NEWS & EVENTS
Dordt College News
May 13, 2010
Once a month this semester, several English education students, two local first-year English teachers, and Dr. Leah Zuidema sat down for an hour and a half to plan lessons to be used in upcoming classes and to discuss their observations of previous classes.
Zuidema teaches future middle and high school language arts teachers to teach.
English secondary education majors, like all education students, take a “methods” course in their area of specialty, learning practical strategies and helpful techniques from a master teacher. This year, Zuidema, who teaches the English methods course, also offered her students “Lesson Roundtables,” another opportunity to develop as professionals.
Although Zuidema says that it took a little while to find a good way to do group planning, she believes it’s been a three-way win: the teachers received help during their overwhelmingly busy first year of teaching, the students got to plan for a specific class with real students and observe their ideas put into action, and Zuidema came to a better sense of what she needs to emphasize in her methods class.
Zuidema hopes there will be long-term benefits as well.
“Even conservative numbers show that nearly three in ten teachers quit or change schools after their first year; some studies show that half of new teachers quit within the first five years,” says Zuidema. This turnover puts a tremendous academic and financial strain on school systems and students. She wants to help teachers stay in the profession and also to thrive.
“Even though new teachers don’t have years of classroom experience, they know many important things they can pass on,” says Zuidema, who believes that the interaction between her students and the young teachers helped the teachers think about why they make the choices they do and stimulated professional growth. She describes their role as novice-experts. She developed that concept based on research she’s read suggesting that although new teachers benefit from a good mentor relationship with an experienced master teacher, they also need to develop confidence in what they know and can do.
For each Lesson Roundtables planning session, the group worked through a process known as “backward design,” or teaching with the end goals in mind. After the teachers laid out the learning goals for the lesson, the group identified the essential questions they wanted students to explore and then came up with tasks that would help students explore those questions. From there, they designed the lessons and talked about how they would know what students were learning. Zuidema brought helpful resources and the Dordt students brought the creative ideas they’d been developing and learning in their program.
In addition to planning the specifics of the lessons, general conversations about such topics as how to make literature circles work, how to keep students’ attention, and how to keep them productive kept participants engaged.
“Lesson Roundtables were very helpful. We have a creative bunch, which helped us come up with many engaging lessons,” says Mandi Dolieslager from Unity Christian High School in Orange City. “As a first-year teacher, I need all the help I can get. I was able to not only develop new and interesting lessons but also hear from another first-year teacher about her struggles and ideas. It’s like a support group for first-year teachers.”
Dolieslager also believes it gave pre-service teachers a realistic view of teaching and helped them to realize that good lessons take time. “I think it’s helpful for them to see that lessons dreamed up on paper often look different in the classroom.”
“We know that giving students conceptual knowledge isn’t enough,” says Zuidema. “Giving them an opportunity to make it practical helps it take hold. Learning how to teach well is like putting a puzzle together—you need to find the right pieces to make it work.”
“I found Roundtable to be a great experience,” says Kaitlyn Horvat “It’s helped me see the steps behind planning the lessons, the benefits as well as some challenges to collaborative lesson planning, and it gives real insight into the life of two first-year teachers.” Horvat believes that collaborating also helped her gain more confidence in her own ideas as she saw them embraced by others and fit into the plans.
“It was a lot of fun when we would get a really good idea and people would start throwing out more ideas until we would come up with a good part of a lesson.”
Horvat appreciated seeing first-hand some of the frustrations of first year teachers and seeing how the teachers handled different situations.
“The most valuable thing I learned is probably that there are a ton of different ways to teach any one lesson, but it is really important to relate it to your particular students. I also learned the value of getting advice from others when planning challenging lessons. I am glad that I decided to participate!”