Learning by doing for teachers and kids

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On a sultry late July morning, teacher intern Carlos Cortes is feeling pressure that’s familiar to teachers, but brand-new to him. Not long ago he was a chemist for Abbott Laboratories. Now his hands shake as he weighs out the zinc nitrate required for the electroplating lab he will lead in less than five minutes, when his Steinmetz High students come back from break. “Don’t have enough time in summer school,” Cortes mutters to himself. Although he shares the class with veteran teacher Arthur Reliford, a mentor in the Golden Apple Teacher Education program, and fellow intern Shannon Goodwin, the challenge of juggling teaching, grading, lab prep and assignments for his own education course at Northwestern University seems overwhelming at this moment.

Some of the white crystals spill, and he berates himself. “I’m better at waving my hands, explaining things, than running a lab,” he says. His inner sense of perfectionism seems more of a hindrance than a help in a lab with a scale less precise than he’d like. “I used to work in industry, and you have to get everything right the first time.”

In GATE’s summer training program, getting things right is encouraged, but learning from first tries is required. And no one has to do it all alone.

“Guys, just break up in groups and put your stuff on one of the tables here,” Cortes tells his students after introducing the lab rather stiffly. While Cortes busies himself with setting up batteries for the electrodes, Goodwin, a former research chemist at Searle, helps students drill holes into the copper strips they will electroplate. Her calm, genial energy and competence in managing lab work help Cortes relax. Once the lab is off and running, he gets into the mix, circulating among students to check their procedures and ask them questions.

“I don’t know why I was so nervous,” he says an hour later, when the students have successfully electroplated zinc onto their copper strips. “Shannon’s been a researcher for years. She’s my savior.”

Later, mentor teacher Reliford, who taught at St. Ignatius College Prep for 12 years before joining the North Lawndale Charter School, tells a reporter that Cortes reminds him of himself when he started. “I thought that I could do it all,” he says. “I was going in with pre-set ideas of how it was when I was a student, and my whole first semester was a shock.”

The purpose of GATE’s summer program for prospective math and science teachers is to reduce that shock by giving them guided, real-world experience and an opportunity for reflection before they take on their own classrooms. To that end, the seven-week program combines increasing responsibility for a summer school class with constant, high-quality mentoring. After the morning’s work with high schoolers, interns spend their afternoons in a seminar, learning from Northwestern professors and mentor teachers chosen by Golden Apple.

The program’s academic component is structured differently from traditional teacher preparation. Rather than taking a series of courses in different aspects of education, GATE interns participate in two seminars, one daily in the summer and the other biweekly throughout the school year. Unlike Teachers for Chicago, interns in GATE’s program do not complete a master’s degree, but Northwestern issues 8 credits toward a master’s for their seminar work.

The summer seminar combines an overview of issues in education with heavy emphasis on learning inquiry-based teaching methods. In an inquiry-based lesson, the teacher structures experiences that lead students to ask questions about a concept and hypothesize about how things work, rather than simply explaining through lecture. “Inquiry isn’t the only way,” acknowledges Sylvia Smith-Demuth, director of alternative certification programs at Northwestern who is the primary designer of GATE’s seminars. But, Smith-Demuth adds, GATE challenges its interns to “design potent questions that lead to understanding” and to “bring [students] to some kind of closure from a discussion, not leave them wandering around.”

The interns spend much of their academic time on projects like revising textbook lessons to incorporate inquiry and reflecting on the results of their efforts in the classroom. Each intern must complete a portfolio documenting his growth as a teacher over the summer. The portfolio includes both short, daily assignments, such as journal reflections on the day’s teaching and observations, and longer term projects. Six samples of students’ written work with the intern’s written comments are required. The highlight of the portfolio is a two-hour video segment of a lesson the intern revised to include more inquiry and the intern’s written reflection and analysis on how it went.

The portfolio is judged by representatives from Northwestern, Golden Apple and the Inner City Teacher Corps, GATE’s sister program that serves impoverished Catholic grammar schools. The intern will not receive a provisional license to teach in the fall if the portfolio is judged unsatisfactory. Last summer, one of six interns was held back from teaching for that reason. To earn their initial four-year certificate, GATE interns must complete a second portfolio documenting their growth through the school year.

