WSU professor hopes to help kids overcome hardships

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldNovember 24, 2012 

One physically abused girl in Colombia forever altered Jessica Lester's path just as she was beginning her teaching career.

Lester, an assistant professor at Washington State University Tri-Cities in Richland, was in the South American country after completing her undergraduate education.

The Colombian girl had suffered significant physical abuse, which is not uncommon in the violence-torn country, Lester said.

"Developmentally, she was really affected," Lester said.

The girl had few family members left to care for her, and she could not speak. This severely hampered her ability to receive an education. She also struggled to socialize with others and could not properly care for herself.

Lester relied on non-verbal communication to help the girl advance.

Since then, Lester has sought to use more effective and innovative methods to teach students in regions affected by violence, poverty and other problems.

Now, students at the Richland campus and throughout the WSU system are applying those lessons in the Northwest with students whose hardships have inhibited their education.

"It's taking their experiences into account," said Margarita Vidrio, a Kennewick native and graduate student at WSU's Pullman campus who works with Lester.

As a child, Lester spent periods of time in Colombia before she considered studying to become a teacher. Her mother is an activist for children's causes and education, and her parents adopted a girl from a Colombian orphanage.

"That was our family vacation," she said of her visits to Colombia.

But her knowledge of the country grew between her undergraduate and graduate studies. Violence caused by conflict over the drug trade and land is intertwined with widespread government corruption and poverty, she said. Many children are forced to become soldiers or take part in the sex trade.

Lester said those conditions have cut into education, with 50 percent of Colombia's youth -- and likely fewer -- ever attending high school.

Children who do make it that far face hurdles. Many are hungry. Some have been abused and are on the fringe of society. Tension among students or between students and teachers is common.

Now, working with a U.S.-based foundation called Together and El Arca -- a private school in the mountainside above capital city of Bogota -- Lester and others are implementing new ways of teaching. Those efforts include diffusing tensions at the school, such as teaching students to listen to each other when there's conflict and resolving it peacefully.

But Lester's work also has aimed to improve the quality of education, partially by turning on its head the traditional approach to education.

"It's looking at a student's ultimate potential," she said. "Instead of finding out what you don't know, let's find out your potential."

But such an approach isn't only applicable in Colombia. Vidrio said many of those practices can be applied in U.S. schools with students from low-income families, those who are learning English or those facing other hardships.

"Typically, we're taught to assume the students are missing information," she said. "When in reality they know it from a different concept."

Vidrio plans to become a math teacher and said that a concept such as fractions, which can be difficult for some students to understand, can be translated into something more identifiable, such as how much a pizza costs when its split among a group of friends. Once students understand and have confidence, they'll more easily move on to more abstract concepts, she said.

Vidrio said Lester isn't teaching new methods to educate children. Instead, she's trying to show how to implement them to improve results.

Lester and Vidrio continue to work to implement their methods in Bogota. Lester visits El Arca twice a year to work with teachers. Vidrio hopes to visit next summer. In the meantime, they both have their eyes set on improving education in the Mid-Columbia. One of Lester's students already is accomplishing that.

Rachel Shank, a senior who is student teaching at Sacajawea Elementary School in Richland, said she's employed assessment methods she learned from Lester last spring.

As a result, Shank said she believes she's helped students learn the best they can -- often without them even realizing it.

"It's showing them that learning can be fun," she said.

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