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Reporting From the Field: A Conversation with Joan DelPlato

This year’s Perspectives on Early College series has covered early college topics that looked at the history of the movement, the founding of the nation’s first early college, and the differences between Simon’s Rock and high school early colleges, among other perspectives. This month, we bring clips from the field.

In the past few years, Bard College at Simon’s Rock has hosted, through its Institute on Early College Pedagogy, an annual Early College Teaching Seminar during the summer. The seminar allowed future early college professors, as well as prospective early college administrators to shadow faculty members at Simon’s Rock as they taught a critical academic component: the Writing and Thinking Workshop.

Participants gained hands-on experience, in addition to networking opportunities. Many teachers made valuable connections, and some took it a step further and contracted Simon’s Rock as an onsite consultant.

Sending faculty and senior early college administrators from Bard College at Simon’s Rock, as well as Bard High School Early College, these trips helped Simon’s Rock and Bard administrators gain greater insight into the specific nature of the institution’s approach to early college. In gathering a more detailed look at institutions, administrators and faculty from Simon’s Rock design workshops and training for each individual location.

After attending a summer Early College Teaching Seminar, a contingent from the University of Alalska-Fairbanks and the Fairbanks public school system became intrigued by the early college model, and invited a team from Bard College, Bard College at Simon’s Rock and Bard High School Early College to Fairbanks under the aegis of Bio-Prep, Biomedical Partnership for the Research and Education Pipeline program.  In Feburary—U Ba Win, vice president of early college policies and programs; Nancy Yanoshak, Bard College at Simon’s Rock Emily Fisher Faculty Fellow and history faculty member; Joan DelPlato, Bard College at Simon’s Rock art history faculty member and former director of the Writing and Thinking Workshop; along with Amy Wright, a Bard High School Early College Spanish teacher—traveled to Fairbanks, Alaska..

After returning from their trip, we spoke with Joan DelPlato to find out what exactly the University is looking to achieve with this new program and how our faculty and administrators were able to help.

From the Field
A Conversation with Joan DelPlato

university of alaska fairbanks signWhy did the University of Alaska at Fairbanks invite Bard College at Simon’s Rock to their campus?

The University wanted to expose their faculty to some of the alternative teaching methods profiled during our summer workshops at Simon’s Rock.  Also, they were eager to begin forging partnerships with Bard College at Simon’s Rock, as well as with educators and interest groups throughout the state.

Who did you work with from the University while you were there?

Professors Sue Hills, director of the outreach core of Alaska BioPrep; Eduardo Wilner, who belongs to both the department of philosophy and the department of biology and wildlife; educational reform activists, Steve Levey, a former high school teacher, and Torie Foote, director of the College of Rural and Community Developmental Rural Health programs.

Why is the University of Alaska looking to open early college opportunities to students now?

Some statistics were shared that may reveal some of reasons.  The graduation rate from Fairbanks high schools is 62%, the lowest in the state. This group is looking to raise it to at least 75 to80%.  At the UAF campus the graduation rate of first-year college students is only 27%, and 60% of those who are admitted need remedial work.  Despite the vast size of the state, the community of educators is really quite small, which is one reason why our hosts believe that change can happen with strategic planning and care.  As Steve Levey explains, “School needs to be for the willing.”  So the question becomes:  how to encourage students to be in school willingly, because of their love of learning? We help impart how the early college mission might nurture a love of learning. We shared experiences about how administrators can change the tone of schools, which UAF reiterated was their desire. They are truly looking to create schools that embody a new academic culture, one that values academic rigor and honors the mentoring relationships between teacher and student. 

What does a consultation session look like? What does Simon’s Rock impart when it makes these trips?

We offer some techniques for student engagement, encouraging more active learning in the classroom.  So we brought along some basic Writing and Thinking Workshop methods:  free-writing and focused free-writing, believing and doubting, process writing, and we modeled ways to use writing prompts across the curriculum.  Working with middle, high school, and college faculty, students and community leaders, we demonstrated our methods of using writing to engender personalized learning in classrooms of various sizes and disciplines.

participants at tableAt the start of the program the workshops ask teachers to extend their identities as they recall and write about a positive learning experience they had in adolescence. This helps them to think about how they might contribute to the same for their adolescent students.  We also asked our groups of students to write from their own experiences.  We demonstrated the process of applying some the College’s tools to understand a difficult text.  We chose an excerpt from W.E.B. DuBois’s The Soul of Black Folk and shared some techniques – such as the “thought chain” -- to engage with the text.  We assembled two classes of students from Lathrop and West Valley High Schools, and with teachers observing, we used the writing technique called the “text explosion” to encourage students’ responses to a poem by Alasko-phile John Haines.  The hope was that teachers could adapt these techniques to teach challenging texts from any discipline, and to engage their own students in new ways.  The final session of the program was a series of simultaneous “mini-classes” for the mixed groups of students and teachers to give them the “feel” of our actual college classes that draw upon workshop techniques, but move beyond them to engage their particular subject matter.

The Perspectives on Early College series will conclude in August. In the last months of the series we’ll bring you perspectives on the liberal arts and early college, student life and early college, and admission and early college. To read previous essays and conversations, visit the Perspectives on Early College archives.