Penn State's Professional Development School provides ongoing learning process

There is a lot of learning that goes into teaching. And the Professional Development School (PDS) partnership between Penn State’s College of Education and State College Area School District (SCASD) facilitates teachers continuing to learn while on the job.Professional development is a continuous process from which several-week, intensive coaching cycles can spin off among colleagues within the SCASD. And it’s all based on inquiry.

Penn State professors and State College administrators of the PDS program stress that teaching is a complex, multi-faceted problem-solving activity that requires ongoing question-asking and data collection within the classroom in order to understand the impact of educational experiences on students and learning.

When this year’s annual PDS Inquiry Conference is held April 23, it will mark the 18th anniversary of this highly successful program featuring Penn State interns who work with SCASD mentors for an entire school year – mid-August to mid-June – in elementary education, middle level education, secondary English and world languages.

Interns, which typically number about 60, share their inquiry investigations at the conference, at which there is also a “Posters and Pastries” session. That segment of the program features more than 25 posters and roundtable sessions that highlights teacher inquiries from veteran teachers within the district, elementary and secondary English PDS alumni who are teaching in a variety of contexts and professional development associates who serve as faculty in the PDS program.

Teaming up on not only a poster but also a coaching cycle are veteran elementary teacher Gail Romig and first-year elementary teacher Kate Hallinger, who was the College of Education’s student marshal at Penn State’s spring 2015 commencement ceremony. Both experienced the PDS program, Romig in 2000-01 and Hallinger in 2014-15.

“The partnership between Kate and Gail has been amazing,’’ said Zachary Wynkoop, principal at Radio Park Elementary School in State College. “They share a special bond in that they were both PDS interns. Both bring a strong desire to improve their craft in order to benefit their students. Radio Park Elementary is extremely lucky to have them.’’

Romig, who received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching in 2010 for elementary mathematics in Pennsylvania, is an instructional coach. She works with K-5 classroom teachers who are interested in professional learning that focuses on content and curriculum, classroom environment, instructional practices and/or assessment in reading, writing and mathematics.

Hallinger contacted Romig about getting a math workshop up and running in her classroom. Romig said that evolved into a coaching cycle that involved co-planning, co-teaching and reflecting on the experiences together.

“A coaching cycle is more intensive, requires more of a time commitment and typically occurs over a period of several weeks,’’ Romig said. “Because Kate and I were working so closely together during that time, we were able to assess the learning of the students and adapt and adjust as needed to improve instruction, thus improving student learning outcomes.’’

Their Inquiry Conference poster theme relates to constructing viable arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others, which is one of the mathematical practices of the Common Core state standards. “This essentially means we looked for how students listened and offered feedback to their classmates after solving a variety of math problems,’’ Hallinger said.

“When a student shared how they solved a division story problem, we elicited responses from other students and required them to say if they agreed, disagreed or had questions for their classmates. We served as facilitators to encourage the discussion and to deepen the understanding of the math concepts being learned.’’

Much of that information also will be used as data for Romig’s master’s paper. “My focus is on students constructing viable arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others, so the data we collected was student responses, both orally and in writing, to content and concepts that were part of the third-grade mathematics curriculum,’’ Romig said.

“I have a rubric that I will use to analyze the voice recordings that were collected during our class discussions. We also collected data to track student-to-student responses because one of my goals was to get the kids talking more while we facilitated the conversations.’’

Hallinger was able to use that data to help her students. “Tracking who was participating was enlightening for me because it allowed me to see who dominated class discussions and who was hesitant to speak,’’ Hallinger said.

“Voice recordings were also very helpful because we could see the progress my students made throughout the unit as far as how they communicated their thinking. Many of these data collection methods also acted as formative assessments, which shaped our instruction on a day-to-day basis.’’

As PDS veterans, both teachers shared similar praise. “PDS introduced me to a world of inquiry, reflection and collaboration,’’ Hallinger said. “My thinking was constantly stretched and it made me into the reflective teacher I am today. My beliefs about teaching were completely shaped and influenced by PDS.’’

Romig also spoke about going through an entire academic year and playing an integral role in planning, implementing and assessing lessons. “Teacher inquiry includes questioning my practices, collecting and analyzing data, taking action based on the data and sharing what I learn with others,’’ she said.

“Adopting an inquiry stance and reflecting on my practices have shaped who I am as a teacher and as an instructional coach because I continually focus on ways to improve the work I am doing with learners of all ages.’’

All music to a principal’s ears.

“The PDS partnership between the State College Area School District and Penn State University is an invaluable experience for everyone involved,’’ Wynkoop said.

“The relationships developed between the mentor, intern and PDS throughout the school year provide prospective teachers with the experience necessary to stand out in their profession.’’

State College teachers Gail Romig, left, and Kate Hallinger, the 2015 College of Education student marshal, work on a coaching cycle in the school district. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated January 27, 2016