UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Just five years ago Danielle Zarnick was an intern with a mentor in the Professional Development School program that links Penn State’s College of Education and the State College Area School District. Today, she is a mentor with an intern.
The second-grade teacher at Easterly Parkway Elementary School is in the position to look back on and use the experience she garnered at Ferguson Township Elementary School to assist current intern Sarah Hanrahan through her 10-month PDS program.
“My past experience as a PDS intern greatly impacts the relationship I have with my interns,’’ Zarnick said. “I feel like I can relate to them in that I remember trying to bridge the gap between being a senior in college and becoming a professional. It’s definitely a balance. It is hard but it is worth it, and I hope that my interns realize that.
“I had similar assignments to what they have now, so I am able to reflect with them the value of the work they are doing in their methods classes and how it will directly affect their instruction, not just the next day they are in the classroom but for years to come as a teacher,’’ she said.
Zarnick’s background is comforting to Hanrahan as well. “Her experiences as a former PDS intern definitely allow us to relate to one another better,’’ Hanrahan said. “When Danielle was an intern, she found that she was very passionate about the inquiry process. PDS’ focus on inquiry is actually the reason I chose to apply for the program, so the fact that we are both so passionate about it has made our working relationship stronger.
“Danielle has given me many opportunities to try out lessons and approaches, and I’m sure her willingness to let me try things comes in part from the fact that she was recently in my shoes.’’
The relationship isn’t classroom only. The pair will join forces to design a poster for the Posters and Pastries segment of the 18th annual Teacher Inquiry Conference April 23 at Mount Nittany Middle School.
Zarnick and Hanrahan also were randomly selected to attend the National Association for Professional Development Schools Conference in Washington, D.C., in March.
“It’s an incredibly exciting opportunity,’’ Hanrahan said. “As somebody who is just entering the field, I find collaboration with others extremely helpful. I’m looking forward to hearing from other professionals who are doing imaginative things in the classroom — things that may never have occurred to me otherwise.’’
Between inquiry and the NAPDS conference, poster material will be abundant. Zarnick’s will focus on how developing an inquiry culture in her classroom impacts her teaching practice. “This student inquiry approach is something that Danielle has been working on for quite some time, so I am incredibly lucky to have been given the opportunity to join in on her research this year,’’ Hanrahan said. Zarnick also hopes to present a poster about what she and Hanrahan gained as individuals and a team by attending the NAPDS conference together.
The PDS is inquiry-oriented, something that Easterly Parkway Elementary School principal Mike Maclay says has positive impact. “We have a lot of other professional development within the district,’’ Maclay said. “But the notion of us questioning how and why and what exactly we’re doing with students, and that thought, that focus upon inquiry that our PDS partnership brings, is the greatest impact that it has.
“Actually, with Danielle and Sarah, it’s extended even to their students in their second-grade classrooms,’’ Maclay said. “It is wonderful to hear that a number of students come down and present their ideas to me because they wanted to put posters up in the school. That’s something (putting up posters) that I have to approve.
“So they came and I said, ‘Why did you do this?’ and to have a second-grader explain that she was interested in this because it’s her inquiry. I asked her what an inquiry was and she was able to talk me through exactly what it means to her and it was spot-on. So that was great,’’ Maclay said.
Hanrahan said she is in the beginning stages of an inquiry on student empathy. “My students are passionate about community service, and I am trying to encourage them to channel this into the way that they treat one another,’’ Hanrahan said. “I’m asking how doing nice things for one another can create a strong sense of empathy in children.
“Depending on my findings, this could definitely be something that I continue to use in my future classrooms. I think student empathy and classroom community are very valuable.’’
Zarnick employed inquiry as an intern and still uses it in her classroom. “Because I incorporate teacher inquiry into my classroom, I am showing my students that I am a lifelong learner, and that the work they are doing, even as second-graders, is valuable,’’ she said.
Zarnick’s work, specifically in teaching writing, was cited last fall when she earned a Conference in English Education James Moffett grant. “This grant enabled me to continue my inquiry into my own teaching practices while funding an inquiry conference led by my second-graders this April,’’ Zarnick said. “This grant and award is important to me (and my students) because it is creating more awareness of the positive impacts student-led inquiry can have in classrooms.’’
That inquiry seems to come full circle back to PDS and intensive teacher training. Hanrahan is well aware of the large amount of work involved in student teaching.
“As it happens, loving children is only the first step toward becoming a good teacher,’’ she said. “I’ve learned that in order to be a good teacher, you need to be able to channel that passion into everything you do in your classroom. You need to reflect on every lesson and ask yourself what you could do better.
“While it has been incredibly humbling to learn this year that I am not yet the teacher that I hope to be, every day the PDS program allows me to grow as an educator. I truly feel that by the time I finish the program in June, I will be ready to begin my professional career.’’