Friday, May 14, 2010

Puente Stories: "Bill"; or, Disney ain't the only one in the business of tellin' success stories

The program that I currently teach in and co-coordinate is called Puente. I have written about it before. I love the program, I (mostly) love the students, I hate the pay. The program is designed to service historically educationally disadvanted student populations (mostly hispanic and latino). I took the job because as an adjunct if someone asks you to do something you just say yes.

Anyway, we are about two weeks away from finishing the first year of the first cohort. Puente has three phases. Phase I is the Pre-Composition class, Phase II is the Composition class, and Phase III is the year or so that it takes the students to finish the rest of their Community College work in order to transfer. After that (the unofficial Phase IV) is when they finish their four-year degrees and become tax paying citizens who return to their community and act as mentors to other Puentistas. My job is to teach the English classes, organize events, and other administrative tasks. Each group of students who go through these phases together are called a Cohort. So, we just finished the first two phases of of our first cohort.
Over the next week or so I will be telling stories about this year. Some are stories of success. Some are stories of failures, some frustrations, and some may be funny (at least to me). All the names are changed for privacy (and to avoid lawsuits). I reserve the right to embellish for the sake of storytelling, to leave things out if it makes me look bad, and to talk about other things if I get bored.
At the beginning of every Puente year we have a mandatory Information Night/Orientation. This event is held on campus in the evening and the students are supposed to bring their familias. In Puente we want students to include their families in their education. Because the program has its roots in the hispanic community the idea of "familia" came about for two main reasons. The first is because family is so important to many hispanics and we want to include as many elements of our student's culture as we can. The second because so many Puente students are first generation college students, and we want to show our students familis what goes on on college campuses. We, at Shasta College, try to stretch the word "familia" as much as we can. To some this means a boyfriend/girlfriend, husband wife, kids, other is it parents, grandparents... and to others a best friend. To my most shy student, Bill, familia meant his mom.  He brought his mom to everything. I quickly learned it was so she would speak for him. A habit that most likely started when Bill was a child and had continued into adulthood.
At the Information Night I made my way around the room and introduced myself to every person. Bill's mom was very shy and I had to talk with her for several minutes longer than any other person just to feel like we were comfortable. Her son, Bill, did not look at me. He mumbled his name while staring at his feet the entire time. His mom was trying to speak for him because even though she was very shy as well, she did not want me to think her son was being rude. I told her not to worry and joking said, "By the end of this thing we'll all be best friends."  We all laughed, and I went on with the rest of the night.
As the Phase I class started, I noted that Bill sat in very last seat of the row that was in the furthest corner of the room. He spoke only when forced to, made no eye contact with me, and worked with the same student every day. As the semester went on I was careful not to push him too much. Puente is a big proponent of goup work and we put each student into a group, callled a Familia, who they work with the entire semester. I put Bill into a group with all guys that he seemed comfortable with. It worked, he made his way, talking to his Familia, to me when he needed to, and nothing more. In his group presentation he ran the projector. He never raised his hand or volunteered a comment. He was so shy that if he needed to talk to me or ask a question he would text a classmate and have them ask. I would make a point to talk to Bill at least once a day, even if it was just small talk and pleasantries, and I made sure to say hello and goodbye every class. Still, at the end of the first semester he was comfortable with only a very small group of classmates and could talk to me if he needed to.
As the Phase II class started, I took special care to push Bill a bit more than I had in Phase I. I put him in a Familia with students new and different students. I would call on him in class. When I would read his notebooks and essays I would highlight points I wished that he would have said in class. I emphasized over and over again that his viewpoints and ideas were welcome and desired in the class discussion, sometimes in a discussion I would say, "Bill, you said something about that in your notebook, do you want  to share your insights with the class?" The first couple of times I tried this, I got a mumbled "Not really." But, usually, he would  say something. And then one day, he raised his hand. I actually cut off another student in my desire to call on him. After that, he would share now and again, and while still shy, it didn't seem quite so debilitating.
I knew that Bill was becoming less shy, but I didn't realize how much until two things happened, the first was his mom stopped me one day while shopping to tell me so. I was shopping when I heard a shy voice behind me "Professor Frye."  I turned and there was Bill's mom. She wanted to tell me how much  her son enjoyed the Puente program. She said that she had seen a change in him over the past year and that he said that it was due to Puente. Now, this would be progress enough to please me. Just getting Bill to talk in class was enough for me. This student who was so shy that he would not even text or email professors was talking in class! The second was that Bill was sitting in the front of the class. He had slowly moved seats until he was in the front row (on the side of the room, but still). Victory right!. Well, then, he volunteered to speak at the Puente End of the Year Celebration.
I was asking for volunteers and jokingly asked Bill. I fully expected him to blush, laugh, and make a joke as he said "no way." Instead, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "All right." At the Puente End of the Year Celebration he spoke in front of 75+ people. That night he talked about how empowering it was to attend the Puente Motivational Conference at Sacramento State with 800 other latinos who were all striving to better themselves through education. He talked about making friends in the program. He talked about how Puente has changed him for the better. He talked about how he thinks he has a better shot at the future he has always wanted because he is more confident and a better speaker and writer. So often, students say these things because they think it is what teachers wanted to hear, but in this case, it was clear that every word was true. The fact that he was standing in front of 75 people as he said it was proof that it was true.
 And while I was touched about what he talked about, for me, the most impressive part was that he talked.


  1. What a great story. As teachers, I wish we only had success stories like these. But I know they're there to balance out the difficulties, the struggles, and the out-and-out failures. These "Bill" stories are the ones that keep us coming back each semester. Thanks for sharing them.

  2. Fantastically awesome! I'm glad you started with this story, because, like J said and you mention, there are stories on the opposite end and stories in the middle, but this makes it worth it.

    That's an amazing amount of growth for a student, for a person, in one year...really, in one semester.

  3. Darn it, you made me cry again. That said, how rewarding. I'm really happy for you.