Longtime friends Corrine Wickens and Elsa Glover were jogging together a few years ago when the conversation turned – naturally – to education.
What happened next reads like the script of a classic TV commercial for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
NIU’s Wickens, an associate professor in the Department of Literacy and Elementary Education, and Glover, a teacher of social studies and language arts at Kaneland Harter Middle School, each had a need.
Glover knew her seventh-graders could stand additional feedback on their writing for “authentic audiences” – in other words, any readers other than the teacher who’s actually grading the papers – while Wickens wanted to boost opportunities for her NIU student to fine-tune their teaching skills.
Enter the Internet and a fruitful collaboration between secondary and higher education that electronically places more than two dozen assistant teachers in the classroom.
Using the Kidblog.org blogging platform, NIU students and Kaneland students connect online to explore seventh-grade units of study, such as S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” and Lois Lowry’s “The Giver” or the Industrial Revolution and World War I.
“My students hold academic conversations with someone other than their teacher. This is a real cool thing for them. It’s more relevant to them. Rather than me just making them write essays, they’re interacting with technology and creating these virtual conversations,” says Glover, a teacher for 17 years.
“They really latch on to what their NIU mentors are saying and try to use it. NIU students are helping them shape their ideas and think at a higher level,” Glover adds. “Their writing improves quite a bit as well as their critical thinking.”
“There’s some status to who’s reading that writing now,” confirms Mike Manderino, a colleague of Wickens and her collaborator in the “virtual clinical experiences” now in their third year. “There’s an NIU history major reading it. There’s an NIU English major reading it.”
About 25 NIU students work each semester with between 110 and 130 middle-schoolers, who respond to four “prompts” from their college mentors.
NIU’s students, who are reading the same novels and the same social studies textbooks as the young teens, ask probing questions that require analysis rather than simply correct answers. Kaneland’s students, meanwhile, must provide supporting evidence of the opinions they put in writing.
The college students write back with what was good, what needs some polish, what evidence is missing – and then wait for the revisions.
“A critical element of Common Core is that to just say something is insufficient. You have to back it up,” Wickens says. “We’re really trying to help the Kaneland students think like historians and to think like writers, to ponder a historical time period and its significance, not just date regurgitation; to go beyond plot analysis to look at characters and language.”
Beyond providing academic feedback, Manderino adds, the NIU students learn how to handle the occasional virtual silence.
“Sometimes we hear, ‘My student didn’t post!’ And we say, ‘Yeah. Seventh-graders do that,’ ” he says. “Then we ask, ‘So, how would you respond as a teacher? How would you grade that? And why? Were they sick? Or unmotivated?’ Or, we hear, ‘Oh, they took my advice, or they didn’t or they misinterpreted what I said. What now?’ And we say, ‘How will you react?’ ”
“It’s a real collaborative effort to try to teach the students where they’re already at, and adding the multimedia aspect is important,” says Hamilton, a junior who transferred to NIU from Bradley University. “But it’s also a personalized, one-on-one experience that students don’t always get from their teachers.”
The young students are “teaching me how to communicate. I have to prioritize,” she adds.
“You get these raw responses from the initial topic, and as brilliant as they can be, they contain these tiny grammatical errors that, as a college student, you need to hold back and not nitpick. You have to ask questions that lead to the bigger ideas their teacher would appreciate them getting across.”
Hamilton gets it, her professors say.
“I’ve heard our students say they get to peek in the minds of seventh-graders. They get to see a wide range of students, and that type of diversity is the first time they get to see something like that,” Wickens says. “And, based on that diversity, they get to see what different kinds of feedback they have to offer.”