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On Air with Lynn Parr Bartlett

Lynn Parr Bartlett
Lynn Parr Bartlett couples instructional materials from KET with live teachers on air to create unique learning experiences for adults in Northern California.

"Adult learners have a very different approach to learning than kids. Adults seek out the education they need. Our students are our ultimate partners every step of the way."

Lynn Parr Bartlett is production developer for the San Juan Unified School District Adult Education Distance Learning Project (SJUSD). An entrepreneur with a background in media and a lifelong passion for educational film, Bartlett is now responsible for a staff which produces two hours of live television every weekday for adult learners. In the 10 years she has been doing this, she has learned a lot about adult learners and the best ways to help them achieve their goals.

In October of 1995, Lynn Parr Bartlett was offered "a simple little job." She was going to work part-time teaching an ESL (English as a Second Language) class for the San Juan Unified School District.

Bartlett was certainly qualified. She had owned her own business-Lynn Parr Productions-producing commercial and marketing materials. She had been one of the people behind the development of a public access television station in Sacramento. All together, she had about 12 years of television and media-related experience on top of two college degrees, several years of museum experience, full teaching credentials, and experience as a teacher. Along the way, she had also raised three boys.

Bartlett had indeed come a long way from her first "job" in educational film-running the projector for her Minnesota elementary school class so they could watch Walter Cronkite narrate history films designed for grade school children.

"I thought it must be the best job in the world making those movies," she recalls. "I wanted to make films like that. I loved history and wanted to be a teacher and wanted to be in film."

Back in Sacramento, a few months had passed as Bartlett savored her new job. One conversation later, however, and that "simple little job" turned into a job that was anything but simple or little.

"One of the managers at the school where I was teaching came up to me one day," Bartlett recalls, "and the topic of my television background came up. "She sort of dropped what she was doing and called the central office. 'I think I've found somebody for you," Bartlett heard the manger say. Inquiring about the conversation, Bartlett was told there was going to be a meeting. "About what," she asked. "You'll find out" was the reply.

"They called me in the next day," Bartlett recalls. "It seems they had gotten this grant to do educational television programming. They handed me a copy of the grant, which was about five pages long. It said they were going to serve an underserved population using television. The concept of using high school students was also there, but that was about it."

Soon, Bartlett received a folder with the registrations. There were three-two of them adult education teachers. There was no programming. By the end of the year, the grant said there would be 450 students and programming to meet their needs.

Incredibly, there was.

"I ran around the first month doing research," she recalls. I interviewed people. I went to the library. Then I stumbled onto a television series called GED on TV. I called KET [Kentucky Educational Television] to find out more."

In GED on TV, Bartlett found a television series designed specifically for adult learners interested in earning their GED. Each 30-minute episode dealt with material learners would find on the GED test. Bartlett had struck educational gold.

Views on Literacy
Jump ahead several years. A telephone call has come into what is now known as the San Juan Distance Learning Program. The caller is a learner who wants to set up an appointment with the teacher who teaches distance learning classes via television for the district. She had heard the teacher offer to meet with students during one of her televised lessons, and the teacher had, in fact, set up office hours so she could personally meet with students.

After the meeting, the student mentioned how she had gotten to the meeting. She had walked a mile to a bus stop, ridden a bus for 20 minutes, transferred to another bus for a half-hour bus ride. That left her in the lot where her son's truck was parked. She then drove his truck to the school for the meeting. She was planning to repeat the process to get home.

The teacher was simultaneously stunned and impressed. She wanted to know why a student would go to that much effort. The woman explained that her son told her that no one who was on television would ever take the time to talk to her. She wanted to show him that he was wrong.

The story is a favorite of Bartlett's because it highlights the importance of education to the adult learners she works with every day and the determination they bring to their goals.

"Our mission is to deliver lifelong learning which helps adults become better citizens, better parents, and better workers," says Bartlett of the program which she helped start in 1995. "We identify community needs and then determine the best way to offer some solutions to those needs."

