has been important in building a community of trust. It is not unusual for newcomers to meekly come in to check things out and for at least two of our regular participants to pull the newbies under their wings to show them what we are doing and how it all works. I have set the stage for mentoring in these sessions, and participants of all ages have now eagerly embraced the mentoring role when needed. It makes me long to see similar experiences offered in formal education environments.

I have observed the following kinds of learning:

Language Learning

Families for whom English is a second or other language have experienced much growth and comfort in terms of being able to more clearly articulate in English their intentions, and with figurative expressions and with understanding and expressing humor. One of our older participants is a mother who had much difficulty expressing herself in English when we started. She always appeared so dour, serious and even a bit detached at times. As I got to know her more each week, it was readily apparent that English was getting in the way of her expressing herself as she might normally do in her other social circles. As she became more comfortable with the game vocabularies, she was able to relax and enjoy the experience much more. Today, it is such a joy to see her laughing, teaching, directing, and coordinating activities with such confidence!

Players have suggested that we might put Spanish names and instructions on all of the library game pieces to better facilitate all members of the community being able to play the games. English speakers will also learn some Spanish!

Strategic Thinking

In our games, all participants are encouraged, and often prompted, to share their thought processes, for example what they perceive as good and bad options. This open discussion makes it easy for everyone to learn from the thought processes of others. It also allows me to see marked differences and changes in individual approaches. A young boy’s comment, “…Well, now I realize that I spent way too much time being aggressive early on and I have little chance of catching up to where everyone else is at in the time we have left…” is representative of the reflection and revision process constantly at work in our games. The complexity of suggested solutions has been increasing in every session as well as individuals’ speed in trying to apply options that were successful in past activities. Participants are constantly applying what they have learned from past successes to current challenges, and adapting from there. This is quite the contrast with the often random “guess and check” that happens when new participants come into the group. Our players quickly learn, however, that success in one game does not always translate to success in other games.


In addition to strategic thinking, our games force individuals to process many variables at a time and to project the results of a choice made two, three, or more steps ahead. The discussion centers around many dependent variables and how slight variations in each variable contributes to the success or failure of the option being presented. Although participants are not formally processing the algorithmic procedures involved in multi-variable equations, participants are constantly working at the conceptual level with complex and interdependent systems.

Language Arts

Communicating the rationale for an option presented creates strong “compare and contrast” skills in verbal interactions. Other participants often assist individuals with perspectives that increase an individual’s rationale. In our activities, it is important for participants to communicate clearly when they have finished experimenting, and when others are able to jump in. The stories and reflections shared at the end of every session create many narratives that are shared with participants every week. Whenever a new participant comes in, the narratives fly wildly, as veterans of our sessions share stories to inspire and encourage new people joining our fun. The participants are developing much better questioning skills that efficiently describe the situation and lead to successful resolution quickly.

Social Skills

With such a range of cultural, language, and age diversity in our groups, participants are always working to keep exchanges polite and positive. In one case, we had a very immature and self-centered youth join in an activity. The other members in the activity immediately engaged in positive demonstrations of what the group expects for behavior. The youth quickly learned that with collaborative behaviors comes much more inclusion and success in any of our activities.

Our regular players are starting to market our Saturday sessions in the community. Members of the group are collaborating on the creation and purchase of group tee shirts that advertise and entice others to join our Community of Gaming. Members are also coordinating on bringing snacks. We are also contemplating taking our game sessions on the road to another library twenty minutes away to introduce social gaming in that area. Our librarian has been sharing with another librarian what we are doing, and much excitement has been generated in the other community. Some group members wish to mentor others in how to set things up, how to run activities in a positive and engaging way, how to drum up local interest, and how to best communicate weekly with all potential participants. We currently are using a digital tool called Remind to share updates, news, postings, and suggestions with all the families involved. Those that don’t have digital devices have automatically been taken under the wing of other families that do in order to create a sort of phone tree..

As an educator, I am encouraged by all the positive evidence I see weekly from these nonformal learning experiences. Formal education and adult education in particular, should feel as positive as our group feels. While I have offered options, guidance, and resources to get everyone started, it is the collaborative framework the group established early on that has helped to grow our experiences from no-show events to events that now require two or three large tables and facilitate 18 or more people at times and may well expand to libraries in other local communities.


