June 2010

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Teaching the teachers

Clarke County’s first professional development school is providing new opportunities for student teachers at UGA

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Teaching the teachers

Senior Jordan Smith of Albany talks with the students at her table during a science lesson at J.J. Harris Elementary School.

The bustling second-graders line up at their classroom doors and wait impatiently to go into the hallway. At 10 a.m. sharp, their teachers count off six students at a time and guide them to one of the nine half-moon-shaped tables set up in the hall. At each table, smiling University of Georgia student teachers anticipate their arrival.

“How is everyone doing this morning?” asks Jordan Smith, 22, an early childhood education major from Albany, as a group of boys approaches her table and settles into child-size seats. She holds up a tiny green figurine and asks them to tell her what it is. One child, barely above a whisper, says it is a fish. Another child more confidently insists it is a tadpole.

“What if I tell you it is a baby animal?” Smith asks them. “Do you want to change any of your predictions?”

The boys stick to their original hypotheses. Smith pulls out a piece of paper with the word “amphibian” on it and tapes it to the top of a poster board chart.

On this day in March, 30 students from UGA’s College of Education are at Judia Jackson Harris Elementary School in Athens teaching science to second-grade students. It is part of a broader collaborative project that brings UGA students into the school for more hands-on experience earlier in the teacher education program. The UGA students even take classes at the elementary school—twice a week they meet in a classroom for courses in science and early childhood methods.

“The idea is that having the students walk in the door of the elementary school on a weekly basis helps with the transition from student to teacher,” says Janna Dresden, director of the College of Education Office of School Engagement.

 

J.J. Harris Elementary School opened in August 2009 as the first professional development school (PDS) in Clarke County. A public school, its administration works in conjunction with the College of Education to improve the K-12 experience. Having the UGA students lowers the adult-to-child ratio, giving children more individualized attention. The UGA students have the benefit of working with the children without the distraction of other duties that teachers perform.

“We get to work with small groups of children for a short period of time without having to worry about those big events that affect a teacher’s curriculum, such as taking the kids to lunch or P.E. class,” Smith says. “This is a compact way for us examine our teaching styles and form personal ties with the children.”

The UGA students meet Monday and Wednesday mornings at J.J. Harris for the two UGA courses. They sometimes interact with elementary school students—such as when Smith taught the boys about amphibians. On Thursdays and Fridays, they apply what they learned to their field placements at other schools in counties across Georgia.

“I actually get excited to go to class when I know I’m going to have the opportunity to work with kids,” says Jon Carter, 22, an early childhood education major from Conyers. “You can read books on education to understand what educators are supposed to do, but you can’t know how to be a teacher until you’re in front of the children.”

The PDS partnership also provides professional learning experiences for teachers at J.J. Harris and professors at UGA. The K-12 teachers, who work with children on a daily basis, help UGA professors understand from a practical standpoint what does and does not work in an elementary school classroom. The professors share techniques and programs that are working at other schools in the nation and suggest new ideas to improve education in Clarke County.

“What do tadpoles do in the lake?” Smith asks with a warm and engaging laugh. She clasps her hands together and wiggles them through the air. The boys giggle to each other. Carter is the observing UGA student for Smith’s group and watches with hidden concentration as one child sounds out and writes the word “gills” on a yellow Post-it to place on the chart.

“Let’s say ‘lungs’ and ‘land’ together, and remember that ‘L’ sound,” Smith says, rolling her tongue and reminding the students that frogs breathe on land through their lungs. Her supporting student teacher Becky Fair, 21, an early childhood development major from Augusta, passes out worksheets and colored pencils for the boys to make their own charts of the amphibian’s life cycle.

The science lessons last 15 minutes, and with each rotation university students switch roles as the lead and observing teacher. The students meet to debrief one another on the activity immediately following the rotations, while the experiences are still fresh.

 

The students at J.J. Harris are among the poorest in Clarke County, with 99 percent of them qualifying for free or reduced-price meals. In 2008 a steering committee of administrators from the College of Education and the Clarke County School District began discussing a school-university partnership to meet the community’s needs.

“The College of Education feels an obligation to the people who physically surround the university,” says Lew Allen, the school’s professional development liaison. The PDS partnership aims to give K-12 students the skills and attitudes they need to be successful and improve their chances of overcoming poverty. And exposing children to UGA students might encourage them to consider higher education as a possibility.

While it is too early to determine the success of the programs at J.J. Harris, a 2008 report by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future showed schools in a Georgia State University PDS program had higher teacher retention and student pass rates than traditional schools.

“We are training students and putting them in authentic environments earlier in the teacher education program, giving them more experiences in classrooms than we have done previously,” says Julie Kittleson, a science education professor at the University of Georgia.

As they round out their first academic year, College of Education and J.J. Harris administrators plan to continue building strong community relationships and providing UGA students more opportunities to work with children in targeted ways across all content courses—math, science, reading and writing.

“The PDS school is about inquiring together about children and how they are learning,” says Stephanie Jones, an associate professor in the College of Education’s department of elementary and social studies education. “We want to make their experiences more positive and better.”