‘This person literally blossomed before our eyes’

Lifelong learning, in all its aspects, at URock

Thu, 01/21/2016 - 2:15pm

“I will not learn,” the 40-year-old woman said during the first class. “Others have tried to teach me. I have taken many Spanish classes, and I cannot learn this language.”

Hers was not a statement of defiance. Indeed, she wanted to be there. But, based on past experiences, she believed that any attempts to learn the language would end in failure.

In response, URock Spanish instructor Yarissa Ortiz-Vidal said: “OK. We’ll take it one day at a time.... You haven’t had me yet.”

Ortiz-Vidal loves being a teacher, loves each and every class she’s involved in, despite being raised in Puerto Rico to a mother who taught and disliked every minute of it. Ortiz-Vidal acknowledged her mother’s pleas to never be a teacher by pursing a degree in chemical engineering, working in production, industry, and manufacturing, environmental engineering, pursuing a master’s in business, and working for MBNA. Yet, the young girl in her who forced her younger sister to be her student during play still wanted to teach.

Eventually URock Director Deb Meehan tracked down Ortiz-Vidal for an opening for a Spanish instructor. Five years later, Ortiz-Vidal only wishes that the Spanish curriculum were expanded.

By the end of the semester the student spoke the conversations and participated in class with the ease of all of Ortiz-Vidal’s success stories.

Ortiz-Vidal shared this story on a bright, cold day in a fourth-floor classroom of the Breakwater Building, a space made much warmer by energetic green walls and various forms of comfortable seating. Down the hall, students spread word of an upcoming sledding event for classmates and their families.

University College at Rockland is a part of the University of Maine system with offerings from all seven University of Maine System campuses. URock provides access to 13 associate degrees, 30 bachelor's degrees, numerous master's degrees and certificate programs from across the campuses. Courses are taught face-to-face, through interactive television, videoconferencing and fully online.

On this day, Ortiz-Vidal sits with English instructor Garrett Vail and James Cook, full-time faculty member in the department of social sciences.

Each of these instructors presents a unique view of cultural differences within the local college system, and the community at large.

Ortiz-Vidal hails from a different geographical region and has learned and worked within a white-collar world. Cook, a researcher following the growth and impact of social media, has learned and instructed on large campuses full of financially-sound students. Vail taught in the public school system at a time when graduating pupils regardless of aptitude was the norm. Now he instructs students similar to the ones who fell through the cracks. He also, along with Ortiz-Vidal, teaches at the Maine State Prison in Warren.

Fixing mindsets

For the past few years, staff at University College at Rockland have applied to their teaching an understanding of fixed mind sets.

“I am not good at math. Period. I can’t write. Period. I am not a critical thinker.”

The instructors recognize these negative thoughts sabotaging a student’s learning environment, then help bring awareness of the negativity so students can take ownership.

James Cook said: ”Once they learn ‘I can actually get stronger at this, I can become capable at this if I do this work,’ there’s a moment when we see them switch. And they begin not to drag their feet and complain, but to become veracious consumers of skill and ability and knowledge, and to demand more of us.”

Which, Cook admits, is usually when they get outraged and angry at the limitations of the instructors and the college.... But that’s OK.

A pretty common story  

Garrett Vail has always been an English instructor. He left his job as high school teacher in Camden in 2004 after 17 years. Prior to that, he worked as an evening adjunct instructor for 11 years. In between, he had a short stint as a carpenter, and has recently celebrated instructing his one-thousandth yoga class.

Despite the repetition of class material Vail teaches, despite the rotation of students in and out of the same seats, he is continually awed by the unique histories of successful alumni.

During the roundtable discussion, he provided the example of a woman, not quite middle age, who started attending the school. She lived off the grid, and arrived in a banged up pickup truck, shot gun shells in the bed [of the pickup], whatever. I mean the real Maine.

“This is somebody who never really had much of an education, though she was clearly very intelligent, very curious. But it took a while to figure out her fit. She was earnest but didn’t really know how to do things as a student because in high schools, we used to just pass people through with the kind of ‘looks like she’s from one of those types of families. We’ll just shove her along,’” sentiment.

“This person literally blossomed before our eyes.”

She took classes, helped other students, and got trained as a tutor through a tutorial program called UC VAWLT, which stands for University College Virtual Academics Writing Lab and Tutoring.

“Then she brought it here and had personal one-on-one tutoring hours with — I can’t even count how many students she helped. Endless.” 

URock — The higher education opportunity of the Midcoast

James Cook teaches sociology and social media at URock, a polar opposite experience from University of Arizona-Tucson, with its 40,000 students, which was where he earned his doctorate in social network analysis. He then taught at Duke University, in North Carolina, which was also different.

“The students there were either so smart that they didn’t need my help, or their parents were so rich that they didn’t need my help.”

For the past five years, Cook has taught through the University of Augusta, Bangor, and Rockland system, and online. He says this is his favorite place to work, and he loves watching the benefits of his teaching filter into the community.

“It’s not like teaching in a big city, where you never see these people again. We are going to see each other in the community....Take the students in the housekeeping services. They get keyed in. They network. There’s a lifeline in to people working in social services, which is really strong, really important. These are people who understand their communities, working in their communities. They are educated, credentialed in understanding how to help their communities.”

Real stories, real backgrounds, real baggage

“They come here and we take all of that, and we help them find themselves,“ Ortiz-Vidal said.

“I have a lot of mothers in my classrooms, so there are a lot of sick kids right now. People haven’t slept all night. They come to my class. It’s my job to bring them to life. They are not with their son or daughter. They’re here. I have to remember, this is a real person. This is a real job. What can I do for them today?”

Along with instructing the traditional and nontraditional students looking to get ahead in rural Maine, both Vail and Ortiz-Vidal bring their URock curriculum to the men behind bars at the Maine State Prison.

“They’re some of the best students I’ve ever had in my life, and I’ve been teaching almost 30 years now,” Vail said.

He said inmates at the Warren prison are motivated, curious, and skilled readers and writers. They are also noted for their willingness to help one another, and all of them take a lot less for granted.

Vail spoke of finding inspiration from a Somalian taking upper level English classes. The man needs a lot of support, but his motivation is apparent, “and the willingness of other guys to help him is unbelievable.”

Ortiz-Vidal sees the students as being present, in the moment, as opposed to the students in the regular college building who may be physically in attendance, but are thinking about their families, their jobs, their lives.

She also said that the older prison students in her classes ask deeper questions at a different level, and they can see a larger picture.

Vail agreed. “Because they’ve had so much taken away, they do question more, and they do see things a whole lot differently than I I do,” he said. 

Advancing with technology?

In 1996, social networking involved going out on the street and having face-to-face conversations. But with the advancement of Internet technology, social networking took on an entirely new meaning, according to Cook, who has talked about the impact of social media on the MPBN radio show Maine Calling.

Yet the common assumption that today’s youth are highly advanced in the realm of technology beyond Facebook is unfounded. In fact, it is the older students who’ve worked in business who know how to create a spreadsheet and know how to do research.

They are also not the ones sending emails to the instructors with LOL or WTF inserted in the text.

Though URock provides Internet access to students, and some students have smart phones, Cook describes the stairwell hike to the fourth-floor college as taking a step back in time.

“What dominates this environment is people talking to people,” he said.