Student teacher takes advantage of opportunity to learn and grow

Jim Carlson
April 26, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Much of Ali Cohen's free time prior to college as well as during the past three years at Penn State has been spent helping children, so maintaining that frenetic pace as a student teacher in the College of Education's Professional Development School (PDS) seemed to be a natural progression for the 21-year-old from Short Hills, New Jersey.

Wherever there's a way to not only educate children but help them as well, Cohen's been around.

A service trip to Costa Rica, three separate internships in 2016 in and around New York City, LifeLink PSU and a host of service projects with her Delta Gamma sorority dot a resume that at first was designed for beneficence but ultimately shifted toward education.

"I actually came into college not wanting to be a teacher, I came in wanting to do human development and family studies," Cohen said. "My primary goal was to do social work. I actually shadowed a social worker in a hospital and it just wasn't where I saw myself because it wasn't as much people interaction as it was with computers and forms."

A camp counselor since age 16, Cohen grew up being responsible for children, and with grandparents, aunts and uncles being involved in education, she naturally fell into that discipline and culture, she said. "It's kind of been all around me,'' Cohen said.

And she's been all around youngsters with special needs. "I've done LifeLink PSU since freshman year; I go into the HUB and work with kids with special needs," Cohen said. "I start out tutoring once a week and they also have special events on Wednesday in which we just get together and play different games with them.

"I've been with organizations such as LifeLink since high school and it's just like, I love it, they love it and they appreciate it so much, and it's just so nice to be able to give something to somebody else. I think it's so neat that we can all learn from each other and it was a great growing experience in high school and it's a great growing experience here,'' she said.

Her path is linked to the elementary education curriculum in the College of Education, and she said she knew as a freshman that she wanted to join the PDS program. "I tried to get all my credits out of the way so I could do it," said Cohen, who is teaching in a fourth-grade classroom at Gray's Woods Elementary School. "I think I really became involved because it's such a strong support system that they offer.

"To actually see the breakdown of the classroom from the very start, before the kids even get there for in-service days, to the very end, and see the growth of those students and getting to know them on a personal level as well, I thought was really attractive. I've loved being in it and I recommend it to anyone who's in the education field,'' she said.

PDS students spend much of their winter preparing for the annual spring Inquiry Conference, this year to be held on April 28, at which they present their research wondering and conducting a service project.

"With the support of their PDA (Professional Development Associate), they immerse themselves in data, observations, student work, video self-reflections and more," said Holly Klock, Cohen's PDA.

"This investigation into student learning, student metacognition or teacher metacognition culminates at the end of the semester with our Inquiry Conference. However, inquiry does not end there. As interns walk into their future classrooms, they are equipped with inquiry, a strategy which will lead to continued student and teacher growth," Klock said.

Cohen's PDS project is wondering is whether you can incorporate service learning into the classroom and if it can enhance an academic subject area for fourth-graders.

When you combine all of the responsibilities a typical PDS student has, it makes for a hectic 10-month span. "Definitely this year you're juggling so much so you really need to want to do it to be able to be successful in it, and I definitely do," Cohen said.

"It's something that although it's time-consuming and it can be challenging, it's something you have a passion for and it's great to have the PDS community, because they are there to support you when it does get busy and they all are passionate about it as well," he added.

Cohen also spends time with the Community Education Extended Learning (CEEL) program. "I get to see different kids in the community. I work at the one at Radio Park and I go there right after Gray's Woods, and that's K-6. We just do different activities. Other student teachers do that and some college students just do it as a part-time job. It's a fun way to make some money."

A future, steady salary is always on the mind of soon-to-be graduates, and Cohen is basically applying worldwide.

"I recently decided that I believe I want to go teach abroad next year; I haven't decided where," she said. But she's applied through the Department of State; thus, it could be almost anywhere. "I would teach on a military base. I would be so grateful if I could get the opportunity to teach in a completely different setting than I'm used to, especially working with different types of cultures and families," Cohen said. 

"I'm also applying directly to international schools abroad and sending my cover letter for openings they have. It is a competitive position, so we'll see. If I go with the Department of State, that would be a paid position and I will be teaching. Some of the international schools I'm applying for, I can get a paid position but most European schools look for three or four years of teaching experience beforehand, and especially international teaching experience. It would be kind of like another year of student teaching, but I think a little more advanced," she said.

The skills Cohen has honed to help her in the future were polished in the PDS. "I think the biggest thing for me is the support that you get because you just have so many different people you can go to for so many different things," Cohen said. "And there's so much talent in different areas."

She said Klock and other PDAs provide constant support. "They are there to support you from Day 1 to the last day. They come and observe you at least twice a week and give you hints on what you could be doing and share resources. It's a great way to grow as a teacher," Cohen said.

"And I think there are so many different interns, so many different mentors, and it's all community, so if you're looking to observe almost anything, someone in the program will be doing it and you can go observe it. It's just a great opportunity to learn and grow."

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Last Updated April 26, 2018