On Purpose: A “Breakthrough” Communications Model for Education

PBS Newshour profiles Breakthrough Twin Cities.
PBS Newshour profiles Breakthrough Twin Cities.

Breakthrough Twin Cities is a St. Paul, Minn.-based program that helps motivated middle and high school students overcome adversity to prepare for college. Watch this story from the PBS Newshour, and I’m sure you’ll agree that the program achieves this purpose in a truly remarkable way. At the program’s heart is better communications between teacher and student.

The Buzz Bin recently talked with the program’s executive director, Mikisha Nation, about how stronger connections between teachers and students drive learning success.

Explain your “students teaching students” model. How does it work, and why is it effective?

I love the “students teaching students model.” It’s really important that students see themselves in their teachers. Because our teachers are college and high school students, they’re not that far removed from the cohort. They still remember what it was like to learn about chemistry, physics and science. They know what they struggled with. They’re already thinking about this and how to break it down so that they can push students and help them understand it. The model also allows teachers to build relationships with students and understand what motivates them. Students meet and learn from someone that looks like them, and that’s powerful. At Breakthrough Twin Cities, the core of what we do is providing a platform for students to fully realize their dreams through education. Everything that we do is student-focused. Students come to our program motivated to do whatever it takes to prepare for college and ready to succeed in school and life.  Our job is to facilitate learning through excellent instruction, collaboration and encouragement. We believe in creating intentionality behind every minute we are serving our students.

Rather than starting with an achievement focus, we start with the relationship connection. It builds trust in a way that helps to facilitate academic learning, and we’re seeing very strong results.

Mikisha Nation

What we’ve realized is that there are ways to infuse fun with learning. Fun doesn’t have to just happen outside the classroom at recess. We build elements of excitement into each day students are here. We play music, or do exercises in the hall, things to get students’ energy flowing. Students and Teaching Fellows are active and drive learning inside the classroom. “Booya” helps make homework not work, but fun, and fun helps learning and gets our students one step closer to their college goal. We build the curriculum around the excitement of learning and the excitement that comes from achieving goals.

What inspired Breakthrough Twin Cities to reinvent how teachers communicate with students?

It started with understanding that the connection between teacher and student is critical. The teacher is the guiding light to what the program builds between them. If a student doesn’t know that a teacher cares about her, or is there to laugh or cry with her, it’s harder for a teacher to motivate her. Rather than starting with an achievement focus, we start with the relationship connection. It builds trust in a way that helps to facilitate academic learning, and we’re seeing very strong results. At Breakthrough, we expect everyone’s best, and our best is better than we could have ever dreamed. For students that have stuck with us, made that six-year commitment to us, 100 percent have gone on to college. Another remarkable result, 70 percent of our fellows (teachers) have gone on to careers in education. What’s most rewarding for me is creating opportunities for families to come out of poverty. With Breakthrough, families are seeing a door open to education. As a nation, it’s critical that we create more opportunities for people coming from diverse, low-income backgrounds to get the education they need. High school graduation and a good college education launch young people on a career path that is a catalyst for lifelong achievement and economic self-sufficiency. Providing opportunity to all children is essential to America’s future prosperity.

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