Those needs are as diverse as the district and the adult learners in this area of northern California. The 75-square-mile school district includes significant numbers of both multi-millionaires and homeless people. As a primary and secondary relocation center for the federal government, San Juan is also truly multicultural. There are 65 languages spoken within the district-the main ones being Russian, Spanish, Chinese, Farsi, Vietnamese, and Ukrainian.

Last year, there were 913 registered adult education students in the district-226 using the video library and 687 signed up for the televised classes. Of that, 672 of the students were enrolled in ESL (English as a Second Language) courses. What's more 74 percent of the students are female, often meaning they are responsible for children. Those numbers don't reflect the total number of viewers and learners since some are too 'shy' to actually enroll but are a good indication of the acceptance of the programming in the adult learner community.

The common denominator is a lack of access to traditional education, either because of problems with transportation, child care, inflexible job schedules, illness, age, limited English skills, or other personal obstacles. And television-specifically the cable television access channel-is the way Bartlett and her team knocks down the barriers that limit access to education.

Every Monday through Thursday from 1 to 3 p.m., Bartlett and her team produce two hours of live programming for adult learners. The effort is truly a collaborative one. Behind the cameras, switchers, and audio boards are high school students from the district. Students also direct and produce the programming. Adult education teachers are in front of the camera, each teaching two hours on the air each week.

To produce this much live television, the district uses what they call a wrap-around concept. It works like this: The district purchases materials such as PBS LiteracyLink® GED Connection or Workplace Essential Skills. Each of the lessons from these series is 30 minutes long, and becomes half of a one-hour program. Before airing the lesson, the teacher sets up the material for her students-telling them what to expect, what materials they will need, and what they are about to learn. After the lesson, the teacher returns to review the material and extend the lesson with supplemental materials. Some of the teachers take live phone calls, so students can ask questions or discuss problems they are having. Others use power point presentations to reinforce learning. Still others use traditional classroom teaching methods such working out math problems on a white board, step-by-step.

All of the teachers provide a "live and local" presence to the learning process.

"We have found that the students in their living rooms feel that this is 'their' teacher, that this person really cares about them," says Bartlett. "The local teacher creates a sense of family for these students, who are often isolated in the community. The teacher gives them someone to talk to."

"We tried just airing the programs," she recalls. "We asked people to call if they wanted a workbook, but we didn't get any response. When we added a live teacher, the response was incredible."

Just how real that teacher is to the students was reinforced with a phone call one day from a student.

"The student told her which class she was taking and wanted me to tell her teacher that she wouldn't be able to watch the lesson that day," says Bartlett. "Adult students have a lot of self responsibility. They feel a real obligation to teachers."

An ESL teacher found out just how real that obligation is when she needed some volunteers to take a test the federal government wanted to see how well students were learning from on-air instruction. She announced her need on air and 40 students showed up for the test. Those 40 students represented about one-third of her enrolled students.

Another innovation that has worked in a big way for the district is dividing the workbooks which accompany the series into smaller packets.

"We found the large workbooks expensive to mail out," recalls Bartlett, "and we discovered that we needed a little more of a 'carrot and stick' approach for our students. Sending students a big notebook at the beginning didn't give us an ability to monitor their progress and see that they were completing the lessons."

So Bartlett received permission from KET to subdivide the workbooks and send them to students in smaller chunks. Today, the district purchases reprint rights for the chapters from KET. Students receive a distance learning packet, which includes a contact sheet and the chapters that will be covered during the next month's televised programs. The only way to get the subsequent materials is to return the completed chapter and contact sheet. Students can now do that electronically or through regular mail.

This method also answers one of the questions Bartlett receives most frequently: How do you know students are watching?

"The sheer volume of material returned to us tells us that they are watching," Bartlett says. Last year, we sent out 2,000 workbook sets, 4,000 newsletters, and several thousand contact sheets with a substantial number of completed student work returned."

Bartlett is equally sure they are learning.

"People often ask me how I know our adults are learning, not just having someone fill out the paperwork for them," she says. "Adults don't do that. They are learning for their livelihoods, to have a better job and a better family life. They recognize the importance of the knowledge, are self starting and, in our experience, very honest."

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Questions and Answer Forum
Visitors to the website are invited to e-mail literacy-related questions to Lynn Parr Bartlett. You can read her answers on the website now.