UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Unparalleled success is the prevailing reason behind the College of Education’s Professional Development School touting its annual Teacher Inquiry Conference as an opportunity for interns to share inquiry investigations and celebrate accomplishments.
Scheduled for 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. April 23 at Mount Nittany Middle School, the conference highlights and honors Penn State students who spend an entire 185-day academic year teaching with mentors in the State College Area School District. The students’ rigorous school year doesn’t conclude until mid-June, but their research will be on display during classroom sessions open to family and friends, and inquiry-based posters will be exhibited during the mid-morning Posters and Pastries session.
“The PDS program’s primary strengths lie in the authenticity of the learning,’’ said Mary Beth Henry, an intern teaching secondary English in the State College Area High School classroom of Karen Morris, who was a PDS intern in 1999-2000. “Nowhere else can a pre-service teacher experience the day-to-day reality of teaching as in the yearlong internship format.
“In the PDS, you don’t just learn about being a teacher, you live the life of a teacher,’’ Henry said. “Being able to follow (students) for an entire year and watch their growth along with my own is an amazing experience, one that you can’t find in other pre-service programs.’’
The secondary English side of the PDS program, like its elementary counterpart, wants to ensure that its prospective teachers leave with a firm grasp on the profession and its students depart as well-prepared young scholars. Having two teachers in the classroom year-round goes a long way toward that end, something Morris labeled as significant.
“Primarily, there’s the logistical side of the class where more students can get more attention more often,’’ Morris said. “Last year I was able to conference twice with all my students in a short time because my intern was able to conference with students, too. With two teachers, the needs of the students can be met more fully. I think the close attention, especially in a school of this size, is invaluable.
“Also, having an intern and mentor work together means that the one can hold the other accountable for grading, planning and instruction,’’ Morris said. “I know many times my intern would respond to me with a question I would often pose to her (‘what is our purpose?’) when we were planning. I wanted her to focus on that when she taught and she made sure I focused on that when I was teaching. Mutual accountability. The result was better instruction on a daily basis for the students.''
Because the PDS program is in its 18th year, secondary English students at State High are accustomed to having a pair of teachers in the room. "In my experience with the program, there are always students who connect in some way with an intern in a way they wouldn't with a teacher,'' Morris said.
"When Mary Beth is gone, they notice. I think they enjoy being taught by them (interns). Often they'll give an intern more slack than a teacher and try activities that they wouldn't have tried for a teacher because they are trying to support the intern. It's remarkable how supportive the students can be when the interns start teaching their units.''
An intern’s school year, while devoted to teaching, is equal parts learning. Henry said the school district holds monthly meetings dedicated to teachers’ ongoing education, and the PDS program conducts seminar meetings in which interns and coordinators discuss pedagogical principles and participate in projects that facilitate professional development.
Opportunities exist to attend conferences, and Henry spent her spring break on an educationally based trip to Sweden. There also are weekly inquiry sessions in which interns and mentors discuss critical incidents and other PDS-related items.
The PDS is heavily oriented toward inquiry; interns and mentors are urged to consistently examine their practice and its impact through classroom-based research.
“Seeing their teacher and intern devoted to inquiry and their own learning can inspire students to engage more readily with inquiry-based tasks or projects in the classroom,’’ Henry said. “It is evident that we value inquiry, so we offer them opportunities to engage in inquiry, not because we just want to make them work hard, but because we truly believe that is an important, valuable part of their education.’’
Morris said she and Henry co-planned and co-taught a choice novel unit that required the students to read a novel of their own choosing and subsequently produce two final products about the novel: a project that was writing-focused and a project that was more creative.
The project’s genesis, Morris said, emanated from Henry noticing a lack of “buy-in’’ by their students to the books they were reading. Because students weren’t reading closely, Henry wondered whether the students would produce better work if they got to choose what they read and if they had a variety of final projects to illustrate their understanding and analytical skills.
“Karen’s extensive grammatical and literary analysis skills fit perfectly with some lesson content, while my experience as a fiction writer fit perfectly with others,’’ Henry said. “Since we divided the load equally — including planning and grading — we were both able to create rich, detailed mini-lessons for our students that allowed for the kind of creative and collaborative learning that’s so difficult to achieve in a traditional classroom environment.’’
Of utmost importance to Henry is providing a “safe, supportive learning environment in which I can use my gifts for language and teaching to guide them as they grow and develop,’’ she said.
“The most important attribute I gained from the PDS program is the ability to adapt and change depending on the needs of my students. Anyone attending my classes need not fear that they’ll be stuck in a static, uncompromising class where the teacher dictates the learning and the students must keep up or fall behind.
“PDS has given me the tools and outlook I need to let my students’ needs guide the learning and the ever-ongoing process of inquiry,’’ Henry said.