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Liberal Learning through First-Year Pathways and Reading Apprenticeship

AAC&U’s 2014 Annual Meeting  encouraged me to think anew about liberal learning in unexpected places.  This is a theme I’ve mentioned before.  Let’s find liberal learning, for instance, in developmental education, a place it isn’t usually expected to be. At the annual meeting a number of colleagues from AAC&U’s Community College Roadmap project got together to discuss this topic. We shared stories of significant new work that has the potential to reshape and revitalize developmental learning and reconnect it to general education.

One story came to me from Monika (Nika) Hogan, associate professor of English at Pasadena City College (PCC). It’s a story of surprising discovery. The First-Year Pathways (FYP), a common first-year experience program at PCC, has been using Reading Apprenticeship, a structured program and pedagogy, with exciting high-impact results.  Reading Apprenticeship is being used by a statewide community of practice in California, the Reading Apprenticeship Project. At Pasadena, Nika says that she is “personally jumping up and down about the impact.”  The First-Year Pathways program, infused with Reading Apprenticeship activities, is demonstrably improving outcomes. At an institution where 70 percent of the 2013 cohort of First-Year Pathways students tested below English 1A—the first college English level—and 85 percent tested below transfer-level math, these results are important.

The story of Pasadena’s FYP started with a federal Title V grant launched in 2010. Nika says, “When we got the Title V grant, we tried to figure out what to do. Our ‘ah ha’ moment was when we realized that our FYP was first and foremost a first-year experience program, and that there was ample research defining best practices to guide our approach.  We decided to create a program for our students that matched what they might experience at a much more prestigious institution.  We knew we needed a proper first-year seminar course and we knew we needed to get our whole campus involved and interested—which was an uphill battle at first, because our campus hadn’t had a widespread culture of professional learning.”

What triggered the change?

It all began with a reading project. A serendipitous one-book project, chosen as part of the grant, got the campus moving. They chose The Pact, a true story about three young men growing up in Newark, NJ, who made a pact to become doctors and succeeded.  The college invited The Pact authors—Sampson Davis, Rameck Hunt, and George Jenkins—to campus.  The event drew about 1,000 people. “It was magic,” Nika says—a complete success!

Once the campus had experienced that success, the college was receptive to more innovation. “We had risked a lot, spending so much on the Pact event.  But the risk was worthwhile. We had just been limping along.  Now we were moving,” Nika says.

The college’s earlier programmatic presumptions had been based on the idea that mobile community college students couldn’t rise to a community-based challenge.  That attitude changed.

Faculty at PCC next invented a rigorous academic College 1 seminar, got the seminar approved, and had the foresight to get it passed so that anybody with a master’s degree could teach it.  That decision allowed the faculty for College 1 to include advisors and others from many different sectors of campus.  “We wrote it up to be a true first-year seminar, but we made it open access. Students who placed into pre-collegiate courses could take it as long as they registered for the FYP program,” Nika observes.

The FYP requires students to take a full schedule of courses and to enroll in College 1. There are a couple of hooks to entice students.  The first hook: if a student registers for FYP, the college guarantees a seat in required English composition and math courses,  in a general education course, and in College 1.  Given the enrollment and budget pressures recently playing on community colleges in California, those precious seats in required classes make a difference to students. Pre-collegiate English and math count as part of the pathway. Another hook is an articulation agreement with the California State Universities and University of California institutions.  College 1 counts for transfer—a valuable option. Most important, College 1 is rigorous. It has all the features of a liberal learning introduction to college.

The second one-book project brought The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to the campus. The second conference involved 800 students as well as faculty and staff across the campus. Art and design students made beautiful, innovative hangers for the student posters produced for the event. This year, the third of the project, the one-book event drew 1,250 students.  They read Southland, a novel by Nina Revoyr.

“As a campus, we were reading together, using Reading Apprenticeship pedagogy, and that made the difference.”  Reading Apprenticeship (RA) takes an intentional metacognitive approach. In fact, Nika had been using Reading Apprenticeship for years.  “Reading Apprenticeship hooked me early on.  I really didn’t know how to help the 40 percent who couldn’t read.  I couldn’t help telling them what the book said. Once I told myself they could do it and used RA to guide my work, I learned to get out of the way. Holy cow, they could do it together.”

The RA metacognitive approach encourages faculty to ask students what they are thinking and gives them a way to demonstrate their intellectual assets. The students do indeed rise to that challenge.  Their performance helps faculty shift their own thinking away from the discourse on what the students lack.

As the campus learned from experience with The Pact, students needed something to sink their teeth into.  They did research related to the book.  They got the boost of doing RA in class in groups. There are elements of peer education here—yet another feature of high-impact learning.  Preparing for the conference, they generated a great deal of energy and reached a high level of engagement.  This is precisely what high-impact practices are shown to achieve.

Because it was integrated into FYP, Reading Apprenticeship caught on with many colleagues across campus. People started to use curriculum-embedded reading assessment.  The growth in student learning after this change in pedagogy has been astonishing, Nika observes.  The results continue to draw faculty new to Reading Apprenticeship. It is a “dream come true” to have so many colleagues jump in.

As for the assessment, the genuine evidence: PCC did a remarkable study.

When campus leaders saw the results, “we just about fell down,” Nika says. There was evidence of significant progress for almost 700 students—this was no tiny pilot.

The truly wonderful result, Nika concludes, “was that we found our way back to best practices we already knew and to some extent had tried.  We had tried learning communities.  I had tried them.  The personal and social dimensions of learning were great, as we hoped, but the learning community as a program of practice was not encouraging students to do their best work.” The FYP, with the inclusion of robust and effortful reading for all students, has made all the difference. What Pasadena has done counters the common misperception that liberal education, including deep engagement with big issues of our time, should be offered to privileged students only. The Pasadena City College FYP is a powerful example of what we at AAC&U call “inclusive excellence.”