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College of Education > News and Publications > 2020: 04-06 news > PDS student teachers making the most of their new online 'classrooms'

PDS student teachers making the most of their new online 'classrooms'

College of Education and State College Area School District have joined forces for 22 years to conduct the Professional Development School.

One early March day Becky Lucas was in her Gray’s Woods Elementary School first-grade classroom, and the following week she was setting up shop on a couch in her Bellefonte living room.

Melynda McKinney is an early elementary childhood education major and a PDS student teacher at Ferguson Township Elementary School.
Same for Melynda McKinney, who went from a Ferguson Township Elementary School kindergarten classroom to a bedroom in her Swarthmore, Pennsylvania home. 

And Mary Beth Raabe as well … one day in the Gray’s Woods kindergarten setting, and the next time school was in session, it was instruction from a guest bedroom in her nearby Warriors Mark home.

Julia Howard, like Lucas and McKinney an early elementary childhood education major, is from Pittsburgh and was sharing student teaching time at Ferguson Township and Easterly Parkway elementary schools. After Pennsylvania schools closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Howard chose to remain in her State College apartment and is working at a table in her living room while sitting in a large, blue spinning chair next to a window. 

Her new daily teaching schedule includes a Zoom meeting with her fourth-graders, attending other Zoom meetings, writing and creating lesson plans and providing feedback on student assignments.

Thanks to today’s technology, teachers are still teaching and students are still benefiting.

All Penn State seniors, Lucas, McKinney, Raabe and Howard are student teachers in the K-4 Professional Development School (PDS), a 22-year partnership between Penn State and the State College Area School District (SCASD). Student teachers in the PDS program are with SCASD mentors from the start of school in August to the end of the academic year in June.

Those makeshift classrooms now featuring remote instruction are where students, teachers and student teachers will stay because Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf proclaimed on April 9 that K-12 public and private schools would remain closed for the duration of the 2019-20 academic year.

The stark reality at first for Lucas was that she didn’t have all of her necessary instructional materials.

Becky Lucas is an early elementary childhood education major and a PDS student teacher at Grays Woods Elementary School.
“I do keep most things on my computer such as a class roster and previous lesson plans, but I don’t have access to children’s books at my home,” Lucas said. She overcame that by asking co-workers at Nittany Meats in Bellefonte, where she works part-time, for some of their children’s books.

“I have been able to use most of them, which makes me happy,” she said. “My mentor has more children’s books at her house, and she is willing to share them with me in video format if I need them for a lesson. Another really tough part about the remote learning switch is not being able to see all of my students. I love that we have the opportunity to Zoom with our students, but not all have been able to get connected right away. It definitely adds another layer of stress because I just want to know how they are doing and if they need anything. 

“As the switch to remote learning has started, my mentor teacher is in contact with students and families weekly. This is a time where she asks if there are any problems or help that they need. I do believe this approach has been successful because we have heard from all students at this point,” Lucas said.

With older students (fourth-graders), Howard and her SCASD mentors were able to execute lesson plans with more advanced technology. Howard chose Nearpod, an instructional platform that merges formative assessment and dynamic media for collaborative learning experiences. 

“I can create fun, collaborative, assessment-based lessons using programs from Microsoft, Google slides, Flipgrid, video games, etc. all in one lesson,” Howard said. “Each lesson and activity I create is unique to the objectives from the standards we are required to be teaching. Students love the variety and age-appropriate activities and games Nearpod has to offer.”

Mary Beth Raabe is a childhood and early adolescent education major and a PDS student teacher at Grays Woods Elementary School.
Noting that the same-old, same-old can get boring, Howard said Nearpod offers variety and options for adding funny memes and gifs to the slides. “My students tell me they look forward to doing a Nearpod lesson because it doesn’t feel like work at all,” she said.

One of McKinney’s challenges was creating tasks for students that they can complete without teacher support. 

“All of the Pennsylvania standards for kindergarten include completion with teacher support. In this virtual environment, the same level of support for kids needs to be approached differently,” McKinney said.

“I think my mentor and I are still navigating what this looks like. There has been success in SeeSaw (a technology-based app that creates a learning loop among students, teachers and families), where students are able to complete tasks independently, and also during Zoom sessions. Our team is still exploring ways to further achieve the levels of support they need,” she said.

