UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State's Professional Development School interns are tasked to ask intriguing questions and find enlightening, research-based answers. Prospective teachers Leah Higbee, Krishawna Goins and dozens of their PDS classmates put their queries and subsequent findings on display at the program's annual Inquiry Conference on April 27.
Higbee, a College of Education elementary and early childhood education (EECE) major from Chambersburg, noticed that her Park Forest Elementary third-graders were indifferent toward each other at the beginning of the school year and wondered if they would think that it's cool to be kind. She formulated the inquiry question of how service learning can have an impact on their classroom community.
Goins, a childhood and early adolescent education major from Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, wondered if she could take seven quiet, third-grade girls at Ferguson Township Elementary School who were outnumbered in class by 17 boys and empower them to find their voice and a new level of confidence.
Those were just two of many research questions posed at the PDS Inquiry Conference at Mount Nittany Elementary School. That training that about 70 prospective teachers undergo throughout a full academic year is the collaboration between the College of Education and State College Area School District.
Higbee launched a kindness initiative with her students at Park Forest Elementary and focused on them recognizing positive qualities within themselves, others and the community around them.
"The students embraced the kindness activities and quickly changed their mind-set about the other students in their classroom and community around them," Higbee said. "This led my students to want to do kind acts within their school community. (They) wanted to celebrate Educational Support Professional Day and as a class we raised candy donations, packed candy bags and wrote poems for all of the educational support professionals in our building. From this, my students now thrived on kindness. They wanted to have every opportunity they could get to help others in some fashion."
Her findings, she said, were that service learning helped her students develop interpersonal skills such as teamwork, leadership and conflict resolution as well as deepen their understanding of community.
Goins thought her seven girls among 24 total students were quiet and wanted to help them become more confident "in the skin that they're in." She implemented a weekly girls' empowerment group and they would have lunch together.
"We talk about something that they are proud of themselves for, and we do an inspirational woman of the day," Goins said. "So, I either read a book or I show them a video of the woman or I read something that someone has written. Or sometimes it's the girls in our classroom who are the inspirational women of the week based on something they did.
"We kind of dive deep into what behaviors and what things did those women do that we can embody in order to become strong women."
Goins brought in literature and exposed the children to stories of women from all around the world and women in their community, and the students took it further.
"They come in every day and they're like, 'Oh, Miss Goins, I went to Barnes & Noble and I got this book about really awesome women,' or, 'I went to the library and I got this book.' So, it seems that they really gravitated to these stories and it's starting to change their behavior," Goins said.
"One of our students presented her research at a PTO meeting and all the girls were like, 'oh, she's like Marie Curie, she's presenting her research and making a change.' So, it's cool they're being able to compare themselves to some pretty impactful women."
Lonnie Koudela, also an EECE major and graduate of State College Area High School, will graduate from Penn State on May 5 and will serve as program marshal for that major. But it will be back to student teaching after that, and his inquiry question was "what impact does teaching animal habitats through an inquiry lens have on my kindergarten classroom?"
He said he was tasked last fall to create three separate science lessons as a way to focus on different parts of planning and also incorporate the content students are required to learn.
"The problem I consistently ran into was the fact that the lessons provided for kindergarten were designed when students only attended school for half a day. Everything was written in thematic units, which meant the format of the lessons was geared toward language arts," Koudela said.
"There is no problem with incorporating elements of language arts into science; however, it becomes a problem when it is difficult to decipher the actual science content. Expressing this issue to my science method professors led me to the realization that my sciences lessons were severely lacking in depth and purpose. This is when I began to formulate my wondering regarding teaching my next science unit through an inquiry lens," he said.
Koudela discovered that inquiry-based learning is intrinsically motivating, that teaching through an inquiry lens naturally lends itself to one becoming a better teacher, and that providing students an opportunity to have autonomy over their learning changes their perspectives on who they are as a learner.
"Only one of my 16 students believed they were a scientist in a pre-unit survey, but now 15 of my 16 students reported viewing themselves as a scientist after the unit was complete," he said.
Jordan Sharp is a secondary English education major from Exton, Pennsylvania. She's also earning additional certification in English as a second language program specialist (K-12). She said her inquiry question was, "What happens when I offer students in English 11 opportunities to make connections between text read in school and their own lived experiences? To what extent does it impact student engagement and comprehension?"
Sharp said she and her mentor prepared a writing prompt from the first day last fall titled "All About Me," which was a space for students to share anything they'd like their two English teachers to know about their lives that's shaped them into who they are.
"After reading these, I quickly realized just how many stories these students have to tell," Sharp said. "Some wrote about their home lives, jobs, relationships, etc. -- and they wrote a lot. I realized that I cannot ignore these stories when teaching these students throughout the year."
During a social commentary unit, Sharp and her mentor teacher offered what they called "text-to-self" writing prompts — prompts that pushed students to make connections between the text and their own experiences. "When reading these, I saw the same level and amount of writing that I did on the first day of school," she said.
"And when designing my unit to teach students about the American Dream in January, I knew that including opportunities for students to make these text-to-self connections was important. Thus, my inquiry was born."
Through her in-depth analysis and detailed findings, she said she found that students' stories have a place in school, that emotion is an essential part of the thinking process and, among others, she focused on the connection students made between reading and writing.
"Moving into the last unit in English 11, my mentor teacher and I are going to teach 'A Long Way Down' by Jason Reynolds, and we have planned for students to write in response to text-to-self writing prompts. We are offering this book to students to reflect their own experiences but also to challenge students to empathize with other perspectives that we cannot see ourselves reflected in," Sharp said.
Another EECE major, Mariya Stefanovich, attended school in State College Area School District and encountered many PDS interns.
"My inquiry wondering was, 'In what ways can I impact my second-grade students, in particular students with low motivation, to make learning interesting, applicable and relevant to them?'"
Some of her students appeared to disengage from learning and she wanted to build meaningful relationships with them and find ways in which she could teach students the value of being a lifelong learner and constantly being curious about the world around them.
She formed a group of five students who taught her how to play the video game Minecraft.
"They shared their expertise with me and took on the role of the teacher and expert. After I became more familiar with the game, I was able to use Minecraft as a mentor text for a writing project with this group of five students," Stefanovich said. "These students began designing their own video game and had to consider the setting, characters, problem and solution of their new game."
She also introduced a "Curiosity Wall" into the classroom on which students would be able to write down any questions they had or anything that they were curious about.
"As a class, we would then choose a question that we wanted to dive deeper into and explore," she said. "This was a time when I would step back and let the students learn from each other and the results were incredible. The students were in charge of their learning and I was able to support their learning by encouraging them to research more about their interests and by occasionally reading books, showing videos or stepping in to ask a question to deepen their level of thinking."
She said the questions continued to get deeper and relationships with her students improved.
While these students still have well over a month before their internships end, each called it a rewarding experience. Higbee said she learned the best teaching practices; Goins already has a job lined up in Loudon, Virginia; Koudela appreciated being able to witness the evolution of a classroom from the beginning of a school year to the end of one; Sharp said the program reflects a typical, full first year of teaching that she was able to experience while still in college; and Stefanovich said she's confident and prepared.
"Even though this program requires a high level of commitment, it is a program that will prepare pre-service teachers to step into the profession with confidence and poise," Stefanovich said.