Although mentors usually don’t attend the afternoon seminars, interns constantly bring issues raised in seminar back to them to hear their opinions. In mid-July, interns hotly debated among themselves over questions of how to teach to state standards and use them to assess students’ progress. The debate sparked discussions with mentors at both Kenwood and Steinmetz high schools, who took the opportunity to use real-world answers to philosophical dilemmas.

During a daily debriefing session, Cortes, Goodwin and Reliford discuss the lab-based research their students are conducting in small groups. One group of three is studying how fish react to adrenaline being added to their fishbowls. “This lab seems to not have much to do with chemistry,” suggests Cortes.

“Well, if you’re talking inquiry, it does, or you can do ‘paper chemistry,'” says Reliford, whose tone implies a low opinion of paper chemistry—textbook and worksheet problems with little or no lab experience.

Goodwin asks how to allow time for individual projects when teaching to standards could eat up infinite amounts of time.

“It depends on how closely you want to adhere to the standards,” says Reliford. “When I taught AP biology, I knew there were eight labs the students had to do and had to analyze. Once I got the eight out of the way, I could do whatever I wanted.”

In addition to the on-site mentors, Golden Apple winner Jim Pudlewski, secondary-level coordinator for GATE, regularly observes interns and offers feedback. He also attends seminar sessions, so he’s able to see the interns as both teachers and students. Previously, Pudlewski taught middle-school science in Homewood for 31 years. In addition to his work for Golden Apple, Pudlewski observes student teachers from traditional teacher prep programs.

Pudlewski is impressed with the Northwestern faculty’s efforts to integrate theory and practice, and with their focus on reflective teaching. “I have never seen a program where the people, during and afterward, are constantly reflecting on how well they are doing with the kids. That’s where I think we are especially strong.”

Self evaluation

The first three days of August are the final days of GATE’s summer program, a time to reflect on lessons learned from lessons taught. Over two mornings, each group of interns who taught together present a conceptual lesson they redesigned to incorporate inquiry, and show video clips of how it went in the classroom.

Though the lessons themselves are of strikingly high quality, especially for beginning teachers, the presentations are not a mere showcase. After each group shows its video highlights, the whole room engages in thoughtful discussion of each lesson’s strengths and weaknesses, with suggestions on how to improve it.

This summer, GATE has added a third area of specialty to its secondary program—middle-grade math. Interns Stephen Farr, Gary Sircus and Paul Holt are teaching at McCosh Elementary, which retooled its math program for grades 6-8 to incorporate more hands-on activities and collaboration among teachers. (See Catalyst, September 1998.)

Holt introduces their lesson, explaining they had three goals in mind. In increasing order of difficulty, they are: to graph the relationship between an independent and a dependent variable, to understand the concept of a variable and to understand the concept of a function. Holt says their students met the first goal and “maybe” understood what a variable is, but they left with “no clue” about functions.

“This is a reach,” notes Holt. “It’s a lesson from an 8th-grade textbook, and all but three of these kids haven’t been in 8th grade yet.”

On the video, Farr kicks off the lesson with a brief lecture and discussion to explain the concepts of independent and dependent variables. “I thought I should have gone right to a visual example,” he reflects, watching himself on tape.

“Now what impact would that have had?” asks Northwestern professor Miriam Scherin, who works closely with GATE’s math teachers and oversees the mechanics of the intern’s summer portfolios.

“It might have helped kids catch on to what we were doing,” speculates Farr.

On screen, Farr asks a student, “What does independent mean?”

“By yourself, free,” the student answers. The video classroom is quiet, intent; the intern seminar explodes in laughter.

Some of the laughs come from recognition of the difficulty of the concept. “We went through this whole independent, dependent thing at the beginning of the summer with our sophomores,” notes Goodwin. “The concept … I think it’s very difficult.”

“I just learned this stuff listening to your explanation,” says intern Victoria Liu.

“I had to learn it myself the night before,” remembers Farr. “I thought I knew it, but then I went ‘uh-oh, I have to teach this.’ So I studied it again.”

The students move into groups and begin activities to illustrate the relationship between an independent and dependent variable. Sircus tells the group that this lesson taught them to think ahead about how to group students. “There were group dynamics issues that came up when they self-selected,” he observes. “If we did it again, we probably wouldn’t have set up the groups this way. I think this was the first time a lot of these kids had worked in groups like this.”

