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A school called Eucalyptus where a tutoring program promotes Citizenship Skills

Simon Thacker's picture
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The Lycée Eucalyptus, a high school in Nice, France, sits close to the airport, surrounded to the west and north by a resolutely working-class neighborhood and by a more middle-class area to the east. The school has a heterogeneous group of students who stay for the most part to themselves. So, for a working relationship to form between Marwan, 12, a Syrian refugee, who has only been in France a few months and speaks little French, and Charlotte, 17, the captain of the girls’ tennis team, is quite remarkable.

They meet, every week for an hour or sometimes two, to participate in a one-on-one peer tutoring program that began last year at the Lycée. The idea was simple; Charlotte would meet Marwan to help him with his French.

Other 17-year old students also volunteered their time to help younger students with their homework. 10 pairs initially started. As the year rolled on, more students asked to join and by January more than 100 were participating. The interest was surprising.  For instance, one high-schooler wrote to the organizer: "I still have not received an email explaining when I might meet my partner and provide support, so I wanted to check that you had the correct email address." By the end of the school year, some students had provided more than 30 hours of tutoring between just December and May.

Now, as students return to class this fall, the initiative is expanding to other schools in and around Nice. “No one expected the program to be such a success; I certainly didn’t. None of us could foresee its potential,” explains Jacques Desclaux the mathematics teacher who suggested it as a school project. “What we are seeing, though, is that this goes well beyond simple tutoring. It is not just providing academic benefits, there are clearly others, too.”

Since the January 2015 attack on the offices of Charlie-Hebdo, the French magazine, and other attacks after it, educators in France -- like educators in other countries -- have been asking themselves what they can do to create an atmosphere of greater tolerance and understanding. Yet finding the right response in schools can be challenging. It’s a question of knowing what to do and finding what could work.

“After what has been happening, the students have clearly wanted to do something,” says Desclaux.

There are many benefits to peer-to-peer tutoring. The approach has been repeatedly shown to improve learning outcomes.  Most probably, and not surprisingly, this is due to the increased attention from the tutor, the frequency of interaction during the time spent together, and the greater time on task (in comparison to a group lesson). And, indeed, this is what is being seen at the Lycée. The program is helping younger students to get their homework done, learn their lessons, and build their self-confidence. As a result, it is even helping prevent some from drifting off-course and dropping out.

Educators are delighted. Here is a simple program, embraced by students and the community, that seems to be helping. And costs very little.

The project is, however, not without its challenges. Two middle-school students dropped out after a couple of weeks, disappointed by the experience. “They had expected something remarkable, I suppose … or a prettier tutor, I’m not sure,” laughs Jacques. It has raised a few eyebrows with some teachers, too, who wonder whether inexperienced students are best placed to tutor at all. But the program begins by training older students how to use textbooks well and how to motivate younger students, and by taking the time to explain to the younger students the responsibility it entails. “Look, something is working,” says Jacques. “All the students are doing better. That may not mean they are excelling, but they are holding solidly onto a passing grade.”

Yet there are other benefits, too, that touch on other skills. In the literature, these have been most recently referred to as 21st Century Skills with one unique subset called Citizenship Skills. These include such skills as personal and social responsibility, cultural awareness, and local and global citizenship. So how does the tutoring relationship foster these skills? It is not exactly clear, not yet.

“We sense that the tutoring program is calling on and encouraging many skills,” explains Desclaux. “The young students have a role-model in an older student. And, for the high school student, this is work that teaches responsibility and patience. The program is creating stronger inter-generational and inter-cultural ties between very different students. In this way, it is encouraging tolerance and respect. We clearly feel a greater sense of community in the school; the social fabric is becoming stronger.”
As the program expands, some of these benefits need to be untangled and so a researcher at NYU has been contacted to begin to find ways to assess the program.

The World Bank Middle East and North Africa Regional Strategy aims to enhance economic and social inclusion for peace and stability in MENA. Could such a program be extended to schools in the MENA Region? The idea seems promising. Perhaps it could fit into the Education for Competitiveness Initiative, a partnership between the World Bank and the Islamic Development Bank, which is currently working on 21st Century Skills in the Middle East and North Africa.

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