Professional Learning

Teaching Non-Traditional Learners

Supporting struggling students

May 31, 2012

When bestselling author Rebecca Skloot came home to Portland, Oregon, for a recent visit, she received a hero's welcome from educators who teach those who don't thrive in traditional school. Her tributes to the teachers who helped her on her way offer a timely reminder today, the last day of Teacher Appreciation Month, about the invaluable role educators play as door-openers to their students' futures.

I joined a packed house to listen to Skloot at a campus of Portland Community College. This is where her curiosity about a medical saga was piqued in a biology classroom, launching her on a quest that resulted, two decades later, in publication of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Henrietta Lacks was an African American tobacco farmer whose cells, taken without her knowledge in 1951, have been used by medical researchers to develop the polio vaccine, for cloning, in gene mapping, and in countless other research projects. Skloot's book, tracing the ethics and consequences of developing the HeLa cells, is a New York Times bestseller. Oprah plans to make it into a film.

Key Question: "What do you want to study?"

In hindsight, Skloot can joke about her own journey as a nontraditional learner. She was kicked out of preschool, she says, for "refusing to nap." Things didn't go much better when she reached her teens. Smart but bored, she failed most of her required freshman year classes in a traditional high school setting.

Things quickly improved when she switched to Metropolitan Learning Center, an alternative high school operated by Portland Public Schools. There, teachers invited her to consider, "What do you want to study?" Her childhood dream of becoming a veterinarian suddenly seemed possible. Motivated by being able to direct her own learning, she then "blasted through school," taking additional science courses at the nearby community college.

That's how she found herself, at 16, sitting in the classroom of Donald Defler, the community college biology teacher who introduced her to the mystery of HeLa cells. After class, Skloot peppered him with questions about the late Henrietta Lacks. He didn't know any details about her life, but he made a good suggestion: "If you're curious, why don't you see what else you can find out?" He even offered extra credit.

More than 20 years later, when Skloot finished her manuscript about Henrietta Lacks, she mailed Defler a copy. He didn't remember her (or the extra-credit offer). But his simple response speaks volumes. Skloot recalls, "He told me, 'This is why you teach. You never know when one sentence will change a student's life.'" For Skloot, that life-changing moment came in the form of a question -- one that challenged her.

Another Lightbulb Moment

The second teacher who shaped her future taught creative writing at Colorado State University. Skloot was taking a full load of science classes to prepare for vet school, and she needed a language credit that creative writing fulfilled. To her surprise, she discovered that she had a knack for making science accessible to non-scientists (her fellow writing workshop students). Her teacher encouraged her to consider science writing as a career -- a field she didn't even know existed. Then, at the end of the term, he handed her stack of catalogs about MFA programs in creative writing. That simple gesture caused her to consider a new career path.

"That was a lightbulb moment," Skloot recalls. "All it took was for him to say, did you know that you can do two things (science and writing)?" She called her parents and told them she was contemplating a switch from medicine to writing. They were supportive. "They knew by then that allowing me to follow my curiosity was the best way to make sure I actually did something," she says.

The stories Skloot tells as a science writer are remarkable, and so is her own journey as a learner. Many teachers, hearing her story, will likely think of a student who fits the same pattern -- rebelling at required work but unstoppable if allowed to pursue his or her own interests. What kept Skloot going with her difficult book research, she says, "is the same thing that made me not fit in as a traditional student." When she would encounter a roadblock in her research, "the teen in me would refuse to listen. What was a liability when I was younger became a big asset later on." The educators who made all the difference for her, she adds, were "teachers who notice stuff."

As a teacher, how do you connect with the "Rebeccas" in your classroom? What do you notice? Please share your stories in the comments.

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