List of games played in order of approximate frequency that the game has been played

  • Puerto Rico
  • Extinction
  • Pandemic
  • Marvel Legendary
  • Dominion
  • Bohnanza
  • Mancala
  • Pinata
  • Compounded
  • Carcassone
  • Ticket to Ride
  • Dice Masters
  • Magic the Gathering
  • Sentinels of the Multiverse
  • Eldritch Horror

Edward Latham is an adult educator in Maine who has also provided professional development to other educators for more than ten years. He specializes in mathematics, computer science, and technology integration in his work with learners and teachers. He is a partner of World Education’s Ed Tech Center. He is also part of the Maine College and Career Readiness Standards team at the state level and has been an educational consultant to many agencies. His email address is ohgeer@gmail.com

Applying the Helping Students Stay Course in the Classroom

Even though my schedule was pretty much maxed out, I decided to make time for the Helping Students Stay course. Our program had a number of students, more than we were comfortable with, who didn’t make it past the twelve hour mark. What was going on? What I found out when I took the course is that what our program was experiencing was by no means an anomaly. It was happening all over, especially in rural areas similar to mine, where transportation is a big issue. However, what I also learned as the course progressed is that many programs have implemented strategies to curb this trend. Some of those programs had really impressive turnarounds so if they could do it, why can’t we?

I started in my own classroom by trying to figure out how I could do a better job of building a sense of community and belonging, one of the drivers of persistence identified in the course. I had noticed that the ESL classes in my program seemed to have that going and I wondered why. True, they have the commonality of coming to a new country and needing to adjust to a different culture and learn a new language. But it was more than that. For example, they always had coffee brewing and frequently brought in goodies to share with each other.

Coffee, I decided, is something I can do. So, I commandeered a coffee pot and brought in the fixings for the coffee. I also went out to the dollar store and bought a bunch of white mugs and some paint markers. I gave the students a mug to decorate and call their own, as you can see pictured above. My class is open enrollment, so every new student gets one as well, and I really enjoy watching their reaction when I hand them the mug and the markers. To be sure, I can see by the looks on their faces that it wasn’t something they were expecting, but rather, a pleasant surprise.

Did this make a difference? I think it’s too soon to tell; although, I did have a student say to me today, “I don’t know what it is, but when I come in here I just want to take off my shoes. It feels like home.” I’ve also had the number of students who attend class more than once a week double over the last two months (my class is scheduled four mornings per week).

In the meantime, I created a student survey that all students in our program are filling out. We plan, as a program, to carefully examine these surveys, along with the persistence strategies I learned about in the Helping Students Stay course, so that we can make some decisions about what we might change in order to boost our classroom attendance program-wide. Our goal is to implement some of these changes by the start of the 2016-2017 school year. Who knows? Maybe you’ll be reading about our program’s success story this same time next year!

bio pic Patricia Helmuth2

Patricia Helmuth is an Adult Numeracy Consultant and Educator, who teaches for the Adult Program and SC BOCES in New York. She also works with the Hudson Valley RAEN Regional Staff Developers Network, as a Teacher Leader-Trainer, to provide support for Adult Education Instructors in CCSS mathematics instructional strategies. She recently became Co-Editor of the Math Practitioner, a newsletter published by ANN, The Adult Numeracy Network. Patricia is a contributor to World Education’s Tech Tips for Teachers blog.
Student persistence is a critical first step to enable student success. Helping Students Stay: Exploring Program and Classroom Persistence Strategies is a six-week online course for adult education professionals that explores the six core drivers of persistence, identified in the New England Learner Persistence Project. Participants use this information to create a persistence plan relevant to their own situation. The next session will be starting on March 23. You can read more about the course and register on our website. 

Making Skills Everyone’s Business through Ideation and Innovation

By Heidi Silver-Pacuilla, Team Leader at the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education

“How might we solve…?” Is the question that sparked nearly 100 educators in an early morning design session on the final day of the National College Transition Network’s annual conference.

“How might we…?” questions for participants in the Design Workshop at the NCTN 2015 Conference.

Attendees brainstormed solutions to challenges faced by adult learners connected to the strategies embedded in the report, Making Skills Everyone’s Business (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE), 2015).

