Student teachers get early start on research interests

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Education is steeped in research and student teachers are finding that it's never too early to take an interest in inquiry.

The 20th annual Professional Development School Inquiry Conference April 28 at Mount Nittany Middle School showcased inquiry investigations that 63 interns worked on throughout the academic year.

What follows is a detailed look at the inquiry topics of five Penn State students who are part of the 10-month collaborative PDS program that for 20 years has linked the College of Education and the State College Area School District:

Alana Fitz examined how teacher-written notes of praise can foster relationships and student development. She said she was inspired to do the study on her first day of in-service at State High when she noticed that a colleague was pleased to have received a hand-written note of praise.

"I thought to myself, if an adult is so happy to receive this praise and feels so happy to be recognized about something special about them, how would a student react if they received a teacher-written praise note to their home?" Fitz said.

"The purpose for a teacher is to create a climate of care in the classroom and one way to develop these caring relationships is through praise, and one way to praise is through written praise." 

She wondered what her English 11 students would think about receiving a postcard in the mail, and she said of 70 students to whom she sent cards, 52 responded to a survey about the cards they received either for academic or perhaps social reasons.

"Students who received the postcard were more comfortable engaging in conversation with their peers, with my mentor and with me," Fitz said. "There was an overall increase in the level of caring in the classroom on my students' part, and mine."

A very high percentage of positive returns enabled Fitz to see that receiving a postcard helped students to realize that Fitz and her mentor saw them as whole individual people and not just based on academic performance, and that they want to recognize what those students bring into the classroom.

She also said that a high percentage of the students enjoyed getting the cards and that many still were in possession of them, and that it made them feel more connected to their English class and English teachers.

"I know this will stay as one of my teaching practices for the rest of my career, and it can be applicable to whatever subject/environment it is," Fitz said.

Patrick Ashton, a ninth-grade English teacher intern, examined something similar in terms of feedback to student. "I'm a very data-driven person, so assessment fascinates me," Ashton said. "Assessment is something we do at the end of the day — clerical work. 

"But the feedback you put on your students' papers means the world to our students. When you're giving back something they worked so hard on and you put that feedback on it, it means the world; it's like Christmas morning to them. It's sometimes the only time we get to communicate with our students after we give them that feedback."

Ashton cited a study in Norway in which a researcher sat in the back of a classroom for 60 to 90 seconds, observed how a teacher provided feedback, and wrote a 30-page paper about the different feedback that teacher gave over the course of about a minute.

He also cited his own teaching in which his class was to write a memoir, but the class first had to construct an outline. Many of the students just wanted to begin writing the memoir but Ashton focused on the objective which, that day, was the outline. "I do focus on the objective even if the students' needs might not be to put things into an outline," he said.

"You have to have a lot of confidence to come in and say this is what you need to work on," Ashton said. "I believe I'm a maximizer and I want my students to grow. They spend 180 days with me and I want them to be maximized to their potential. My belief is that feedback is the nitty-gritty thing that really drives that student growth. Feedback and assessment are how we grow our students."

Ashton said he followed five different types of feedback: personal, task-based, explicit, goal-based and inquiry-based. "I really liked giving personal feedback; it's [a skill] you gain with experience," he said.

Megan Robert is an intern at Gray's Woods Elementary School and teaches second grade. Her topic was to think about the power of curiosity, and her presentation was titled "Tell Me and I Forget, Show Me and I May Remember, Involve Me and I Will Understand: Creating a Curious Classroom to Enhance Student Understanding."

She posed the question to her class, "What kind of smarts are you?" and created a "wonder wall" on which students applied a number of Post-it sticky notes. Her objective was to rouse the children's curiosity and she asked them about what they wondered. "You get anything and everything from second-graders," Robert said. 

She also did a unit on magnets in order to activate thinking and intentionally create wonder. "When we wonder about something, we want to know more," Robert said. 

"Students said they like to try their own ideas and see how they worked," she added. "Inquiry takes teamwork and collaboration. It takes a strong classroom community where children feel safe to share ideas and take risks with learning and know how to listen and respond to each other."

Sierra Bigler's topic was … Sierra Bigler. Her presentation was titled "The Art of Communications" and she wondered what communication strategies can most effectively help her sufficiently plan with other teachers inside her first-grade classroom without taking away from instructional time.

She constructed a communications log, a communications journal and a building survey. She kept track of any professional conversation she initiated herself; that helped show her who she communicated with and how often. She reflected on those conversations because she knew she was a better writer than a speaker.

Her surveys concluded that daily conversations are crucial among all professionals in a building in order to foster a collaborative environment, and that the school district promotes that kind of environment. 

"In the technological age we live in, it's really easier to plop down in front of your computer or send a text message instead of having that face-to-face communication," Bigler said.

"Sometimes it's easier to send an email but I found that in the email I would ask the question or make a statement but when I would go to an in-person meeting, I could ask them how their day was, I could ask them about their classroom and have a more relaxed conversation even if I was talking about something that could be perceived as negative," she added.

"I also found that if there was any sort of confusion, I was right there to communicate and explain myself and prevent any miscommunications," she said.

Austyn Piepenhagen, a Mount Nittany Middle School intern who teaches German, took a look at how technology can aid in reaching students, in her presentation, "The Technological Teacher — Can Using More Technology Help Reach Students in the Larger Classroom Setting?"

"I had 29 students over 42 minutes so I'm able to give my students [each] roughly a minute of attention or an opportunity to produce language," Piepenhagen said. "That's obviously not what they need or what they deserve, so I wanted to see if I could use technology to give them a little bit more of an opportunity to get individualized attention."

Each student at Mount Nittany Middle School has a Chromebook. "I used a lot of technology. Google Forms, Google Slides, Google Docs … everything with Google in front of it I probably used," Piepenhagen said. 

Her students were asked to create a dream house, showing pictures of it and then creating sentences about it in German. "They recorded themselves saying sentences and going through the presentation. I was able to have them produce the language individually and I didn't have to take up more class time for class presentations," Piepenhagen said.

"Large classes are inevitable but technology can help be that extra teacher in the classroom that can provide that additional instruction or additional opportunities, and it's definitely good to use that to your advantage," Piepenhagen said.

"Technology is becoming ever more prevalent. I want to try to take advantage of all of those opportunities and use them to our advantage," she added. "It will benefit students in a multitude of ways."

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Last Updated June 20, 2018