Underclassmen in world languages education get a feel for teaching

“I am very excited to be able to have the opportunity to teach elementary students,” stated Whitney Campbell, a third-year world languages education (WL ED) student at Penn State. “At first it was very nerve wracking, as it was my first true teaching experience. I kept telling myself they are just first-to-third graders and I have nothing to worry about. Once I started my lesson, though, I was fine.”

Campbell is one of 11 Penn State WL ED underclassmen who are currently gaining valuable teaching experience in an after-school enrichment program for local elementary school students. The program gives juniors an opportunity to teach introductory foreign language to elementary school students in State College Area School District (SCASD).

The project is a collaboration between Penn State’s Department of Curriculum & Education and SCASD’s Community Education initiative. Matthew Poehner, Penn State assistant professor of world languages education and applied linguistics, and Donna Ricketts, SCASD director of community education, head the joint initiative.

Poehner sees the program as “a really important initiative, especially since SCASD, like so many districts nationwide, doesn't have a world languages curriculum at the elementary level.”

By participating in their third year of study, the Penn State students are getting an early opportunity to practice their teaching skills. In addition, children in grades 2-4 get an early taste of foreign languages and culture. “It's a fantastic opportunity for WL ED majors to gain extensive teaching experience and for local children to have an initial exposure to a world language,” says Poehner.

He explained, “Unlike most teacher certification programs, which target elementary, middle, or secondary grades, the WL ED certification runs K-12. For this reason we feel it is important for our students to have field experiences and methods courses dedicated to both younger and older school children.”

Lauren Craig, another third-year World Languages major participating in the program, aspires to eventually teach Spanish at the high school level. “I find that this program is working quite well for me,” she said. “I think it is important to have experience working with all different ages of students. There is definitely a lot of work that goes into preparing lesson plans and coming up with activities that are age appropriate for second, third, and fourth graders. The end results are so rewarding -- it is one of the best feelings to watch students learn and actually enjoy what they are learning.”

Working in groups of two or three, the Penn State students teach four to five children each. They are supervised by two graduate assistants, Michelle Pasterick and Alaska Hults, who are heavily involved in the program’s planning and supervision. Pasterick and Hults observed the WL ED students, provided feedback, and reviewed the students’ lesson plans.

Said Hults, “The program is very well structured and gives the WL ED students enough hours in the classroom to prepare them well for their secondary student-teaching experiences next year. The program is challenging, but these students are the next generation of world languages education professionals  -- so at this point in their training, it really should be challenging.”

Pasterick added, “This program provides a great opportunity for the Penn State students and the State College community to work together in a positive manner. It is a great opportunity for the elementary students to get exposure to a world language, learn more about the cultures associated with people who speak those languages, and hopefully have a positive experience that will impact their future choices about learning languages and interacting with people of other cultures.”

The schedule calls for two lessons per week for seven weeks. This year’s program includes French and Spanish; German has been offered previously.

“The more diversity we have in available languages, the more we can offer those students,” said Hults. “World languages students can specialize in bilingual education, English as a second language, French, German, Latin, Russian, and Spanish. We don't currently offer Chinese, but I know that is more frequently taught in schools today. So maybe if there were interest in that area, the program would eventually expand to include that.

“If there are Latin, German, and Russian students, or students interested in bilingual education or ESL, who think they might be interested in the program, they should definitely speak to Dr. Poehner about participating,” Hults added.

Originally, the program was held on Saturday mornings, and parents brought their children to Penn State. “However, we determined that an after-school program would allow for more contact time -- we could do it twice per week,” Poehner explained. “We also felt it would be more convenient for parents.”

The after-school version began last year. Because last year’s cohort of WL ED students was somewhat larger, the program was held at two locations: Easterly Parkway Elementary School and Park Forest Elementary School. Poehner expects that next year, the program will expand to include both schools again.

“The response from the district, including Easterly Parkway principal Brian Peters and Park Forest principal Donnan Stoicovy, and in particular the parents of children participating, has been overwhelmingly positive,” states Poehner. “We have also received generous support from Professor Jim Nolan and the C&I Field Experience Office.”

The project also involves two SCASD teachers, Camille Payne and Dianne Showers. “They are experienced elementary educators who meet with our students to provide feedback on lesson plans and also observe the lessons and offer advice,” said Poehner.

“Because we work with teachers from the district, we also design the units to complement the district's elementary curriculum, thus tying language study to material in other content areas,” continued Poehner. “Thematic units we've developed include world cultures and travel, children's literature from around the world, and the world of animals and their diverse environments.”

Poehner explained that the WL ED students take a concurrent teaching methods course devoted to the elementary grades while participating in the after-school program. “The program is unique in that our WL ED students work in groups to design a thematic unit, develop lesson plans, create instructional materials, and actually teach the lessons,” he said.

Pasterick noted that, “Some students come into the WL ED program assuming that they will teach language at the secondary level, and they wind up enjoying the elementary experience so much that they decide that that is the population of students that they would really like to work with. Since Pennsylvania certification in World Languages is K-12, it is important that the students have teaching experiences at both the elementary and secondary levels so that they can be confident in their abilities to work with either group once they head out into the workforce.”

The WL ED students are quickly adapting to their teaching roles. “It is important to keep in mind who you are teaching and how you will teach your material,” said Craig. “That is the key to success. Being mindful as well as maintaining a positive classroom environment are two aspects that we value in our class. Overall, this is a wonderful educational experience for us future language teachers.”

Campbell added, “It is my hope that by the end of the seven weeks, I will leave with not only my first real teaching experience, but also 13 little handprints left on my heart—from all the students.”

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Last Updated January 27, 2011