Heidi Silver-Pacuilla, Team Leader, and Lul Tesfai, Senior Policy Advisor, from OCTAE, led the group through the 90-minute sprint. The session used the Stanford Design School‘s freely available toolkit which organizes the process around five stages:

  • Empathy
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test



Video stories of adult learners, drawn from the KET series, Dropping Back In, grounded the effort in human-centered design thinking. Real stories from students they know spurred attendees to think outside the box to likely and unlikely partners who have assets to leverage.

By the end of the session, groups had articulated and prototyped new solutions to existing challenges. And they had experienced the power of design thinking to shake up old assumptions and move beyond “we can’t because…” to “how might we…?”

Adult Basic Skills Programs: A Crucial Tool in Fighting Poverty

Steve Reder, Portland State University
By Stephen Reder, Portland State University

Literacy has long been a connector that helps hold us together as a society. General health and key markers of social cohesion such as trust in others, feelings of political empowerment, and willingness to volunteer are closely tied to adult literacy, as are more direct economic indicators such as employment and earnings.

Unfortunately, the United States has lower levels of adult literacy than most advanced countries, and we continue to slip further behind. Our society’s growing income inequality is closely linked with our inequality of adult literacy. At every level of education, the less literate an American adult is, the greater the chances that he or she lives in poverty. If we are serious about improving economic well-being and addressing the gaping disparities our country faces, we need to develop and support adult educational programs that increase literacy and other basic skills

An obvious response to these challenges would be focus on improving our K-12 schools and early childhood education programs. Although such reforms may eventually improve adult basic skills, they can’t have much impact in the short run, since most adults with weak basic skills – and most adults living in poverty – have already aged out of the K-12 school system. They need better basic skills and higher incomes now. In addition, increasing parental literacy skills and incomes will improve their children’s future educational outcomes.

Adult basic education programs can have a quicker impact. The recently enacted Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) includes support for adult basic skills programs as part of workforce development. Although basic skills programs can certainly help, unfortunately they are not adequately funded (for example, the basic skills grants to states in 2015 were 18 percent lower than in 2005 after adjusting for inflation).

Expanding funding for these programs will likely be quite cost effective. A recent study estimated that adults who went through these programs earned an average of about $10,000 more per year than they would have earned had they not gone through the programs.

A limitation of WIOA-funded basic skills programs, however, is their required connection to the workforce development system. Many of the 24 million unemployed or underemployed adults in poverty – and the 6 million full-time “working poor” – are not in a position to benefit from these programs. Some do not have the education or the minimal literacy skills required for entry into local career pathway programs. Others live in family or housing situations that must be stabilized before they can realistically participate in training or work. An additional 8 million adults who have serious disabilities or are retired seniors live in poverty but cannot access these programs because they are out of the workforce.

Innovative programs in both the public and nonprofit private sectors are exploring new ways to help adults, families, and communities move out of poverty. These include training and support for goal-setting, financial planning, “assertive engagement” in family stabilization, building “executive function” skills, family independence in economic development, and other innovations in life management. Improved basic skills will facilitate these important life management tasks that are so often needed to escape poverty and attain economic stability.

Basic skills instruction can be contextualized in these programs to help adults, including young adults who are not in school, address meaningful goals they set for themselves—whether those involve financial planning, personal and family health, care of elderly parents, or involvement in children’s education. Investments in basic skills programs will not only reduce poverty, they will return additional economic benefits including decreased health care costs and lower costs associated with crime and incarceration.

We must measure basic skills with more than just standardized test scores: we want to measure people’s use of text, numbers and diagrams – in printed and digital form – to gather, process, and communicate information in their important everyday activities. Basic skills development must be presented and delivered in a culturally responsive way that enhances individuals’ dignity and potential and builds on their strengths rather than labeling them as “basic skills deficient” (the unfortunate terminology still found in WIOA).

We need policies and programs that support lifelong and life-wide adult literacy in both workforce development and other important life contexts to build a more equitable society. To achieve this vital goal, federal, state, and local policymakers and advocates must pay systematic attention to broad-based needs for adult basic skills as they set funding priorities and develop initiatives to reduce poverty and increase economic opportunity.

This article was originally published in Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity.