A former student just provided me some powerful evidence of transfer

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*note: this article was published in the Washington Post

Twenty years ago, I sat in a graduate Educational Psychology class, listening with alarm to Dr. Thomas Fetsco talk about “transfer,” which he defined as the application of skills learned in one context to a separate context.  Dr. Festco was a fantastic teacher, and he loved to play devil’s advocate. That particular day he told the class there was not a great deal of evidence that transfer occurred with any regularity. Although Dr. Fetsco didn’t say it, I felt an implicit “So, what are you going to do about it?” in the lesson.

In the ensuing two decades I have spent as a middle school educator, I’ve constantly looked for evidence of transfer.  After all, isn’t that what every teacher really wants–to be sure that their students’ lives are improving as a result of their work, that students are actually taking what we teach them and using it for something important?

I teach 7th grade English Language Arts, and while I take the standards of my subject area very seriously, I also believe deeply in the value of the unwritten curriculum.  I believe educators should do everything we can to teach soft skills, nurture strong character and develop effective life habits in our students. Those are the areas where transfer is needed most.

In my class, my specific hopes for students include that they will learn the importance of developing informed views and engaging with their world, that their opinions matter and their voices have the potential to be powerful if they use them in the right way.  To those ends, I regularly have my students read about and discuss current events, and I try to emphasize the power of the written word. As a rule I keep my personal views to myself, remembering that my role should be to facilitate my students’ own thoughtful development rather than telling them what they should think about everything.

Often those hopes remain just that–hopes–and I have no way of knowing whether anyone’s life is really changing as a result.  The blessed exception occurs when someone takes the time to reach out and tell me.

As this school year wrapped up recently, I got an unexpected email from a former student.  This young man just finished 8th grade and is heading off to high school in the fall. Coming to the end of 9 years at our K-8 Language Immersion magnet school often puts students in a reflective mood, and the student wanted to let me know what my class had meant to him and how he had applied some of the things he learned in his own life.  I share the unedited email here with his permission:

Dear Mr. Parmenter,

I know that you receive many emails but I wanted request that you take a few minutes to read this email because it has truly come from deep in my heart.

To me school is not only a place to learn things but a place to learn life lessons and things about the world. Your class was one of the only places where my “thought about school” was really presented to me. What I mean by this is that your class really taught me not only about ELA but mostly about social and political injustices in the world and about good things that are happening in our world as well. I wanted to thank you for teaching us about all of the good and bad things on this planet. I loved how you taught it to us in a fun way by reading excerpts from different articles and and then having group discussions.

I wanted to let you know that your class really inspired me to do many things in our community one of these things was to email our mayor, our senator and the president about my thoughts on gun control. I think these emails were very successful  because out of all that people I emailed the only person that did not respond was the president.

If you are interested in reading it then all of the red is what I send to our mayor 🙂  :

Hello Mayor Lyles,

     My name is (student name) and I am a 14 year old boy who goes to Waddell Language Academy. The reason that I am emailing you is to inform you of something that I and many others are concerned about in this country. This past Monday we had a lockdown drill. To me it felt different and not just any kind of different it felt like it could be real. I think that this either could be that there was just a shooting in Charlotte or it could be that my teacher was about to barricade the door shut.  If you did not know already in 2018 there were 21 weeks school weeks, and there were 23 school shootings . This means that there was more than one school shooting in every single week of 2018. To me this is unacceptable and is very hard to rap my head around and understand in my 8th grade mind. There have been people in the U.S. with unhealthy obsessions with school shootings which is a mental issue and should be taken care of right away.

     When I think about what could lead to all of these school shootings it leads back to gun control. When I think of gun control it frustrates me and sometimes makes me very angry. Just to give you an idea of what I am talking about, as I write this email my hands are almost shaking at this idea. It makes me think that the U.S. and our government is betraying the country by hand giving guns to people that should never ever have them. I understand that this is probably not the case and there is probably no intention to do that but what they are doing is parallel to the idea that I stated about betrayal.

     One goal/purpose of writing this email is so that I can make a change in our country. I know that I am a kid and there is not much that I can do but we kids are the future of our nation and I think that I should be able to have the right to help out. I was wondering what I could do, whether it is partnering with you or doing something on my own. In other words, I am asking for guidance on how to help our country on the topic of gun control, as a kid.

Sincerely,

(student name)

Thank you so much Mr. Parmenter for all the things you have done for our school and for me.

Sincerely,

(student name)

I can’t wait to tell Dr. Fetsco about this.

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