Observational Research and Writing: GED Student Orientation

Graduate Studies Essay for JHR 510: Research Methods (11/24/2010)

Class OrientationThe room is quiet. Ten students sit scattered throughout the room, all expressing a variety of emotions on their faces. Some look nervous, others excited, and almost everyone seems like they don’t know what to expect. No one speaks to one another, as they patiently sit with their notepads and pencils, waiting for the facilitator to set up and begin. It’s the scene of a new student General Educational Development (GED) orientation at an adult literacy center.

The room is rich in diversity: A mix in gender, race, and age. Three of the students are foreign born (two from Africa and one from Mexico), the rest are all American. What these students have in common: The majority are currently unemployed and did not make it past the tenth grade in their education. They have taken a big step to re-enter the world of education in the hopes of improving their life situation. As the turnover rate for adult GED students is quite high, the student’s experience at orientation can play a big role in determining how likely they are to continue on with the GED program. The orientation begins slowly, as the facilitator reviews the history of the adult education, as well as the policies, procedures, rules, and guidelines of the education center. The students’ engagement level is very low, and attention begins to drop. Following this, the facilitator distributes a series of forms for each student to fill out that are required by the department of education. The level of engagement from the students continues to dip, as most of the students have yet to say a word.

Once all of the paperwork has been filled out, the facilitator distributes another set of papers to the students, however, this time with the intention of engaging them. The handouts ask about a variety of topics, including: previous school experience, memories from school, reasons for dropping out, teacher(s) that the student remembers, difficulties from school, things they liked about school, and how the student feels about coming to an adult education center. These materials possess the potential for really opening up the students by touching on some engaging topics. As the students begin pondering these questions, the facilitator addresses the group, “After filling out your answers to these questions, we’re going to share your answers, but only if you’re comfortable.” The facilitator goes on to discuss how the previous facilitator before her would require every student to share why they decided to come to the adult education center, and how she strongly disagrees with this type activity because it can be embarrassing. While this statement appears to put the group more at ease, it most certainly reduces the chances of students being open during the proceeding discussion.

The facilitator begins with the topic “memories from school.” Here, an interesting observation takes place: the only three people to speak up about their memories from school are the foreign born students, and each discusses positive experiences. The woman born in Mexico comments on how she loved her friends, teachers, recess, and learning something new every day while she was in school. One of the African men proudly states that he graduated from high school and briefly went to college, and how he loved his educational experience in his native land of Sudan, but how it’s unfortunate that his diploma is not valid in the United States. He expresses how he enjoyed making new friendships and always had a fun time in school. The third foreign born student, an Ethiopian, shares with the class, with the most genuine voice, that “whenever I feel sad, I just think of my school memories to make me feel happy.” None of the American born students openly share any positive memories. The facilitator then asks students to share the reason that caused them to drop out of high school (to those that it applies to). Only two students speak up, both of them American born women. The first student, with a tone of pessimism in her voice, states “In Detroit, only three things matter: fashion, what gang you’re in, and if you know how to fight. In school, there was just too much pressure, so I dropped out.” The other student follows up by sharing how she became pregnant at age 16, and that it has been eight years since she’s been in school. Now that she has an eight year old son, she’s ready to get her GED. Based on the experiences shared, there seems to be a bit of a dichotomy between the foreign born students and the American born students in the classroom in perceptions of school. Next, the facilitator asks the students to share what their long term goals are. All of the goals that students shout out are related to employment, seemingly indicating that the GED is a required step in obtaining the job that these students want. Again, the diversity in the room is displayed, as the types of jobs students seek are shared: nurse assistant, social worker, truck driver, and physical therapist for the elderly. After some additional questions that yielded minimal responses from the students, the facilitator asks the students to share how they feel about coming to an adult education center. A mix of responses are blurted out, including: excited, anxious, gung ho, and happy, indicating that these students are generally pretty motivated to get their GED at this point.

The facilitator, sensing the students are worn out after sitting and listening for nearly 2 hours, provides the students with a short break. The students all breathe a sigh of relief and briefly leave the room, as some chat amongst themselves. Upon their return, the facilitator announces “Alright everybody, it’s time for your assessments.” Even though the word “test” was avoided, most of the students seemed a bit apprehensive as memories of school crept into their minds. The facilitator explained that there are three sections of the assessment: reading, language, and math. Before the assessment, the facilitator asked “how many of you enjoy the subject of math?” Only one student raised their hand. While again, the aim of this question seemed to be to show everyone that they are not alone in their struggles with math; it seemed to also reinforce a negative stigma commonly associated with math and justify achieving a poor score on the math assessment. The facilitator then proceeds to distribute the assessments. The students’ emotions are hard to read as they begin reading through the assessment. Are they confused? Anxious? Confident? The lack of expression and body language make it difficult to tell. Most students make it through the reading and language sections in the allotted time, however, several of the students seemed to struggle a bit more with the math. Frustration was not overwhelmingly apparent; however, the math section clearly presented more of a challenge.

After completing the assessment, the facilitator leads the group to her office to schedule appointments for the students to begin their studies at the education center. One-by-one, each student passes through, some appearing more excited than others for their first day. According to adult education data, it is likely that not all of them will be back. Will these 10 make it in for their first day? How did their orientation experience affect their decision of whether or not to show up? A question for another day…

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