Light Bulb Moments

It is a really special occurrence when students you’ve watched struggle with material suddenly “get it.” In my class we call these “Light Bulb Moments.” You can tell when a student has one: his brow becomes un-furrowed, his eyes, face and mouth smile, and the dark shadow of trying to comprehend is lifted. It’s almost as if a new light has washed over the student.

When I’m tutoring a student, these are the moments I’m striving to achieve. It is then that I know a student understands.

As an Adult Basic Education Tutor, I know it seems a bit odd that I would be the one to chase after these moments; one would think it’s the student that should. However, for me, chasing after these moments pushes me to find better ways for me to get the student to relate to, and more importantly, understand the material I’m presenting. Essentially, tutoring has become a learning process for me as well as my students.

I first got into tutoring for adults while working inside a prison. I have to admit, at first I was a bit hesitant about the idea. However, I firmly believe that even the most grown of adults needs at least a basic education. I wholeheartedly agreed to take the position. And I brought this belief with me when I started.

I quickly learned that no matter how street wise a guy was, when it came to doing the simplest of math–by an intellectualists standards–it was an uphill struggle. The trick that I’ve learned is to incorporate concepts such as fractions or decimals with images and ideas that are common to everyone. Nothing was off limits. On some level, there is a lot of knowledge that every person in prison possesses. The key is finding that level.

A person may be in prison for a vast array of crimes. Typically, I see a lot of drug dealers, pimps, and murderers. Over the years I’ve found that a person who is incarcerated for any crime is usually able to weigh drugs or count money. So, when I develop lessons, or examples for explaining various concepts, for example, fractions or decimals, the examples I use will usually involve some aspect of their criminal lives.

It may seem counter to the theory of corrections to teach people according to their criminal lives. But I am not in corrections. I am in education. My goal is not rehabilitation, it is to educate. With that goal being paramount, whatever I do as an ABE Tutor is to get the student to experience a “Light Bulb Moment.”

A favorite method of mine—and my students’—is to convert decimals into a dollars and cents format. Decimals such as 4.95, 0.09, 3.7, and 100.79 are better understood by all as “four dollars and ninety-five cents,” nine cents,” “three dollars and seventy cents” (formed by adding a zero after the seven) and “one hundred dollars and seventy-nine cents,” respectively.

When I use these methods, faces light up around the room.

“Oh! I never looked at ‘em like that.”

“Now that you put it that way….”

This new dawn of understanding brings all manner of responses. And I relish in the knowledge that my students are now interacting with the concept I’m presenting.

I’ve seen that when a student begins interacting with the material, he understands and performs better. If you step back at that moment you can almost see the connections firing in their brains as they reach out to the material. Rather than me leading them, they begin leading and following themselves. Sometimes they stumble, but a well-placed hand will often get the student back on the path.

When I first started as an ABE Tutor, I truly never thought that I would feel as gratified at the end of the day as I do. I think that the first time I had a student have a “Light Bulb Moment” really turned me on to the idea of tutoring adults. Prior to that moment, I had only just presented the material and graded the submitted work.

Today, I actively talk with my students about their lives before coming to prison. I find that it’s important for two very important reasons: it builds a good rapport and helps me to find ways for me to make their job of learning easier. That way, education, at least in my class becomes a to-way street: I learn how to teach them better, and they learn the skills they need to succeed on they General Equivalency Diploma tests.

When you really want to have your students experience their own “Light Bulb Moments,” think of what your student can do, i.e. counting money, weighing things, etc., and build your lesson plans  around those skills. And hopefully, if you’ve done it right, you’ll see more “Light Bulb Moments.”

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