Making A Difference in the Local Community

Most middle school students welcome the chance to leave school property as soon as the final bell of the day rings. They anxiously leave the school to head home, to an after-school responsibility or to play on one of their school’s sports teams. Thanks to a new course offered by Colgate’s Educational Studies Department, more local middle school students now have a real reason to remain in school long after the school day officially ends for help and guidance with their schoolwork. As part of the first-ever Education 421: Learning and Teaching in the Schools course, 11 Colgate students worked with local Sherburne-Earlville (SE) Middle School students identified as being at risk of failing state examinations this semester. Taught by Assistant Professor of Educational Studies Don Duggan-Haas, the course is required for students in the Master of Arts in Teaching program and is an alternative to a developmental foundations course for students in the undergraduate teacher education program. Every Monday and Wednesday, the Colgate students traveled by van to SE Middle School to work individually and in small groups with sixth, seventh and eighth graders in mathematics and sometimes language arts in 45 minute blocks. In the process, the class tried to determine: “How do students learn? What should they learn? How do we determine what they have learned?”Like several current Colgate courses, this course is built around service learning. It is intended to provide a service to the local community, while the enrolled students learn from the experience of providing the service. Duggan-Haas hoped that his students would be reflective in that service and that the SE students and faculty would provide Colgate students with new knowledge and insight in return for their tutoring services. “We recruited middle school students to the program not only through the promise of help in mathematics and more generally about learning strategies, but also by offering the students an opportunity to teach future teachers,” Duggan-Haas said. “For SE students, the course was about both learning math and about learning about learning.”Even though no one who enrolled in the course is pursuing a secondary mathematics certification, Duggan-Haas was confident early on that the basic mathematic skills required were well within the students’ grasps. Since this course has never been offered before, Duggan-Haas knew going into the semester that much of the nature of how the class would develop and evolve was uncertain and open to negotiation. One of his main goals for the course was to develop reflective practitioners, or teachers who are critical of their own practice in productive ways.During the semester, two goals arose for Duggan-Haas in which he had not planned for originally. “The first and most important goal is the value of actually getting to know a middle school student,” he said. “To understand the specific nature of her or his struggles, I think, is invaluable. In addition, the way the class has come together around the issues of making the tutoring program and the learning experiences of the class most beneficial has been very important.”For Duggan-Haas, the second emergent goal is related to the process by which the class has figured things out together, especially with the gradual transfer of responsibility from student to teacher. “I think we’ve done that well at the level of the Colgate student and are seeing at least in some cases that that works well for the SE student as well,” he said.During each session with the SE students, the Colgate students were expected to actively reflect on their progress and growth as tutors, educators and learners. Constant consideration was given to the kind of help the students needed, recognition of true concept comprehension and understanding of what makes a tutorial session effective. A main question posed to these Colgate students was – “What do we want SE students to get out of the tutoring sessions?”Several students carefully considered this question. Many of them had high hopes for the semester and were pleased with the end results.”Personally, I wanted my students to understand the main concepts of middle school math, such as when multiplication or division is needed, the order of operations, etc.,” senior Caroline Curtis said. “I also wanted my students to gain confidence in math to realize that they can do the problems and that memorizing is only useful once conceptual knowledge is built. I hope that we prepared these students as best we could for not only the upcoming Regents test, but for their future math classes and encounters.”Senior Allison Grabler agreed.”I think we helped build the confidence levels of the students,” she said. “Many students originally approached the tutoring sessions with feelings of discomfort and lack of self-esteem. By starting with some problems that we view as being ‘easy,’ we hopefully helped show them that they are capable of doing well in math. Hopefully, with a foundation of confidence, they will continue to carry these feelings over when dealing with more difficult problems.”Duggan-Haas looks forward to teaching the course again next semester with a few of the same students. The students who are continuing to work in the program are doing independent studies that have a somewhat different approach to the course. “Caroline (Curtis) will be continuing to work with one engaging eighth grade student and complete an honors thesis that investigates the nature of this particular learner,” he said. “Ali (Grabler) will work with one of the math teachers and a few of his students who have been involved in the program. She will work in the math classroom in ways that go beyond tutoring and the one-on-one or small group work of this semester.” One of the key concerns Duggan-Haas has is maintaining continuity for the middle school students. “Service learning projects that do not maintain a long term collaboration tend to not be as effective for those receiving the service,” he said. “In a sense, they are parasitic.” The class also meets on Friday afternoons at the Barge Coffee Canal Company for in-depth discussions on a variety of pedagogical issues. Group presentations were given by two or three students each week beginning in the later half of the semester. Subjects discussed ranged from error coding and effective assessment to textbook evaluation and the benefits of after-school tutoring for middle school students. In addition to getting to know their SE students as well as possible, the Colgate students also wanted to identify when their students actually understood what they were teaching and to help them develop better confidence in their math and linguistic abilities.”I thought that the class was very valuable,” Master of Arts in Teaching candidate Paris Miller ’04 said. “It was more than just tutoring; it involved much reflection on our tutoring and work with the SE students. Through that reflection, I believe I have grown in many ways – as a person and future educator.”Miller, like many students in the class, learned the importance of understanding one’s students on the whole and teaching who one is, as scary a prospect as that might seem. While she was initially hesitant to enroll in two seminars this semester, junior Cindy Ryan felt that she could not pass up this opportunity for several reasons. “This was the first semester EDUC 421 was being offered,” she said, “and it was made known that students could play an active role in shaping the course. I care very much about the region and problems facing the students, teachers and families in it, so I was excited for the opportunity to use my leadership skills to help shape a course that deals with some of these issues.”Ryan was also attracted to the course’s service learning component.”This service learning aspect has allowed students to become actively involved in the school environment, teaching us about the area, ourselves and our future work as teachers, while at the same time providing a service to the community,” she said. “As someone who hopes to teach middle school students in a rural school district and then potentially study educational policy, this class and the reflection encouraged through it has been very beneficial.”Other members of the class viewed the semester as a beneficial way to directly impact the lives of many rural middle school students.”After my second to last session with Seth*, he turned around, smiled at me and said, ‘Thanks,” senior Jessica (Hale) Cowin said. “That really made me feel like I made a difference and helped him with his language arts work.”Junior Tori Theisen appreciated how wholesome, boisterous and generally optimistic the students at SE were.”Even though they knew they needed extra help in math and/or English, they were always still in good spirits, respectful to us and pleasant to be around,” she said. “It was great to see my students’ math grades continue to improve during my time with them.”By not being restricted to the more traditional ways of the classroom, Theisen believes the SE students grew tremendously with their mathematical and linguistic skills.”It really helped that we got to know who the students were and how they learn best before working with them,” she said. “Oftentimes, these students knew what they are learning but didn’t know how to approach the problems in alternative ways. That’s where we came in.”Broad topics across subject matters concentrated on throughout the course included assessment of student understanding, use of assessment to guide instruction, instructional planning and ongoing professional development. With more of an emphasis on analytical writing than numerous readings, the course required students to complete reader responses, two fieldwork focus papers and a final reflective essay. Individual negotiation determined the other written assignments. Much of the students’ time was spent busily engaged with SE students in the classroom, but they also needed to be observant enough each session to address the school context, classroom management, the teaching of the subject matter, planning for instruction, meeting the needs of diverse students and assessment of student understanding for their papers. Members of the class include seniors Cowin, Curtis, Grabler, Margaret Martin and Kay Traester; juniors Curtis, Katherine DelPrato, Ryan and Theisen and MAT candidate Miller. MAT candidate Greg Passeri’04 and senior Brett Nichols also participated in the tutoring though they are not actually taking the course.As Duggan-Haas said, “By making [my students’] preparation rigorous – and perhaps stressful – I hope they will be better prepared for the work of a teacher. I hope I helped them along the course to becoming an excellent teacher.”The course also satisfies 40 out of 100 required school-based fieldwork hours for students seeking teaching certification.

*Some names have been changed.