The trio’s video shows small groups of students tracking various relationships—the increasing weight of greater numbers of pennies, for example, or the speed at which different amounts of liquid pass through a funnel. “They had to look at input, output, independent variable, dependent variable and graph the relationship,” says Sircus.

“Wow! My sophomores can’t do this,” marvels Goodwin.

“Is this a math class or a science class?” asks intern Ryan Schultz, paying a sly compliment to their integration of scientific experimentation with mathematics instruction.

Goodwin’s praise is anything but sly. “It’s the best integration I’ve ever seen,” she raves.

By the end of the lesson, students appear to be grasping some of the more difficult concepts. In the video, Sircus asks Tony, a student who has been counting and weighing pennies, “What’s x?”

“It’s the independent variable,” he answers. It’s also the number of pennies weighed, which might have been the first response of a student who had done the experiment but not understood it conceptually.

Sircus says he pushed the lesson still further. “You’ve measured and graphed up to 40 pennies. What would happen if you weighed 100 pennies?” he recalls asking his students. “I was looking to see if they could extrapolate the line and its slope. That sort of threw them more than I thought it was going to throw them.”

“Even with all the structure you gave them, they still didn’t go all the places you wanted them to go,” observes Scherin.

Pudlewski adds that the age of the students involved may be the issue. “One of the things with your age range is that some of your kids are still pretty concrete,” he says. Abstraction is something they are just starting to develop.” Both Scherin and Pudlewski praise the threesome for their organization and team-teaching style.

In addition to pulling together their portfolios, the GATE interns also have been job hunting.

Although GATE does not require interns to make a formal commitment to teach after their internships, state law requires them to teach in Chicago for four years to earn a standard teaching certificate, which is good throughout the state. Though Golden Apple gives interns job leads, the interns must call principals and send out resumes themselves. They receive regular first-year teacher pay.

Steinmetz corners a market

On the last day of the program, elementary and secondary interns gather with their colleagues from the Inner City Teacher Corps for an intense dose of real-world advice.

After a few role-plays on how to handle potential first-day discipline problems, the secondary and elementary interns split up for in-depth discussion with GATE’s first grads, who have just completed their first full year of teaching. The high school interns hear from Jonathan Shemwell, who teaches physics at Steinmetz High, and his assistant principal, Victor Vant, an enthusiastic recruiter of GATE interns.

Steinmetz, which focuses on math and science, snared three of last year’s six high school interns; one transferred to Whitney Young mid-year, but the other two remain on the faculty. This fall, thanks to Shemwell’s efforts, Steinmetz will have its first full classroom of students taking AP physics—23 students signed up after taking his junior physics course.

In his look ahead to the new year, Vant remarks on the continuing quality of GATE support. “I’ve never seen support come out for first-year teachers like it comes out of Northwestern,” he observes.

In a few weeks, all 26 summer interns learn that their portfolios passed muster and that they’ll receive provisional certificates to begin teaching. In the first two months of the school year, three interns—one secondary, two elementary—will choose to leave the program for personal reasons.

In early October, Pudlewski makes the rounds at Steinmetz to observe three interns at work. “What am I commenting on at the beginning of the year? Classroom management problems, tardies and not moving around the room enough.”

Having guided GATE’s inaugural class, though, he anticipates writing very different comments a few months from now. “By the end of the year, I’m writing ‘Here’s another activity that might reinforce what you’re doing in this lesson.’ Or ‘Have you thought about the questions you’ll use once they’ve answered your initial inquiry?'”

Pudlewski observes each of GATE’s high school interns at least 20 class periods during the year. During the first three months, he stops by at least once every two weeks.

Some interns call or e-mail him regularly—as much as every other day; others see him only when he comes to observe and at seminar. “But I think the fact that I’m there every two weeks gives them a feeling of support,” he says.

This fall, Pudlewski also is observing student teachers going through a traditional program. “I’m there while they’re doing these 14 weeks,” he observes. “They’re gonna get jobs in the suburbs. As soon as they graduate, they’re on their own. Where is that support?”

He suggests teacher colleges might want to take a page from GATE’s syllabus. “Wouldn’t it be cool if the teacher colleges had somebody who would come out in September, in December, in March, and say, ‘We produced this one. We’d like to see whether they grow.'”