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Keeping It Real: Preservice Teachers Meet the SOS Project

Written by Cindy O'Donnell-Allen
December 20, 2012

“I get that all these methods and standards and theories we’re learning about teaching writing are important, but how am I supposed to know if they really work until I have my own classroom?”

If you work with or have been a preservice teacher, my guess is that you’ve considered this question on a regular basis. I hear it from my Colorado State University (CSU) students, too. Even though Colorado State University’s licensure program operates on a Professional Development School model, integrating students into practicum settings as soon as possible in their programs, my students may have little opportunity to design and teach sustained curriculum until they are student teaching, depending on the freedom granted to them by their cooperating teachers.

This isn’t the only problem my students face. Most of them are eager to get on with changing the world through literacy instruction, but actual methods of teaching from a social justice perspective may be less clear to them than their admirable intentions. Furthermore, translating the ease with which they use technology in their personal lives into techniques that will support their future students’ learning remains a puzzling prospect. Finally, as the ELL population continues to grow in Colorado, they are nervous about meeting the language needs of these students in meaningful ways.

In Spring 2010, the same semester before the SOS Project began, I was acutely aware that assigning more readings that focused on social justice approaches, digital literacies, and ELL instruction just wasn’t going to cut it anymore. My university students needed a project that would allow them to apply what they were learning about teaching with real kids in real classrooms.

The Promise of Service Learning: Writing Grants, Finding Partners

I saw an opportunity to address these challenges by incorporating a service-learning project into “Teaching Composition,” an upper-division methods course I was teaching. We are fortunate at Colorado State University, the state’s only land-grant institution, to have a robust service-learning program that provides grants twice a year to faculty whose goals align with the program’s mission to “support the development of meaningful, active, hands-on learning experiences that promote academic excellence while serving genuine community needs.” Developing instructional materials for the SOS Project that aligned with the goals and objectives of my Teaching Composition course seemed like a good match for this mission. I also anticipated it would allow my students to enact teaching methods with a focus on social justice, digital literacies, and the writing needs of ELLs.

I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the solution, though, because students would still be developing curriculum for students they would never meet since the SOS Project would take place in the summer. To address this problem, Elizabeth (Beth) Lewis, Co-Director of CSUWP, agreed to let my students develop and pilot a similar curriculum they could actually implement in her high school classroom that semester. These were the aims of the project as I described them in “Developing Digital Pedagogies,” the service-learning grant proposal (service learning proposal #1 – developing digital pedagogies.pdf) that was funded by CSU’s Office for Service Learning. Here’s an excerpt of that proposal:

In this project, CSU preservice English teachers enrolled in Teaching Composition (E402) will collaborate with Centennial High School (CHS) students on a digital storytelling project entitled “Saving Our Stories.” In the spirit of Story Corps, these podcasts and videos will document the everyday experiences of historically underserved populations in the Fort Collins area. Throughout the semester, E402 students will research local history and develop and teach research-based curriculum aligned with Colorado’s newly adopted academic standards to CHS students. At the conclusion of the project, CSU students will share their project findings and recommendations with teachers in the CSU Writing Project who are also studying digital pedagogies. The project will

  1. allow preservice teachers to contribute to the profession,
  2. create a body of digital stories significant to the Fort Collins community, and
  3. help support CHS’s emphasis on academic standards, communication skills, and community service and involvement.

In addition to allowing the CSU students to invade her classroom, Beth also team-taught the CSU course with me that semester in preparation for teaching it later as an adjunct. As a result, we were able to plan activities for both the university and high school classrooms in tandem.

The Devil’s in the Details: Goals and Implementation

We organized the university students into five teams with each team responsible for developing a particular aspect of the SOS curriculum to pilot in Beth’s class. The historical research team researched local history on underserved populations in Fort Collins in order to identify a variety of useful resources (e.g., archival, primary source, print-based, online) that the high school students would find useful in conducting historical research. The research methods team located resources and developed curriculum to help the high school students learn to conduct primary research in the Fort Collins community. The podcasting team learned digital storytelling methods for recording and editing effective podcasts, and the video team likewise developed curriculum to teach the high school students methods for recording and editing digital stories using photographs and video. Finally, the Ning team learned how to design an effective Ning to showcase the digital stories and worked with the other teams to collect content for the site. (Team descriptions and assignment sheets for students’ projects and Igniteshow presentations are attached below.)

This approach allowed me to address the challenges outlined above. First and foremost, both the university and high school students were able to develop critical literacy methods and materials that they could immediately apply with students in an actual classroom. Students studied online archives from the Fort Collins History Connection and took a private tour of El Museo de las Tres Colonias, a living history museum located in an adobe home originally inhabited by Latino sugar beet farmers. 

