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Future teachers teach for a day

By Sally Jongsma

Students in Dr. Ed Starkenburg’s class “Teaching Sciences in the Elementary and Middle School” are spreading out in pairs to schools across Sioux County this spring. They’re teaming up with the Sioux County Extension Service to teach a science unit titled “Eating Healthy and Having Fun” to third graders. And students in Professors Tim Van Soelen and Dennis De Jong’s “Teaching Mathematics in the Elementary and Middle School” took over the classrooms of Hull Christian School on February 17 to teach units on mathematics and help raise students’ curiosity about math.

Suzi Buiter, a sophomore elementary education major from Byron Center, Michigan, played math games with second graders at Hull Christian School as part of a teaching assignment for her methods class.

Suzi Buiter, a sophomore elementary education major from Byron Center, Michigan, played math games with second graders at Hull Christian School as part of a teaching assignment for her methods class.

“Watching students teach a unit gives a better way to assess a lesson plan,” Van Soelen says about his students’ afternoon at Hull Christian School. But that was only one part of his aim. He also wanted to serve the school. Van Soelen proposed having his class of nearly forty students come into the school for an afternoon so that teachers could have what is called an “in-service” day, a day when they could participate in teacher development activities without having to cancel classes.

The Dordt professors worked with Principal Ryan Zonneveld (’96) to organize an afternoon where groups of three students planned a math lesson for each class, based on what the class was currently studying. Having them work in groups took some of the pressure off being in charge of the class, Van Soelen believes.

“You need to set the hook and get them interested in what they’re going to be doing for the afternoon,” he told his students.

After presenting the lesson, the Dordt students spent the second half of the afternoon playing math games with their elementary students. The education students came up with a variety of activities appropriate for the grade level they were teaching, encouraging the children to explore and have fun with math.

This was not just diversion, Van Soelen says. One of the important things he tries to do is help people at all levels get past mathphobia.

“People aren’t just good or bad at math,” he says. “They’ve usually had unsuccessful experiences.” These are sometimes made worse by competitive, individualized classrooms and pressure to get good grades rather than take the time to explore and understand.

Van Soelen knows the importance of helping students think differently about math. Many of his students come into the class somewhat mathphobic.

“Many are quick to share that they’re no good at math—and our society simply accepts that response.” Van Soelen tries to give them a broader understanding of mathematics that goes beyond simply number crunching and computation.

At the beginning of the semester, he asks them to identify a color that describes mathematics. Most list black or gray.

“Math is about problem solving, logic, and reasoning, among other things,” he tells them. “They all think they’re pretty good problem solvers so this helps them get started.” He tries to get them to see mathematics as something creative, something to enjoy. Mathematics isn’t computing simple right and wrong answers, but finding one of what may be many ways to solve a concrete problem. He hopes that a project like the one they did on February 17 takes away some anxiety and helps them see that they can have fun doing math too.

Aaron Bogaard, an elementary education major from Lynden, Washington, helped a group of fourth grade boys discover mathematics through games and puzzles.

Aaron Bogaard, an elementary education major from Lynden, Washington, helped a group of fourth grade boys discover mathematics through games and puzzles.

The experience gave Dordt students an opportunity to do something that De Jong and Van Soelen have stressed repeatedly—to use ideas from other classes in their math lessons. De Jong adds, “It was good for students to be reminded that students are not all at the same level, do not all have the same motivation to learn, and do not gain understanding at the same rate.” 

“From my perspective the event was wonderful, better than anticipated,” Van Soelen says. “I think it was an excellent authentic assessment of what we have been studying.”

“Students also found out how important the planning part of teaching is. We had discussed the quote 'fail to plan, plan to fail’ in class but an activity such as this gives credence to the saying. Students had planned well and realized what might have happened if they hadn’t.”

In his response to the day at Hull Christian School, Jake Van Dam put it this way, “Sometimes, all of my class work makes me forget why I want to be a teacher. This field experience reminded me.”

Van Soelen has further proof that what he is doing is bearing fruit. The last time he asked them for a color to describe mathematics he received responses such as “tie-dyed” or “rainbow.”

Starkenburg thinks cooperating with the Extension Service is a great opportunity. “For many students it is difficult to focus on how they’re teaching and what they’re teaching the first few times they are in front of a class,” he says. Focusing on teaching strategies, class management, and relating to students is easier if they don’t have to worry about whether they have prepared a good lesson.

Before they go into the classroom, Starkenburg’s students are trained by the local Extension Service. Using games, hands-on activities, and snacks, the unit teaches students about such things as the food group pyramid and healthy food choices. They talk about the importance of exercise—movement and play—and model it. And they talk about such things as serving size, what kinds of foods are healthy, and what to eat for breakfast.

Starkenburg believes that by using “tried and true” activities, students are more likely to have successful early teaching experiences. Success breeds confidence and is a good motivator, he adds.

Teaching for the Extension Service has other benefits too. Students find out about some valuable curriculum resources, says Starkenburg. He used some of the Extension Service units when he taught fourth graders.

“This curriculum does an excellent job of promoting stewardship and teaching children how to take care of the resources God gave us,” he says.

What may be as important as any of these benefits is the fact that it is a science unit.

“Many elementary and middle school teachers aren’t comfortable with the science part of their load,” he says. He believes they feel they don’t know enough, which is probably because they didn’t enjoy science themselves. This project gives them a successful first experience with teaching science.

“Children go into school loving nature and science. By the time they graduate from high school, many hate it,” he says. “Too often they say they have had to memorize facts that don’t seem to have any connection to their lives.”

Starkenburg can relate. He never liked science until he started teaching it and doing interesting things with his students. “You need to inspire curiosity and a sense of wonder about the world to get students interested,” he says.

The “Eating Healthy, Having Fun” unit also models what Starkenburg believes is an important teaching strategy—asking questions.

“We’ve somehow taught children to think that asking questions means they are ignorant. But, especially in science, you need to start there. That’s how you find out how things work.” Starkenburg tries to model this strategy as he teaches future teachers. “The number one determiner of how people will teach is how they’ve been taught,” says Starkenburg. That can create a barrier to change. While he can’t undo ineffective teaching some of his students may have experienced, he can model what he believes is a more effective way in his methods classes and hope his students can make it stick.

“I understand that it is easier to teach the old fashioned way, memorizing facts from the textbook. New teachers, especially, often find themselves caught in a time crunch,” he says, but teaching for the test is not the same as teaching for wonder and understanding.

Knowing how success breeds confidence, Van Soelen, De Jong, and Starkenburg are enthusiastic about using these kinds of teaching opportunities for their students.