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Themed Learning Community program immerses students from NIU, middle school in learning

December 10, 2010

Freshmen from Northern Illinois University and students from DeKalb’s Clinton Rosette Middle School celebrated the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. through song, dance and poetry to mark the conclusion of one of NIU’s first-ever Themed Learning Community projects.

Freshmen enrolled in NIU's Ambassadors for Social Change Themed Learning Community worked with DeKalb middle school students on projects pertaining to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Freshmen enrolled in NIU's Ambassadors for Social Change Themed Learning Community worked with DeKalb middle school students on projects pertaining to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Dec. 1 event was the culmination of a semester’s worth of work that allowed the freshmen (most of them education majors) to get a taste of what it is like to be a teacher and to bring about positive change in the world.

Students enrolled in the TLC (the theme of which was “Ambassadors for Social Change”) took a series of three classes together as a group: English Composition, Education as Agent of Change and UNIV 101 (a one-credit course designed to introduce incoming freshmen to college life and, in this case, service learning).

Instructors of all three classes coordinated class content and assignments so that they supported work the students were doing with members of the Black Student Union at Clinton Rosette Middle School.

For instance, as students learned about being agents of change, they might have written papers on that topic as part of their composition course.

During the semester, the NIU students met with the Clinton Rosette students four times. Together they studied the “I Have a Dream” speech, with the NIU students helping the middle school students understand not only its historical significance, but also how to relate it to their lives.

The middle school students did some teaching of their own, said LaMetra Curry, coordinator for recruitment services in the NIU College of Education, who taught the UNIV 101 class.

Students from Clinton Rosette Middle School practice a dance routine based on Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

“When they began talking about their presentations, the college students were thinking in terms of speeches and presentations, but the Clinton Rosette students convinced them that they could be more creative and urged them to incorporate dance and music. They got them to think outside of the box,” Curry said.

In addition to developing those presentations, as well as teaching the middle school students some research and writing skills, the NIU students performed another important duty: getting the Clinton Rosette students to start thinking about college as a possibility.

“Many of the middle school students didn’t feel like NIU was a place they could aspire to. They were amazed at what they found when they came to campus. Many said that it was a life-changing event,” said Curry.

The college students were also profoundly touched by the experience.

“People told me that for the first two years of college all you do is take general education courses that you won’t remember,” said Mike Theodore. “Well, I’m pretty sure this experience turned that idea on its head. It was an experience that I will never forget and it reinforced for me that I definitely want to become a teacher.”

Another student said that he came to college planning to major in business, but was inspired by his TLC experience (particularly visits to inner city Chicago schools that were part of the class) to switch his major to education.

Such extraordinary experiences were a bonus to what was already a successful first run of the TLC program, NIU Vice Provost Earl “Gip” Seaver said.

“We hope that our students learned that the university experience isn’t just about going to classes,” Seaver said. “It’s about learning how to work in teams and collaborate – and these students got that chance to experience that during their first semester, which is remarkable.”

NIU offered a second TLC this fall, this one built around the study of climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, energy use and sustainable use of the planet’s resources. NIU plans to expand the menu of TLC options in the future.