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Engaged learning class enables teaching in the trenches

Camilla Walsh/Provided
A character created by students at DeWitt Middle School during an after-school writing program led by Cornell undergraduates, as illustrated by Camilla Walsh ’17.
Logo for the “Secret Literary Agent Society” after-school program, designed by Erica Forstater ’16.

When Kelsie Taylor ’14 first enrolled in Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, she envisioned a future managing the halls of a Hilton, not a high school. But an experiential learning course in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences changed all that.

Taylor was thrust into the teaching trenches this fall at DeWitt Middle School in Ithaca, where she and 11 other Cornell undergraduates shepherded 20 teenagers through a collaborative storytelling project in an after-school program they helped design.

“It was a challenge and a struggle, but also fun,” Taylor said. “I realized that I really love teaching. As a result, I’m now submitting applications for grad school to become a teacher.”

It was all part of a course designed to introduce aspiring teachers to the profession in a practical way – Engaging Students in Learning (EDUC 4040) – as re-imagined by education lecturer Bryan Duff.

When Duff came to Cornell in 2011, the fieldwork component of the course was primarily observational; students spent time each week in a local classroom watching, taking notes and providing assistance. Though much can be learned this way, Duff believed it was a poor substitute for real-world interaction with real kids who present a variety of challenges.

With the help of a $2,500 grant from the Engaged Learning and Research Faculty Fellows Program, he started the “Secret Literary Agent Society” after-school program, and began to recruit sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders to participate.

During the first few weeks of the semester, Duff’s undergraduate students stayed in their Cornell classroom for lessons in curriculum development and assessment. In October, they descended on DeWitt in teams of two to practice pedagogy. In addition to teaching lessons on the basics of storytelling and managing group collaboration sessions, they led supplemental elective workshops in board game design, filmmaking and design thinking.

Another Cornell undergraduate, Camilla Walsh ’17, joined the group to illustrate the DeWitt students’ stories, which will be printed and bound as books. Seeing the characters they created come to life through Walsh’s work proved a great motivation for the teenagers, Duff said.

Sparking and sustaining motivation was a major challenge that Duff’s students faced. Classroom management was another.

“Before this new fieldwork, I would often play the role of disengaged or disruptive student in mock teaching exercises. I’m a decent actor, but not nearly as good as real kids who aren’t buying what you’re trying to sell,” Duff said.

Team teaching also presented its own challenges, Taylor said.

“Not only are you trying to overcome fear, build confidence and put into action your own teaching style, you have to pair that with another person’s teaching style,” Taylor said. “It required lots of balance, but it brought us closer together and provided some great feedback.”

One of the most rewarding aspects was seeing the DeWitt pupils develop time management, problem solving, team building and communication skills and develop social relationships, she said.

“It was really great to watch the shifting social dynamics and to see them all grow in their own way,” Taylor added. “It was a wonderful experience.”

Stacey Shackford is staff writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.


Insights from a ‘genius’

The founder of several small schools and figurehead for a progressive public education movement, Deborah Meier has plenty of insight into what students should learn in school. She will share some of those insights with the Cornell community at a lecture on Dec. 9 at 7 p.m. at 120 Physical Sciences.

Meier, the first teacher recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 1987, spent several years as a kindergarten teacher before starting her first alternative school in East Harlem in 1974, with a focus on fostering good citizenship. Several other small schools followed on the heels of that success. Meier has also written on education and keeps up a weekly exchange with politically conservative thinkers (including Diane Ravitch) on the blog, Bridging Differences, and her own site.

Her Ithaca visit will also include an engagement with students from the course What Should Students Learn in School (EDUC 4090) to discuss their capstone project: conceptual blueprints for their own hypothetical high schools. The students, who spent the semester studying a variety of answers to the question posed in the course title, were challenged to take a bold stand on the question and outline features of curriculum, co-curriculum and school governance that would embody their answers.

“One of the authors we read, and a personal hero to me and lots of other professionals who think that school is about more than college and career readiness, Meier will challenge my students to really explain and defend their ideas,” said course lecturer Bryan Duff. 

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