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Partnering with schools: A conversation with a public school teacher

By Jessica Pierson Russo

Jessica Russo, a 20+ year youth development professional, and her husband Mark Russo, with 20+ years as a public school teacher, discuss the benefits of partnerships between formal and nonformal education. 

Pencils, colored pencils with shavings after being sharpened
: Mark, you have been teaching in the school systems for over 20 years, but you’ve also done some nonformal education—Boy Scouts, you helped me lead a 4-H club for a while, and you’ve taught after school classes as well. I’ve seen your attitude towards nonformal education change over time because of your experiences and your conversations with me. I wanted to understand how that happened, because I know I, and many of my colleagues in youth development, struggle with starting partnerships with schools. Nonformal education tends to get overlooked or seen as merely a way to entertain kids. What can you remember about your previous experience and thoughts about nonformal education? 

Mark: I remember being hyper-focused on the few things that I had control over. Sometimes I just closed my door and taught because the hallways were too challenging. Before I got into teaching after school myself, I saw it as all well and good, but it felt like a hook to keep kids engaged or occupied rather than moving the ball forward. If it did not have an academic outcome, it was difficult to see how it impacted my work.

Jess: And what changed?

Mark: At first, I didn’t have the capacity or time to connect anything outside the classroom with my teaching practice. I was nervous about letting after school programming use my classroom for activities and ignorant of so much of the good that was happening after I left the building. Then I started to teach after school classes, like Lego League, broomball, and board games, and over time I saw the benefits for me in relationships, street cred, and a little extra income. Now, I see that the goals of after school programming are the same as mine, and while I may not run an afterschool program every semester, I see the need for it and understand more of the challenges that after school programs face.

Jess: What about what after school did for the kids? Are there needs you see out-of-school time programming being able to help with that a classroom struggles with?

Mark: Teaching after school classes on anything from chess to drones, I saw that kids got more than a safe space to be for a few hours every day. They got to be more themselves. I noticed that students who would not say a word in class would feel a lot more comfortable with fewer people in the room and less pressure to say a correct answer. Also, students from widely different social groups would have a reason to interact with each other.

Jess: Did you notice after school changing your in-school teaching at all?

Mark: It did. I’ve often found I had to prove to my students, especially kids of color, who I was and what I was about before I could be effective in pushing them academically. I intentionally did after school activities in the fall to build relationships at the beginning of the year. And by doing this, I started to see my kids not as sixth grade science students, but as people. I could see better their struggles getting through middle school. Even those students who seemed the most "together" were working on something. It was a lot easier to see what challenged them outside of a typical classroom setting. Seeing them in this way helped me try a more holistic approach to the content—more student-centered. I started to use what I know about them to better connect their interests to what I was teaching. I also used after school classes as a way to field test methods. In a typical classroom, students are likely to "go along" with a teaching strategy because, really, what are their options? In after school, there were more choices, and students were quick to let me know if an approach was working or they were bored.

Jess: What do you think formal and nonformal education could learn from each other?

Mark: John Hattie does meta-analysis of educational studies and mashes different research together to determine an overall effectiveness of different methods. Of all the methods studied, the one with the largest impact on students is collective teacher efficacy. That is when all the teachers use their collective expertise and abilities to impact the student experience. The connections between classroom and after school are difficult, and communication between these groups, which often don’t spend time in direct contact, is a huge challenge. But it’s important for the formal education world not to see out-of-school time as an "extra" or optional add on. Both formal and nonformal education are important. They have the same goal, and their differences are what make them effective for a spectrum of students.

Jess: I think that last point is an important one to make the next time I approach a school about a potential partnership. Thank you for the conversation!

Blog readers, how do you think nonformal education benefits youth? What do you think the formal and nonformal education worlds can do together, to make the biggest difference in the lives of young people?

-- Jessica Pierson Russo, Extension educator

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  1. I work with a local tutoring center who uses 4-H resources and lessons to enhance their students' learning beyond the homework. From what I've seen, the nonformal part where students have a say in what they explore, enhances their desire to learn in general.

    1. Yes! I'm glad you are seeing that. That's the greatest hope of the Minnesota 4-H Youth Development program--to get youth excited about learning. I think that element of choice is key.

    2. I enjoyed these insights. It opens up a broader and much needed debate about the lack of relevance of schools for students. The lessons from after school programs need to be acknowledged: choice, relevance, risk-friendly, truly student-centered, low stakes, no testing, and the list goes on.

  2. I run a Dungeons & Dragons group once a week. My most recent campaign was a year long adventure with the same table of teen/tween boys. The social learning that happened at the table was amazing. I observed mental math skills improving, but the bigger difference was in teamwork and social skills. Youth that were disruptive in the beginning, (it felt like for the attention) because part of a team, were rewarded for positive actions and began to be more engaged with the story and with the other players. After 14 months together, four of the youth stepped into the roles of Game Master and are currently rotating those duties between them. Several of them were unsure about taking on that role, but the support of the rest of the group was apparent. Several of the parents informed me that they saw corresponding differences in their interactions at school.

    1. That's a great example, thank you.

  3. I run an after school program/partnership in our schools. What I love & struggle with when teaching/learning is the students always worry about being right and not making mistakes. I encourage mistakes - what can we learn from our mistakes? I often bring pencils without erasers, just so they cannot change their answers, but learn from their answers. After school is a very challenging time of day to work with youth - but very beneficial and rewarding.

    1. Thanks for that, Jackie. I always thought a great idea for an after school program would a "mess with stuff" club. It could be an opportunity to just experiment with things to see what happens (within the bounds of safety, of course). When my own kids were finally old enough to be home alone (around 11 or 12), the first time I left them over the summer, I got a call from them at work--"we're bored. What can we do?" I actually said out loud, "seriously?" But it was because they were so used to being told what to do. So I told them, "go explore the woods" (we lived in St. Paul near Como Zoo, so there were little stretches of woods) "or go walk to the gas station and buy yourself a slurpie." They said, "we can do that?" To which I responded with an exasperated "yes! Go forth and and explore, little ones!" Sometimes we structure things SO much that kids don't know what to do with themselves without that structure. In our still-structured after school programs, we can help them learn to harness their natural curiosity by giving them the space and permission to be messy and, like you said, make mistakes. This balance of structure and discovery is what makes nonformal education so unique. It's still structured, but it's focused on youth in a way that allows them to drive their own learning.


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