The Tierney Learning Center is a summer program for incoming fourth and fifth graders from the Tynan, Dever, and Perkins schools.
The difference between a challenging activity and an activity that is too difficult is the amount of critical thinking required.
Breaking academic material down into manageable pieces and using activities to make material applicable to students’ lives are critical pieces to making information engaging.
Being well-equipped with sufficient staff allows students to get the attention they need, regardless of their level of ease with the material.
Delegating leadership tasks to particularly quick-learning students is an effective way to keep them engaged.
Combining individual and group work allows students to collaborate with peers while also learning at their own paces.
Q: Where do you draw the line between an activity or lesson being challenging or being too difficult? How do you determine this and avoid crossing that line? Or, if an activity is already in motion that is showing to be too difficult for students, how do you adapt to make it more accessible?
A: We have BPS teachers, so they have experience with kids being challenged. We also have enrichment staff and teen staff, so if something’s a little bit too difficult for them, they readjust. A lot of teachers, three out of four of the teachers, teach at the Perkins School, so they’re familiar with the kids so they know just how much to push them and when they need to redirect them and when they need to have somebody else sit with them and explain the directions.
The difference between challenging and too hard is where their critical thinking skills come into play. If you sense the frustration where they’re just not “there” yet, we do the one on one to get them to a place where they feel comfortable with what they’re learning, but also challenge them. We want to make sure the kids are meeting that level, and there’s a difference between it being too tough for them and them getting intimidated by it. That’s why we try to do the one on ones and have smaller groups, so that we can bring them up to that place where they’re being challenged and not where they’re freaking out because they don’t know the answer. Especially in math, I think the teachers do a good job of having hands-on questions so they can work in groups to tackle it, and then they break it up into pieces so they attack pieces of the question to get the answer.
Q: How do you present BPS material to make it more engaging and fun for the kids?
A: I think the teachers really do a good job of breaking it up and making sure it’s accessible for the students. We also have a lot of staff in the classrooms.
We’re really lucky to have the community where there are simple machines and water everywhere, and the kids have been really excited to connect the classroom stuff with their enrichment activities. We’ll be at the zoo or at the beach, and they’ll be talking about the water cycle or why conserving water is important or what parts are a simple machine. So I think being able to bring parts to life is helping them with what they’re learning in class, because they’re able to see it out there and touch it and see it and smell it, but also see it in their heads and in their classroom.
Q: How do you create a curriculum of academics and enrichment that challenges all youth rather than allow some to coast through curriculum while others struggle?
A: We’re really lucky that we do have a lot of staff, so if a kid is breezing through we’re able to take them and challenge them with either different work or a leadership position to do something around the center.
We have a lot of English language learners, we have some kids on the autism spectrum, so it’s really about meeting them where they’re at and reiterating, “This is to keep your brain healthy and to prepare you for your next grade,” and they really are able to sit down and either build off of each other. If kids need a different space we can bring them into the office and they can have some space to work in a different environment if they need it.
In enrichment, we have a really great staff ratio, so we challenge them a lot in those activities to push them out of their comfort zone. We were going kayaking and paddle boarding and doing lots of things that are new to the kids. It’s really about having safe people with them so they feel safe in the classroom and outside, but making sure that they do feel challenged. For example, we played this really crazy game, and some of the kids were like, “I’m not that silly, I don’t want to do this. Can I just go play checkers?” and we said, “No, you need to try this, you need to get to know your friends, get to know your staff.” They don’t always love it, but we try to keep them engaged and get them to grow a little bit, and I think having caring adults is really a big part of that, and recognizing that this kid is either getting this too fast or hitting a roadblock.
Academically, some teachers put students on the computers, so that they’re able to work on their math skills (if they’re working on multiplication and they can work at their own pace on their multiplication facts, if they’re working on fractions they can go on their game for fractions).
The Tierney Learning Center’s summer program serves students from three BPS schools as well as students from the surrounding South Boston community. Academics are led by BPS teachers, and lessons are supplemented by enrichment activities. Tierney takes advantage of the resources that South Boston provides, including the nearby beach, which opens the door for students to build skills through unique activities such as stand up paddle boarding and swimming.