Teaching students to think they can
by Cathie Maglio, Blended Learning Specialist
Illustration by George and Doris Hauman
In the classic children’s story “The Little Engine That Could,” the little blue steam engine is asked to pull a train full of toys and gifts to boys and girls on the other side of the mountain. Even though the engine is the smallest in the train yard, she gives it a try. She encounters many obstacles on the way up and each time she says, “I think I can, I think I can.” And in the end, as all children know, the little blue engine does make it over the mountain to deliver the toys to the children.
This story came to mind as I was talking with Tianna Tassinari, an English teacher at East Boston High School. Ms. Tassinari teaches underperforming students who want to attend college but are not sure how to get there. Her students are classified as Students with Disabilities. Another classification is SPED: Special Education. These students face obstacles like below average test scores and GPAs, having an Individualized Education Program (IEP) due to learning disabilities, and financial issues. Despite having these issues, they are hard-working and ambitious. At the beginning of last school year, Ms. Tassinari was aware that many students were thinking about going to college but were unsure of where to go, what they wanted to study, and what would be expected of them if and when they got there.
Some students had the misconception that everyone had to go to college. They didn’t know that other options were available to them, like the military, skilled trades that could let them eventually own their own business, or volunteer opportunities like City Year.
During the course of the year, Ms. Tassinari worked closely with her students not only to teach them English, but also to make them aware of the opportunities available after graduation.
Near the end of the school year, she took her students to the Student Disability Support Services Center at Bunker Hill Community College. They met with the coordinator, received a tour of the campus, visited the Writing Center, and learned about free summer courses for students needing academic help. They were guided in setting up a Gmail account and their own personal Google drive for communicating with teachers. The visit answered many of their questions about what to expect in college. In a year full of adroit classroom strategizing, this was one of the best things Ms. Tassinari did for her students.
Through the JFYNet College and Career Readiness program the students were able to prepare for and take the required Accuplacer placement tests and have their scores sent directly to Bunker Hill. (JFYNet Accuplacer scores were also sent to any other college they chose.) This speeded up the enrollment process. They were informed about the Mass Transfer program which allows students to begin their college career at a community college and then transfer their credits to any state university or UMass. This is a low cost/high benefit way for students to try out college and decide if it is the right path for them. It lowers the risk and removes many of the barriers to college entry and persistence.
Students in Ms. Tassinari’s class who thought they wanted to go to college but were unsure about it can now say “I thought I could, I thought I could!” Her students are going to Bunker Hill, Wentworth Institute of Technology, Fischer College, Rivier University, Bridgewater State University, Newbury College, Boston College night school, labor unions, the US Army, nursing training, volunteering with City Year and working.
It’s never too early for high school students to begin thinking about life after high school. Schools have guidance departments, college research centers, and teachers to help them identify and explore possible schools and other options. Teachers like Tianna Tassinari help their students turn obstacles into opportunities by channeling the little blue engine every day. They help their students find the way over the mountain. They deserve our admiration and gratitude.
Related ‘content’ post: ‘A Journey of a Thousand Helping Hands’