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Inspiring risk taking through a powerful educational partnership

A preservice teacher works on a literacy lesson with two students from Thomas Metcalf School

A preservice teacher works on a literacy lesson with two students from Metcalf School.

Educators know about the anxieties of risk taking.

But no matter the risk—trying new strategies, seeking out support, or taking on a new school role—good teachers prioritize student learning over their own comfort in the classroom.

It was this brand of pedagogical courage that united Assistant Professor of Reading and Literacy Roland Schendel and two risk-taking classroom teachers at Metcalf School, one of Illinois State’s Laboratory Schools.

Beginning in 2012, Schendel collaborated with third grade teacher Natalie Collier and fourth grade teacher Michelle Mueller ’81, ’84, ’95  to develop a dynamic clinical experience model that serves the learning needs of preservice teachers and elementary students. Inside and outside the classroom, the educators’ model pushes boundaries in an effort to get the most out of these two learning populations, as well as themselves.

The work harnesses the resources and expertise of both the College of Education and Metcalf. Twice a week, Collier and Mueller welcome Schendel’s preservice teachers into their classrooms to carry out reading and literacy instruction and assessment cycles through one-on-one mentoring relationships with the elementary students. Mentoring takes place during a full-class block and concentrates on reading and literacy development in the content area being taught—be it language arts, social studies, or even science.

Collaborative environment
Through thorough yet flexible planning, the three educators ensure that each 45-minute mentoring session produces purposeful learning. Curricular considerations revolve around best practices: the Danielson Framework for Teaching, the edTPA, response to intervention (RtI), and Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

“We are working together to better understand how to incorporate all these ideas in the classroom environment,” Collier said. “And we are open-minded about how this can be accomplished. That allows us to bounce ideas off of each other, and it supports branching out.”

Following each mentoring session, the preservice teachers (mentors) remain in the classroom environment to reflect on their lessons with Schendel and Collier or Mueller, while the students (mentees) journey off to lunch. The classroom teachers leave their door open both figuratively and literally.

Assistant Professor Rolland Schendel (center) collaborates with a preservice teacher and a Metcalf School student on a literacy lesson.

Assistant Professor Rolland Schendel (center) collaborates with a preservice teacher and a Metcalf School student on a literacy lesson.

“The preservice teachers know that this is their classroom, too,” Mueller said. “They can contact me at any time either by email or by stopping in. They can observe or try out a lesson with a small group or the whole class.”

Engagement from day one
The first challenge posed to the preservice teachers occurs on the first day of university classes. Schendel’s first priority is to introduce them to Collier or Mueller, their Metcalf students, and the classroom environment.

In that initial encounter, the college mentors begin to learn as much as possible about mentees’ interests, including subjects that fascinate them, reading preferences, and the activities their friends and family do together.

“All those interests become part of the foundation for what they (the mentors) do,” Schendel said.

Mueller adds that as the mentors hone in on interest inventories, they are able to differentiate learning by customizing the subjects and content for their mentee.

“The mentors are then able to generate motivation for working on all skills, including those areas where the student may be underperforming and have a tendency to avoid,” she said.

Through an outsider’s eyes, the work taking place in Mueller and Collier’s classrooms may appear unconventional. As the preservice teachers huddle with their students in learning exchanges, both the classroom teacher and Schendel observe and interject when appropriate.

“It is a team teaching model,” Mueller said. “In every session, I work with the mentors and answer questions about the ways tutoring might better support the curriculum the students are learning.”

Integrating the Common Core
At several points during the semester, Schendel models how to administer literacy and reading assessments. Mentors then modify assessments to their learners’ individual needs.

Effective adaptation of assessment requires preservice teachers to listen and be responsive to student needs. All feedback can inform lesson plans, including best practices for integrating CCSS. Schendel works with the preservice teachers to ensure that each learning objective is associated with a CCSS in the lesson plan, and assessments are made based on those standards.

For most preservice teachers, this environment serves as their first opportunity to apply their knowledge of the standards to practice.

“They learn to negotiate the value of using Common Core State Standards to meet student needs,” Schendel said. “The needs of the learner must have at least an equal role in every decision that is made.”

Reading for science
Applying reading and literacy standards in Collier’s class poses a unique challenge because the mentors must enrich these skills through science.

On first blush, the twist results in apprehension on the part of the preservice teachers. However, those concerns gradually dissipate once it is realized that reading and science form a natural crossover.

“We emphasize that the student can read and form new understandings more effectively in science (content areas) by having reading comprehension strategies in place,” Collier said.

Support is provided early on in the semester to strengthen this connection. Schendel helps the preservice teachers construct their own understanding of CCSS, and he also presents a feature analysis of several apps designed to integrate Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) with reading standards.

Gradually, preservice teachers determine the most effective approaches for integrating the standards for their learners’ needs.

“They recognize and even argue about why certain app- or text-based ‘solutions’ don’t fit with what they are doing with their individual student from an RtI standpoint,” Schendel said.

Preservice teachers cannot attain this level of understanding unless they push themselves.

“(Collier and Mueller) and I are constantly reminding the preservice teachers that we are here to support them and to serve as their safety net,” he said. “If they think they have an amazing idea, they certainly need to take a risk and try it. That is what great teaching is about, from my perspective.”

Growing through discomfort
A few weeks past the midpoint of the fall 2013 semester, one of the mentors was unable to attend class. Schendel stepped in to work with the preservice teacher’s mentee using the strategies he, Collier, and Mueller introduced early in the semester. Following discussion with Collier, the decision was made to rearrange the mentor and mentee pairings for a single class period without notice.

While the adjustment required the preservice teachers to adapt their previous lesson plans, they lauded the chance to think on the fly and refresh applications of informal assessments. Collier and Schendel then announced the kicker. The change would be permanent. Although initially resistive, the preservice teachers embraced the challenge.

“One message they receive is that powerful teaching has hardly anything to do with being comfortable,” Schendel said. “It does connect back to your understanding of content and your base knowledge. But there’s nothing wrong with learning with your learners and going through that experience authentically.”

Collier said a mutual willingness to take risks has been integral to success of the partnership model. And through each challenge, she is routinely impressed by the commitment of the preservice teachers.

“When I see them in here, they are taking ownership for their students’ learning,” she said. “They take it very seriously and are genuinely concerned about each next step and what they can do better.”

Witnessing courage in action is inspiring. It can motivate other educators to reevaluate whether they are “fixed” in one way of doing things and to evolve their practices. Collier and Mueller report that their colleagues in Metcalf who observe this partnership—from fellow teachers to the school librarian to technology staff—want to contribute. And in the College of Education, Schendel’s work has inspired fellow teacher educators to seek out similar collaborations with Metcalf.

Perhaps the most encouraging outcome is that preservice teachers recognize new competence and confidence in their practice. Consider the following statement, which was received through anonymous preservice teacher feedback.

“On day one of this course, I was suddenly thrown into the real world of teaching! I had a real student depending on me to learn and grow. I was terrified. I grew more comfortable with my tutoring, started actually applying my knowledge, seeking out resources, and fully embracing my teaching identity. Instead of just learning about being a teacher, I became one.”

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