Twenty-something fifth graders in a classroom four of them gifted, two with mental retardation, three with a specific learning disability, the rest with abilities sliding everywhere on the scale in between. Four of the children’s primary language is something other than English. Three present severe behavior problems. Two are non-readers.
How do young men and women who have always been students themselves move from holding a vague desire to teach, to stepping confidently into a contemporary classroom and making sure no child in that class is left behind?
RU senior Amy Bush of Rocky Mount sits in the College of Education and Human Development’s Teaching Resources Center patiently answering an interviewer’s questions. What she really wants to do is get to one of the center’s computers. She doesn’t have much time to spare. As a blocking student, she spends two full days and one half day a week in a fifth-grade classroom similar to the one described above. She also carries a full load of RU classes. Bush is not on some unusual, accelerated plan. She's part of a group, a “cohort,” of other blocking students, all working in school classrooms, all taking the same four education classes. Next semester they’ll do their student teaching. The intensity of the blocking experience inevitably draws students close. Bush and four other women in her cohort recently broke away for a weekend camping trip together.
In her fifth-grade class at Blacksburg’s Kipps Elementary School, Bush, an aspiring special education teacher, assists the regular classroom teacher. On any given day, her responsibilities could include working with non-readers, guiding a novel group, a word study group or a writer’s workshop, helping with math lessons and, sometimes, “just calming students down rubbing their backs or whatever it takes.”
Today, in the Teaching Resources Center, she wants to take advantage of a software program called Boardmaker to create a picture schedule. “Every day,” she says, “one of my non-readers is constantly asking me, ‘Ms. Bush, Ms. Bush, what’s next?’ The picture schedule will have a picture for each thing we do during the day, like numbers for math or books for reading, and it will have the word, too. She’ll be able to see on her own what we’re doing next, and she can learn the words by seeing them every day with the pictures.” Giving students tools to do things on their own is important to Bush, who sees that they don’t want classmates to know they need special help.
Two courses Bush took before blocking have been especially beneficial to her current endeavors. One was a behavior management class taught by former RU professor Andrea Babke. The other, called Adaptive Strategies in Arithmetic, is for interdisciplinary studies majors with concentrations in special education. Professor Carol Geller developed and teaches the course. Although special education majors had always taken math, says Geller, “knowing math and teaching it are not the same thing.”
Geller makes sure her students are computer literate that they know how to use computers to reinforce the concepts they will be teaching. “I’m not talking about fluff,” says Geller. “There are exercises that are fun to do but help children accomplish a particular skill.”
Geller sends her students to the Teaching Resources Center, where they find and critique three different kinds of technology they could use in the classroom. They use computers to generate their own worksheets for teaching specific skills. “I try to get them to choose a skill they weren’t good at when they were in school,” she adds. Then they critique commercial worksheets and materials. Geller wants them to be good at choosing materials and technology tools. “They find that just because something is packaged nicely doesn’t mean it’s good,” she says.
Of premium value to teachers, she tells her students, is the ability to see what prior knowledge is needed to learn a skill. “Each skill builds on a previous one. If kids don’t have the first one, they can’t learn the next.” She helps her students understand this by having them examine the Standards of Learning. “There are threads that run throughout the grades,” she says. “Do children learn all about place values in one year? No. They build each year on what they learned in the previous one.”
To Geller, special education teaching methods are “just good teaching. You teach things in small chunks, give explicit instructions, show examples and non-examples and use guided practice.”
Middle school not the one you remember. These kids know Britney Spears, “Sex and the City” and whatever the Internet has to offer. Their clothes, behavior and language show it. Bullying and sexual harassment are issues in the hallways. Diversity is an issue in the classroom.
Educational studies professor Betty Dore says even students who are just now juniors in college are naïve about the kinds of things that go on in today’s middle school. Dore teaches Educational Psychology, a course students take just before blocking.
Her class is “more than who Piaget is,” says Dore. “Besides knowing about how children develop, my students need to know the nitty-gritty. It’s important they know how to do lesson plans; it’s important they know how to handle diversity in the classroom. With many schools doing full inclusion, they need to know how to deal with special needs students.”
Dore’s students do teaching observations and interview teachers. When they visit a classroom, she tells them to “go in like a camera. What’s on the walls, behind the door, on the teacher’s desk? How do teachers react and how do kids react to others who come in the room?”
As a reality check on the level and complexity of the work of teaching, teachers from the field come to Dore’s class and speak. They provide a balance to the somewhat sanitized, albeit valuable, teaching videos she shows them.
“Suppose you teach a child from India?” Dore asks her class. “Wouldn’t it be good to know where to get a book the child could relate to?” To that end, students create annotated bibliographies of multicultural children’s literature. Another eye-opening project is to look at Cinderella stories. “There’s one for every culture,” she says.