In the process, they learned troubling truths about the inequities Latinos have historically faced in Fort Collins. They also developed digital literacies to preserve stories from the Fort Collins Latino community that would otherwise be lost. Though the materials and activities didn’t focus specifically on methods to support ELL students’ language needs, they clearly had a culturally relevant focus. Beth drew on the materials developed by CSU students on the historical research and research methods teams for the SOS unit she taught her high school class, and CSU students all visited her classroom during the school day to assist with teaching the CHS students how to record and edit podcasts, slideshows, and videos.

Most of the CSU responded positively to the service-learning project, though a few were uncomfortable with the ambiguity inherent in the process of developing curriculum entirely from scratch. As experienced teachers know, this process is messy and often overwhelming. It involves multi-tasking and, with a project of this scope, requires collaboration with colleagues, and coordination with community members. Still, some of the CSU students were so enthusiastic about their experiences, they applied to take part in the “Teaching with Technology” workshop that summer along with experienced CSU fellows. As part of the workshop, they worked with 4th and 5th-grade ELLs in the SOS Project in the afternoons and saw firsthand the fruits of their labors as they taught the kids to create digital stories.

 Service-Learning Redux: Capitalizing on Lessons Learned

While the service-learning project was not without its hitches, we deemed it successful enough to give it a try again in the Fall 2010 semester with some important refinements that would garner us another service-learning grant entitled “Integrating Digital Pedagogies in Culturally Responsive Teaching.” As the title suggestions, this proposal (service learning proposal #2 – culturally relevant teaching.pdf) focused more specifically on helping students develop culturally relevant curriculum that also featured genre-based writing techniques. In the overview I presented to my CSU students at the start of the project (Keynote presentation on SOS.pdf), I explained the following:

By completing this assignment and participating in the classroom activities that accompany, you will be able to tell future employers that you know how to:

  • Design standards-based, “culturally relevant” instruction (Gay, 2000) with the needs of English Language Learners (ELLs) in mind
  • Teach genre-specific stylistic techniques
  • Integrate print-based and digital tools in your teaching
  • Incorporate guest speakers and field trips into your teaching in meaningful ways
  • Collaborate with colleagues

I maintained key elements of the original program in that my students developed research-based instructional materials, connected with the Fort Collins Latino community, and worked with Beth’s CHS students. While students in the spring semester had developed materials emphasizing non-fiction writing, my new class of students in the fall focused primarily on literary genres. I used monies from the service-learning grant to buy mentor texts written by Latino authors, such as Pablo Neruda, Sandra Cisneros, and Gary Soto. Students drew on these works to develop methods for teaching genre-specific stylistic techniques, culturally focused content, and grammatical concepts to ELLs. I invited in Megan Baker, a CSUWP fellow who teaches social studies, to model how she teaches her students to write found poems based on primary source documents on immigration originating from Ellis Island. As well, documentary poet Jake Adam York visited our class to read from his work and describe his process of incorporating court trial transcripts and other historical documents into his poetry based on the Civil Rights era. These guest speakers allowed my CSU students see the potential for interplay between non-fiction and literary genres from both a teacher’s and poet’s perspectives.

I adjusted the project teams to reflect these adaptations. Students on the artifacts team developed standards-based curriculum to help students learn how to write creative texts inspired by photographs, found objects, etc. The documentary team developed materials to help students learn how to write creative texts inspired by archival documents. The prose writing team created lessons using mentor texts by Pablo Neruda and Gary Soto to teach students how to write and respond to poetry, and the poetry writing team drew on Sandra Cisneros’s work to teach students how to write vignettes and respond to prose. The living histories team designed activities to help students capture significant stories pertinent to local Latino history, using digital and print-based tools. Finally, the “all things digital” team created curriculum focused on digital storytelling tools, such as video and still cameras, podcasting equipment, and social networks like Nings or wikis. For whatever reason, students in this class reacted in almost uniformly positive ways to the project, and again, some took part in our CSUWP summer workshop on “Teaching with Technology” alongside practicing teachers.

I will continue refining the service-learning project for future CSU students because I want them to see the immediate impact of their coursework. I want them to learn culturally relevant pedagogies for melding academic and creative writing with their own students, especially ELLs. I want them to learn how technology can be more than just a shiny tool, but can instead actually enhance their teaching and amplify student learning. I want to create occasions for them to see how collaborating with colleagues can give the stamina to endure the often messy business of teaching.

I want them to understand firsthand that theory matters, practice matters, and that the two can be beautifully and mindfully intertwined. I want to let them know they don’t have wait to change the world.

Open service learning proposal #1 – developing digital pedagogies.pdf Open service learning proposal #2 – culturally relevant teaching.pdf Open E402 handouts – SOS Project teams .doc Open CAS assignment sheet – Fall 2010 .pdf Open coffeetalk igniteshows assignment sheet – Fall 2011.pdf Open Keynote presentation on SOS.pdf

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