Archived Voice Articles

Undergrads work with grad student teachers

By Sally Jongsma

Professor Pat Kornelis is always looking for ways to help her students see that assignments aren’t empty exercises but practical tools for teaching. So she decided to have students in her middle school educational psychology class collaborate with practicing teachers to plan lessons that use “differentiated instruction” as a way to better teach children with different readiness levels, learning styles, and interests.

Dave Mulder ('98), a science teacher at Sioux Center Christian School, was paired with future science teachers to give them a real classroom and curriculum to begin with  as they planned activities.

Dave Mulder ('98), a science teacher at Sioux Center Christian School, was paired with future science teachers to give them a real classroom and curriculum to begin with as they planned activities.

The idea for the collaboration came to Kornelis after teaching a graduate level educational psychology class in which her students were also planning differentiated instructional activities. Since three of the graduate students taught middle school at Sioux Center Christian School, she asked if they would be willing to collaborate with her undergraduate students so they could create units for a real class, using lessons currently being taught. The teachers agreed.

Differentiated instruction is not a new concept and may be seen by some as simply another fad in the profession. But Kornelis believes that the concept upon which it is based—recognizing that students don’t follow the same “road map” to learning and therefore allowing some differing of content, some differing ways of learning the content, and accepting differing products to illustrate the learning to assure that all students do learn —helps teachers do what they say they believe: teach to the needs of children who are unique image bearers of God.

“I believe strongly that this approach is so compatible with what we believe but don’t always practice,” says Kornelis. “In our schools we say that children are unique image bearers of God, but we often teach them all the same way.”

In her educational psychology course for middle school teachers, Kornelis shares current brain and motivation research with her students to help them understand who middle school children are and what makes them different from elementary or high school students. But no two students are exactly alike. Treating and teaching them differently requires teachers to be more aware of their students’ gifts and needs, and it requires flexibility.

The differentiated instruction model assumes that material taught is important, inviting, and thoughtful and that all students should be able to do meaningful and interesting work, regardless of the assignment, the approach, or their skill level.

To meet the needs of different types of learners who are at different points in their learning, Kornelis says, teachers need to vary the way they group students and be continually assessing their progress—which is why Kornelis was so eager to have her students working with real classroom curricula and teachers who were also trying to implement such strategies.

Dave Mulder (’98) the middle school science teacher at Sioux Center Christian School and a member of her graduate class, became Kornelis’s primary contact, coordinating the effort from the teachers’ side.

“The undergraduate students were able to gain some practical insight into the workings of a junior high classroom,” he says, adding that they also were able to experience some of the “team” aspect of teaching in the middle grades they learn about in their classes.

His enthusiasm for and commitment to developing learning activities was helpful to both Kornelis and her students. The undergraduates were paired with a teacher in their area of specialty. They met with the teacher to choose a specific unit that would be taught that year. In that way Kornelis hoped that the time teachers spent working with her students would be partially offset by concrete lessons plans that they could use or adapt from her students. And she wanted her students to learn from classroom teachers what they wanted their students to know and do for that particular unit.

“In the past when I asked them to create such units, there was no sense of real buy-in,” says Kornelis.

The undergrads met with their partner teachers to talk not only about possible units, but also to get a sense of what the students needed to know and do as a result of the unit. Building on that discussion, they crafted a plan that was then shared with the whole class, who asked questions, offered critique, and gleaned ideas from each other. They then reworked the units and passed them on to the teachers at Sioux Center Christian.

“I found that it was helpful to make something for a real class, because we didn’t have to come up with a hypothetical situation. The possibility of my project being used made it real,” said Elizabeth Van Maanen. “I found meeting with a teacher helpful. She gave us hints and helped guide us.”

“This type of teaching is hard work,” Kornelis says. “It is much easier to assign students to read a chapter and answer questions.” The teacher needs to be constantly thinking about individual students' needs and how she can help them learn most effectively. That is why Kornelis also wants to encourage collaboration between teachers who can share units and ideas with each other.

The first time through any project exposes ways it could be done better the next time, and this was no exception, says Kornelis. But she is convinced that this kind of collaboration would be beneficial in other courses as well. Her undergraduate students found the experience overwhelmingly worthwhile, and when they presented their final projects, all of the teachers were willing to do it again.

“The cooperating teachers benefited by explaining why we do what we do to the future teachers,” says Mulder. It was also valuable for cooperating teachers to see a fresh approach to the content we are teaching. It was really an excellent project.”

Using what they’ve all learned, Kornelis plans to repeat the collaboration the next time she teaches the course.