“We do a lot of writing,” says Dore. For example, students write directions for some simple process, such as making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “We read them out loud and they can be very funny. It brings home the fact that they need to be very specific when they’re telling kids what they want them to do.” In place of a final exam, her students do a research project and presentation. One student researched the impact of Henrico County’s decision to provide laptops for students.
Dore always takes her students to the Teaching Resources Center (TRC). “It’s good for them to see what’s available there before they begin their blocking.”
Sophomore Hannah Wakley of McCoy, a former student of Dore, sits in the TRC pasting pictures on sentence strips and talking about her preparations to become an elementary or middle school teacher. Although she’s not yet a blocking student, she has experience under her belt. Last year, on her own, she volunteered one day a week in a Blacksburg Middle School teacher’s classes. She has tutored kids through the Radford Wesley Foundation, and she does homework with the children she babysits each afternoon.
Wakley comes to the TRC often. It’s a quiet place to do her work and offers a wealth of resources she can use for class projects. In a couple of weeks she’ll be presenting a hands-on science lesson in her Introduction to Mathematics and Science Instruction class, where professor Wanda Price has advised, “One of the secrets of being a teacher who doesn’t lose her mind is to do something one time. If you make a game, set it up so you can use it over and over.” The science activity books in the TRC are full of ideas for such projects. In another course, Wakley, assigned to present an astronomy lesson, felt the room should look like a real science classroom, so she covered the walls with NASA posters from the TRC. Now they’re hers to keep and use when she’s a full-fledged teacher.
Getting from fledgling to full-fledged requires weaving a tight nest of support from bits of advice, observations and ideas, connected by long strands of careful instruction, guided experience and the right tools.
At some point in the process, each of those strands runs through the Teaching Resources Center, directed by Lorraine Durrill. Over the last 11 years, Durrill has carefully guided the evolution of the center from a simple depository of materials, to a faculty technology training center before the Multimedia Center took on that task to what it is today, a rich central source of help in teacher preparation. Her 16 years of experience teaching in public schools, her visits to classrooms when supervising student teachers, her early foresight into the coming significance of instructional technology and her connections through such organizations as the Southwest Virginia Technology Consortium helped her in building the collections and knowing how to put them to use. Her passion for the job shows. She lights up when presented with a teaching problem, because she usually has access to resources for solving it.
For the region’s in-service teachers, the TRC is a place of inspiration, information and tangible tools. Recently a group of third grade teachers from Flatwoods Primary School in Lee County traveled to Radford to spend three hours mining the center for materials. After a general orientation, Durrill set them loose, as teacher Angela Turley put it, “like teachers in a candy store!”
The center is one of 75 NASA Educator Resource Centers in the U.S. and one of 10 sites in Virginia for the state textbook evaluation process. It is a preview site for several software companies and has an extensive collection of National Geographic materials. Technology includes computers, Intel microscopes, graphics tablets and digital cameras. All subject areas and grade levels are represented in the collections, which include instructional aids, remediation projects, and special education, pre-school and multicultural materials and literature titles.
Besides teachers and teacher preparation students, the doors are open to school administrators, home-schooling families, parents of school children, and community groups engaged in tutoring. First-time teachers ease their anxiety by finding ideas for lesson plans. School division teams write curricula based on national and state standards. Teachers preview software before ordering it for their schools, and they borrow teaching kits to make lessons come alive.
NASA aerospace education specialist Alicia Feddor, who teaches a hands-on math and science workshop at the TRC each year, is an unofficial ambassador for the center. “I love this resource,” she says. “When I meet teachers in the western two-thirds of Virginia, I always make sure I tell them that they need to come here, they need to be here they need to see what there is to offer here because there’s just so much for them.”
When teachers first visit they are surprised by the breadth and depth of the TRC collections, thrilled that everything is free, and immediately grasp the value the center holds for their teaching effectiveness. Good teaching requires lots of current information, multiple ideas for presenting it, and countless activities for reinforcing it.
Undergraduates don’t have the experience to realize fully the needs they will have once they get in the field, says Durrill, but former students often come back for help. Faculty like Geller and Dore get students into the center whenever possible and encourage them through class assignments to create activities they can use when they are teachers. Bush, who is president of Kappa Delta Pi, the education honor society, arranged a workshop on using the Teaching Resources Center for KDP members.
In fall 2003, when Peters Hall re-opens its doors as the new home of the College of Education and Human Development, the Teaching Resources Center will be the building’s centerpiece. The TRC will work in concert with the new Center for Professional Development, a response to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and an effort to work with school divisions in advancing current teaching professionals’ quality of teaching. From the earliest stages of pre-service teachers’ learning to the continuous learning of new and veteran teachers, the Teaching Resources Center supports the training, equipping and encouragement of educators in order to bring the very best level of teaching to children in the state and the nation.
That’s how it works. Students become teachers become students and, if the process is working right, the cycle never ends.
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