School was in session on this particular Saturday morning at Mount Nittany Middle School and for 25 minutes each, 86 prospective teachers – with just a few steps to take before heading into their respective futures – were heading their own classrooms.
Many of their parents were there to watch them. So was their dean. So were their department heads and supervisors, their current mentors and their friends.
The 18th annual Inquiry Conference on April 23 was a celebration of the Professional Development School – a collaboration between Penn State’s College of Education and the State College Area School District that pairs student-teachers and mentors for an entire academic year. It enabled interns to showcase their research and explain why they question their students and expect responses that cite not only the what but the why.
Caroline Hagerty, a childhood and early adolescent education major from Maryland, played three songs for her classroom observers, a mellow and calming tune, another that was more dramatic that one might hear as background for a movie, and a third that featured an increasingly quick beat that got louder and faster throughout.
Her research topic was “Tune-ing In: Affecting Student Focus Through Music,’’ and she queried that if people listen to music to increase motivation, concentration and relaxation in everyday life, then could music be transferred into the classroom to have a similar effect?
Sarah Hanrahan of Rochester, New York, also a childhood and early adolescent education major, wanted to encourage her second-grade students at Easterly Parkway Elementary to develop empathy and titled her research, “Operation Empathy: Building Community Through Service Learning Missions.’’
She introduced Agent X on a video with her own lowered and muffled voice and her “spy” character asked students to discuss how they could make things better in the school and in their classroom. They made videos in which students thanked the school’s various support staff, and they agreed they wanted to stop classroom in-fighting and become better friends.
“By the end of the time they were doing things for one another,’’ Hanrahan said.
Taylor Manalo, a Schreyer Honors College student and senior from Pittsburgh who will serve as the College of Education’s student marshal at the May 8 Commencement ceremony, asked each person who observed her session – including College of Education Dean David Monk – to pick up a book on the way in and spend just one minute reading it.
As part of her research, “So…Tell Me What You Read!’’ she questioned participants about not what they had read in that short time span but in which direction they thought the book was going to take the reader.
Timothy Vetere of Pittsburgh is a third-year doctoral student in curriculum and instruction; the vast majority of PDS students are undergraduates. “I’m simultaneously trying to get teaching certification because I’ve always wanted to get that experience,’’ said Vetere, whose research was, “Are We Acting Today? An Inquiry into Learners’ Social Worlds Through Situational Role-play.’’
Vetere, who teaches Advanced English 9 and English as a Second Language as part of his PDS program at State High, showed video of himself acting along with the students. “I saw my students coming alive in the classroom and that’s what my research always goes back to -- how do I help teachers, how do I help students in real time, in real life with practical strategies?’’ he said. “Slowly they come around to engage more and participate more. Seeing them really kind of open up is really exciting.’’
Vetere posed the questions relating to classrooms, “Where is the laughter? Where is the fun, and how do you get it back?’’ To which he later answered: “I don’t know if I have a solid answer on where it has gone, but I just know that the students constantly feel like they’re reading, they’re writing, they’re analyzing, but they’re not perhaps interacting as much as we think they are,’’ he said.
“I think that there needs to be a space for it. I want the students to want to be liking to come into the classroom. I want them to be able to understand how important it is to be able to use these skills that we teach in our classroom, to enter conversations in whatever career that they go into and be able to advocate their positions from diverse perspectives. That’s what I would advocate for in every class, not just English language arts.’’
Research topics were diverse and plentiful. Among the wonderings, further questionings and claims, here is a sampling of other presentations: “Oh, What a Feeling…How Can Children Feel it, Say it, and Cope?” (Kelcee Benzel); “Project Based Learning or E-text? Which Method Works Better for Heritage Speakers for AP Spanish?’’ (Clarisa Capone); “Creative Freedom: Focusing the Writing of Students with ADHD’’ (Erik Rocchino); and “Shoulders Back, Give Them Your Eyes, and Project Your Voice: Exploring the Possibilities of Elementary Students Improving Their Public Speaking Skills’’ (Ali Smith).
The PDS program also is practiced at Penn State Altoona in collaboration with Bellwood-Antis School District and while students have been doing inquiry projects for about seven years, this marked the first time that a dozen students from that campus presented during the Inquiry Conference.
Another segment of the conference was the Posters and Pastries session in which past and present PDS participants created posters about their ongoing research and discussed it with various observers. There were 12 roundtable sessions as well in which former and current students also presented research.
One of those included Mary Beth Henry, a PDS intern and English 11 instructor at State High who spent a couple of weeks this semester on a cultural exchange trip to Sweden. Henry said she was intrigued by the fact that Swedish students have more ownership of their (academic) progression as they go through.
“They can elect to go to vocational high school or a sports-centered high school, or arts, sort of like a magnet school,’’ Henry said. “But each of these choices is equally valued by the community; going to a vocation is not seen like, ‘you have to go here to do this because you’re not good enough to go to a regular school.’ They’re going there because this is (their) passion and (they) love it and that’s what (they) want to do.
“I think that was the difference for me. If they’re exploring their passion that way, then they might succeed better than in a traditional classroom. I’d like to see more like mainstreaming of the alternative education options,’’ she said.
The countless options that the PDS presents its students were highlighted by Dean Monk. “PDS is a very strong and powerful partnership, something that we’re very proud of in the College of Education,’’ he said.
“My sense is that it brings out the best in both partners; it brings out the best in the College of Education, it brings out the best in the school district.’’