A concern for Raabe, a childhood and early adolescent education major, was uncertainty about her role as an intern. “The most difficult part for my classroom specifically is trying to teach kindergarteners remotely,” she said. “My mentor and I are working to use different engagement strategies, especially ones that get our students moving to continue our learning. Last week, we did a scavenger hunt while on Zoom that was a great success in remote engagement.”

The PDS is all about inquiry, and it typically celebrates the interns’ systematic studies into their teaching practices at an annual inquiry conference; this year’s conference would have been April 25. 

Logan Rutten, a doctoral candidate in curriculum and instruction studying to become a teacher educator, said inquiry will still be shared, just differently than in a conference format. 

“For educators who take an inquiry stance, inquiry isn’t something that is ever completed or shared just once. It’s our way of life.” Rutten said. “The sharing of inquiry is a continuous process that can take many forms. Our interns are finding innovative ways to share their inquiries both within and outside our partnership. We are also sharing inquiry by systematically exploring a question that matters to all of us.”

Julia Howard is an early elementary childhood education major and a PDS student teacher at Ferguson Township and Easterly Parkway elementary schools.
The ongoing pandemic led to a group inquiry question of “How can we use inquiry to advocate for things that matter to us as we negotiate what it means to teach during COVID-19?”

McKinney’s inquiry is “What is my role as a beginning teacher in noticing and appreciating the joy in teaching?” She said because of “heavy feelings” in her classroom, she looks for daily positives. 

“The kids reminded me of who I was and who I wanted to be as a teacher,” McKinney said. “If I could find things in my personal life that give me joy, why not apply and find daily things in my professional life that give me joy?” 

Current events either altered inquiry questions or created sub-wonderings. Lucas said she altered her own question to “In what ways will building professional relationships within my professional communities influence who I am as a developing teacher?” 

And Raabe’s is “How can I use purposeful read-alouds to help my students become global citizens through an awareness of injustice and an activism stance?” 

Howard didn’t know she was looking to the future when she composed her question: “How can I use technology as a tool to enhance engagement and the quality of work for my students?” She said she and her mentor teachers vowed to keep a routine for their fourth-grade students. 

“We believe that keeping a similar regimen and routine, revolving around three core subjects, would be the best option for focusing ourselves and our students on education. I believe we have found success thus far, but we will continue to reevaluate as we move forward,” Howard said.

“Teachers are working so hard to help our students succeed and I believe that many people around the world are noticing that. With so many unknowns, it is hard to tell what will happen when this is over. I do think that it will be remembered how teachers worked with our communities during this historical crisis.” -- Mary Beth Raabe

Helping the pre-service teachers become strong teacher leaders is the overarching goal of the PDS program, according to Kelly Essick, who is a professional development associate (PDA) and a teacher educator based at the Corl Street Elementary School in the State College Area School District.

“If anything, this new remote learning environment has provided us an influx of new opportunities for our interns to practice being teacher leaders,” Essick said. “It has been nothing short of amazing watching our interns not just adapt but thrive in this new situation.

“In the PDS, we focus our curriculum on identity, teaching, social justice and inquiry, and being put in a novel situation, our interns have naturally been thinking about all of these ideas simultaneously,” she said. “I absolutely think we have a unique group of teachers entering the profession who will be stronger as a result of what they have had to adjust to during this semester.”

Rachel Wolkenhauer, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction (curriculum and supervision emphasis area) is confident this year’s PDS pre-service teachers will be able to handle just about anything in their professional lives with grace, intelligence and determination.

“Instead of complaining about the non-traditional schedule and huge changes to their personal and teaching lives; instead of lamenting the loss of being in their classrooms, leading teaching units they had been planning for weeks, guest teaching for their mentors after graduation, presenting at faculty meetings, or going to interviews at schools they’d so far only seen online, the interns adamantly said ‘we can do something here – we can learn something here – and we can help other teachers here,’’’ Wolkenhauer said. 

“They are going to be advocates for themselves, their students and for our profession in unique ways because they are being so systematic in their learning about how to become teachers during Covid-19,” she added.

From a student teacher’s standpoint, Raabe believes the school community is receiving public support since being forced to move to distance learning.

“Teachers are working so hard to help our students succeed and I believe that many people around the world are noticing that,” she said. “With so many unknowns, it is hard to tell what will happen when this is over. I do think that it will be remembered how teachers worked with our communities during this historical crisis.”

Jim Carlson (April 2020)