PDS Inquiry Conference brings out best in future teachers

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Professional Development School Inquiry Conference is designed to allow the program's prospective teachers to show off their classroom research interests, but the annual event also has a tendency to reveal just how important their upcoming avocation is to them.

More than 70 inquiring minds housed in 21- and 22-year-old bodies stood professionally attired and provided interested onlookers with polished PowerPoint presentations at Mt. Nittany Middle School in Boalsburg on April 29.

Those students will finish their 185-day stint in State College Area School District classrooms (including five students in Bellefonte, Bellwood-Antis and Altoona schools) in June and then turn up the intensity another notch on a job hunt that in most cases already has started.

Bob O'Donnell, State College superintendent of schools, welcomed the students by urging them to strive "to become that teacher that you always wanted to have."

Their job at the Inquiry Conference, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary in April 2018, was to expound on a topic on which they've been working since early winter. The students' themes varied from grade level to subject category and included wonderings, research, realizations and conclusions.

Brian Bondiskey, for example, authored a study titled: "Do we REALLY have to participate? Student Participation: Does it Increase When Given a Grade?"

Bondiskey is a budding French teacher who expected his students to participate in class at least six times each week. He kept track and the students kept an eye on their rising scores. "One student went from low to the highest participation in the class," Bondiskey said. "It worked out very well. A lot of students realized their grades were getting better the more that they participated."

Anntoinette "Toni" Bonitz is a ninth-grade English student teacher at State High and spoke on the topic of "How Do I Push My Good Writers to Become Even Better Writers?" She found that her students preferred written feedback with specific instructions for improvement.

"I noticed this (feedback) when I was doing my papers and I was like, 'there was no difference, so maybe it's me, maybe it's the way I'm giving my feedback,"' Bonitz said. "That's when I started doing this little project."

Bonitz got the itch to teach as a senior at Central Dauphin High School in suburban Harrisburg. "(My English teacher) turned teaching on its side and she'd start every day out with like a Google image and kind of either made us laugh or gross us out," she said. "So I kind of wanted to be like her a little bit. She turned teaching into fun in innovative ways and made us really interactive even as seniors when we just really wanted to leave and go to college."

Mary Kearney opened her presentation by showing her Gray's Woods Elementary School kindergarten class dancing to Justin Timberlake's "Can't Stop the Feeling," which led to her research topic of "Exploring Emotions in a Kindergarten Classroom."

She said she asked her class how they deal with being angry and how they know what emotions they're feeling. "Seventeen of the 22 answered, 'I don't know,'" Kearney said.

"I wanted to help them understand their emotions and express them and portray them to other people. Students were engaged and wanted to learn how to express each emotion and how to learn how to calm themselves down."

Kearney helped her 5- and 6-year-olds make glitter jars, a plastic water bottle full of a gel containing glitter that the students would shake and watch fall and they ultimately would calm down. "I know it helped me today a little bit," Kearney said with a chuckle.

Meghan McMahon also is student teaching ninth-grade English and researched perception among her classes. Her topic was "The Student Didn't Do the Work Again, I Guess They're a Lost Cause: An Exploration into Teachers' Implicit Biases in the Classroom." That thought process emanated from personal experience, because she had a high school teacher in South Carolina tell her to not get her hopes up about being a good student at Penn State.

"Who was he to doubt me on my ability when he never knew me as a person?" McMahon said. "From that experience, I knew that I would never let someone doubt me again. Things have turned out well."

As they have for the Wright sisters as well — twins Shelby and Shannon Wright, of Oxford in southeastern Pennsylvania. They started their education career at Penn State Brandywine and will end it as College of Education student marshals at Penn State's spring commencement ceremony May 7. Both have 4.0 grade-point averages and both are childhood and early adolescent education (PK-4 option) majors with minors in special education.

Shelby's inquiry topic was "The Creative Inspiration Station: Increasing Positive Views Toward Writing." Shannon's was "Increasing Empathy: One Action at a Time."

Shelby's Creative Inspiration Station (CIS) to enhance students' creative writing skills was a big hit in her third-grade class at Gray's Woods Elementary School. "Research examined how much students enjoyed writing or wanted to write," Shelby said. "One student wanted to it call it CI-Yes instead of CIS."

Shannon read students stories about empathy and kindness and gauged whether hearing about it could transfer to showing kindness in the classroom.

Both said they made the call to become teachers at a young age. "We've always just kind of grown up playing and kind of role-playing being teachers," Shannon said. "We've had family members who were teachers and some working with daycare, so working with children was just all around us."

And working hard was a big part of their academic odyssey to dual student marshals. "It's a very proud accomplishment, something that just reflects our journey as college students and how hard we've been working to reach our dreams of being teachers and just really outwardly express that in all that we do," Shelby said.

Not surprisingly, Shannon had similar feelings. "We also tend to be very modest about our accomplishments but it is a proud moment for us," she said. "It's working so hard and kind of having that competitive aspect between us, always kind of fueling how well we do. Just being there to support one another is great."

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Last Updated June 21, 2017