It was a win-win situation born from the most unpredictable circumstances for a dozen University of Tennessee, Knoxville, teacher education students and Centro Hispano, a local nonprofit serving Latino youth and families.
The two groups recently came together to deliver an online education program for 40 kindergarten through eighth-grade English as a Second Language students in Knox and surrounding counties.
After Tennessee public schools closed in March, a dozen students in the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences seeking licensure as ESL instructors had their yearlong internships at elementary, middle, and secondary schools cut short.
“Distraught doesn’t really cover how I felt not being able to go back,” said Deming Callahan, a master’s degree student seeking dual licensure in elementary and ESL education who had been placed at Alcoa Elementary, Maryville Middle, and Maryville High School.
Nils Jaekel, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Theory and Practice in Teacher Education, and PhD student Elizabeth Fincher, who supervise Callahan and other teacher education majors in ESL and world languages, thought about how they could make up the teaching hours required for licensure.
Jaekel called Megan Barolet-Fogarty, youth and family engagement director for Centro Hispano, who was already looking for a way to adapt the organization’s afterschool program to serve students virtually.
“How can UT support what you’re doing?” Jaekel asked.
Before long, Jaekel’s interns were on Zoom calls with Centro Hispano’s staff and assigned to their classes.
“I was really nervous at first,” said Dawson Davies, a master’s student in teacher education who teaches ESL students at Northwest Middle School and Vine Middle Magnet School. “I was assigned kindergarten and first grade, and I had never taught either of those grades before.”
Aware of the potential challenges, Centro Hispano, which relies on UT volunteers and interns to support many of its programs, was clear with students. From the outset, the organization put forward only two goals: provide students learning English, who may not have access to the language at home with their families, an opportunity to extend their school year and, most importantly, have fun.
“All our learning has to be interactive,” Barolet-Fogarty said. “We’re not sitting students down for tutoring or to do worksheets. If we do that, we completely lose them. Learning has to be fun in order to engage multiple language levels and age groups in one setting.”
Since they began in late March, each week has a different thematic area—STEM, underwater life, inventors—identified by Centro Hispano’s staff.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, UT interns use Zoom to teach for one to one-and-a-half hours, depending on the age group. On Wednesdays and Fridays, they provide assignments students can complete on their own time. All of the daily activities and assignments for each grade level are made available weekly on a Google Site.
Although Callahan and Davies hadn’t expected to teach under such nontraditional circumstances a month before graduating, the experience has proven more than rewarding.
“We’re giving ourselves and these students a break from this unknown experience we’re living through,” Davies said. “The kids are able to socialize for an hour. Their parents get a break. And this is getting all of us comfortable with technology we may use again for teaching and learning online.”
Teaching students with differing access to resources—some have a pen and paper, others have Chromebooks borrowed from Centro Hispano, others rely on their parents or older siblings’ tablets or cell phones—has even forced the interns to be more creative in their instruction.
Callahan has taken her students on virtual field trips of a zoo and aquarium. Teaching on the topic of ecosystems, she asked them to go through their own homes and pick out items in their ecosystem they use every day. After a lesson on germs, she had them write down how they would instruct a member of their family to wash their hands, then actually go and have them follow the instructions.
She and her co-teacher created a student dictionary, too. At the beginning of every class, they ask students a new question: first their names, then their favorite colors or animals, and progressing until they formed a picture of who the students are as individuals.
“It gets every child talking right at the beginning,” Callahan said. “It helps build relationships, so they feel comfortable when you ask them bigger questions, like: ‘Do you know why we’re learning this way and not in your school?'”
For their Earth Day lesson, Davies and his co-teacher asked students about what the Earth provides them and what they could do to give back. On the topic of recycling, he shared his screen, showing a Google Slide of a recycling bin and a compost pile, then his co-teacher asked students where different items—plastic bottles, magazines, banana peels—should go, while Davies dragged the item to a pile each student built. If a student wasn’t sure, another would hop in and help. Sometimes an older sibling might even join to lend a hand.
The teaching experience not only becomes more interactive this way, but it’s also become more personal for both the teacher and the student. Teachers are given a window in the lives and the families of students in ways that are impossible in a classroom setting.
“By bringing the classroom into a student’s living room, you get much more insight into their lives and needs than you’d get in a short-term internship placement,” said Jaekel. “On the other end, the students get to see their teachers in their homes, too. It’s so much more personal.”
To support the interns, Jaekel and Fincher set up a two-hour Wednesday seminar for them to share what they’re learning and brainstorm or problem solve together. Mentor teachers from previous in-classroom placements participate and share their knowledge.
“Not all of us are going to be ESL teachers,” Davies said. “But there’s almost a 100-percent chance we’ll have at least one student who is an English language learner in one of our classes. This experience is going to help us be better teachers.”
Learning how to use Zoom, virtual learning tools, and screen sharing has also made interns more versatile, which may prove essential in the future as opportunities for online education expand beyond the time of COVID-19.
“It’s different, but now I know it’s possible,” said Callahan, who starts a job as an elementary school teacher with Murfreesboro City Schools in August.
Parents, who have watched their students on their in-home scavenger hunts and listened to their hand-washing instructions, have been delighted at how engaged their children have been with their learning. It has excited Barolet-Fogarty and her team at Centro Hispano about the future, for both their partnerships with UT and the educational growth of their students.
“Without a doubt, we’ve been able to serve more kids and at a higher quality because of this collaboration,” Barolet-Fogarty said. “It’s heartwarming for me to know our kids are not going to be working to make up six months of learning loss. They’ve not lost this semester.”
The joint program will continue through May 15.
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