New process of teaching literacy to future teachers gets rave reviews

Jim Carlson
April 23, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — What better place than the College of Education's Professional Development School (PDS) program for a little cutting-edge professional development on literacy for prospective elementary-level teachers?

Instead of listening to lectures, these Penn State students underwent training that included first watching a lesson being taught to students and then immediately teaching that same lesson to other students.

The PDS program is a collaboration between the College of Education and State College Area School District (SCASD) in which student teachers follow the schedule of a full academic year from August to June. The SCASD instructional coaches learned the collaborative learning experience at Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City.

According to Christine McDonald, an instructor in the College of Education's Department of Curriculum and Instruction and a professional development associate (PDA) within the PDS program, the instructional coaches shared that learning with the PDAs and, together, they planned to support literacy learning with the interns right in their classrooms in a way that would bring literacy to life.

Kelly Essick, a PDA in the State College Area School District, labeled it as immersed learning.

"It's this professional developmental model where it's embedded professional development where you are watching and doing at the same moment with students," she said. 

"We thought that would be a really great practice for our interns to be able to observe and watch a particular strategy or lesson and then go and actually apply it immediately with the hope they would transfer it back to their classroom."

Modeling a mini-lesson and learning how to do a de-brief culminated in a literacy training session during the spring.

"Rather than us sitting in a room and teaching aspects of a workshop model, we actually had the interns engage in this mega-lab, where they all had a chance to be part of a learning lab at different grade levels with literacy," Essick said. "They got to actually teach. They got to watch, they got to teach, they got to watch, they got to teach with a de-brief at the end."

Students then participated in a mirroring structure in which an intern sat at a table with Essick and a small group of students. Essick taught a lesson to half of the group and when she would take a break, the intern would teach that same lesson to the other half of the group.

"It was in the moment, she just got the lesson, she's listening to what I did and she's trying it out right away with the other students," Essick said.

"It's expanded throughout the year and the interns had powerful reflections about how this impacted results as teachers, results as learners, and as people."

The students said the hands-on experience and immediate turnaround in executing the lesson was invaluable, as was the additional support from PDAs and instructional coaches.

"In addition to observing and then using what I had just learned to teach different students, I was able to then come back and observe the same professionals another time," said Toni Cuccurullo, a childhood and early adolescent education major interning in a Gray's Woods Elementary School first-grade classroom. "After the second observation that was centered on conferring, I had the opportunity to put what I learned into practice again. At the end of the learning lab session, I was able to repeat this observation and teaching cycle for one last time."

Katina DeKranis, a childhood and early adolescent education major and interning at Radio Park Elementary School, also thought the process was helpful.

"These learning labs were so beneficial to me as an intern because they gave me the opportunity to learn a new strategy and try it out right away," she said. "This learn-and-do method really helped me to wrap my head around the strategy/method that was being taught to us. 

"The best part about this is that it improved my own practice within my own placement classroom, as I was able to take away so many strategies and implement them into my everyday practice."

The real-life immediacy was what was appealing to Krishawna Goins, also a childhood and early adolescent education major.

"That was an interesting experience because I feel as interns, we can labor over … is everything perfect … and we just have to go in and make it happen; it was like a real-life audience," she said. "I thought it was super helpful, too, that we actually got to work with children because so often we do our learning and then we have to go find a way to bring it back into our classroom. We do it kind of in an isolated manner and that gave us some real-life application in real time. That was helpful for us as interns."

Some of the school district's teachers expressed their approval about not only how the process helped the future teachers but also how it was beneficial to them. Instructional coach Ona Feinberg said the literacy training day immersion program added extra engagement, risk-taking, approximation, practice and feedback for the interns, but also placed a spotlight "on the amazing literacy work" that State College teachers perform.

"If their class was used for a learning lab, teachers were able to look through a different lens at their students, growing their own understanding of what to look for and teach in reading and writing," Feinberg said. "We also got teacher feedback that they would like to do more learning labs, and I think that's at least partly because when you watch a learning lab, you can't help but see the energy of that kind of learning. Since the literacy learning lab, we have continued to grow our SCASD model of learning lab professional learning."

Holly Klock, a PDA and graduate student in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, said teachers opened up their rooms with the idea of growth through vulnerability. She explained that teachers were vulnerable opening up their students, and the interns and PDAs and coaches were vulnerable in modeling the structure, and the interns were vulnerable in practicing right away.

Jaime Pugh, a fourth-grade teacher at Easterly Parkway Elementary School, also labeled the training process as a powerful tool for teachers and mentors.

"It was extremely valuable to be immersed in the same professional development environment with so many colleagues and interns," she said. "I appreciated having the opportunity to see my intern in action and applying newly discussed strategies immediately. Since we were both part of the experience, we were able to engage in a reflective conversation about the Learning Lab and make connections to our own classroom."

And Jen Tranell, an instructional coach at Mount Nittany and Radio Park elementary schools, cited pre- and post-instruction sessions.

"As part of the experience, we also had a pre-meeting to discuss important teaching strategies to include in the lesson and a debrief in order to follow up on the experience," she said. "It was important to provide the opportunity for immediate reflection on the experience."

Tranell also noted the importance of observation.

"It is always valuable to have the opportunity to observe someone else teach," she said. "It gave them the opportunity to see how a different teacher would approach a lesson and be able to reflect on similarities and differences in the way that they would approach the lesson."

Pugh's intern is Samantha Berman, who said the literacy training provided yet another avenue of teaching literacy.

"In my four years of college, the majority of the courses that I took had little to no interaction with actual students," Berman said. "These trainings made our learning visible, which ultimately made it feel possible. 

"Being exposed to what these ideas would look like in a real classroom made me feel prepared to take the task on with my own students in the classroom. Sometimes all of these ideas can be overwhelming and it is hard to think about which would actually work for the kids in my class. Being able to practice these, see the benefits, and reflect with my peers, I am able to determine what will work best."

Each of the interns said their students were highly receptive to the process, and McDonald said the program was energizing.

"Interns were passionate and they couldn't wait to go back to their own classroom. The district buy-in was truly amazing," McDonald said.

Lemont Elementary School intern Erin Schmidt appreciated the multiple methods of teaching the training provided. 

"During this literacy lab, I learned how to research a student’s reading and questioning skills, compliment to build on their success and support their knowledge, explain a reading strategy to help make sense of nonfiction books, model the strategy, and guide them through the strategy to help them make connections across multiple texts," she said.

"As a PDS intern who embraces growth and accepts responsibilities, I am beyond thankful for the opportunity to learn visually and hands-on in the classroom with students who also profited from this experience. 

"As a novice teacher, I plan to use what I now know about conferring in my classroom to give each student the tools that they need to succeed, to push them beyond their limits, and to help them feel confident and proud of their accomplishments as readers," Schmidt said.

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Last Updated April 23, 2019