Would you rather have hands for feet – or feet for hands? Would you rather have the hiccups for the rest of your life – or the feeling that you’re about to sneeze? Would you rather eat brownies for the rest of your life – or cookies?
Nearly 100 seventh-graders from DeKalb’s Clinton Rosette Middle School pondered those questions and more recently during a morning of fun, games and, yes, learning at Anderson Hall.
Their visit to the NIU College of Education on Wednesday, Oct. 25, was spent with middle level teaching and learning majors, who conceptualized, designed and delivered activities geared toward one goal: team building.
It’s a critical ingredient of successful middle schools, where students typically receive their first exposure to moving individually from classroom to classroom and teacher to teacher.
“One of the key concepts of middle school is team building,” says Donna Werderich, acting chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and coordinator of the Middle Level Teaching and Learning (MLTL) program. “Our teacher-licensure candidates are learning how important it is to build community in the classroom and to build positive relationships with one another.”
Amanda Baum, a seventh-grade math teacher at Clinton Rosette, collaborated with Werderich to organize the trip and its events, which also included a question-and-answer time with six NIU Huskie student-athletes.
Happy to find in Werderich “someone as excited about this opportunity as I was,” Baum foresaw multiple benefits for the first-time endeavor, which is part of the college’s Educate Local initiative.
She also came to campus in advance to present a workshop for the MLTL teacher candidates that addressed the importance of building relationships with students, offered different ways to accomplish that and explored “what happens when you don’t do it.”
“This is a really awesome experience for my students to get out and be in an academic setting with older role models,” Baum said, “and it’s a really neat opportunity for middle level teacher candidates to practice on real-life kids.”
Middle school teachers also must understand — and tend to — the social, emotional, physical and cognitive needs of young adolescents, Werderich added.
Bringing the Clinton Rosette students out of their academic classrooms and into Anderson Hall’s gymnasium opened windows into those aspects of young adolescent development, providing NIU’s 15 future teachers with invaluable knowledge.
As the young people rotated through the stations, one activity wrapped them into six-person “human knots” by intertwining their arms. They then had to figure out, working together, how to unlock themselves.
In another activity, an index card inscribed with a type of food was taped to each forehead. Students needed to determine what the words written on their cards were – for example, “spaghetti” or “meatballs” – and then find the classmates whose cards paired with theirs.
Powers of description were on display in a challenge where the seventh-graders stood back-to-back in short rows, one of which had a pre-made Lego construction. The other row had the right Legos to build something identical, but had to rely on the oral instructions without the benefit of sight.
Clinton Rosette Principal Tim Vincent liked what he saw.
Vincent, a three-time alum of the NIU College of Education, often encourages his teachers to visit other classrooms to see how their students function in different settings and subjects. NIU’s exercise demonstrated exactly that for future teachers of English, math, social studies and science.
“Middle school is a different animal,” Vincent said. “Any contact the candidates can have here with students that they are going to be working within the future is a benefit, no matter what.”
The Huskies are in the early stages of their clinical experiences, currently spending half-days in Huntley, IL, where they observe teachers in action and learn how to craft lesson plans.
Sarai Rivera, a junior in the Middle Level Teaching and Learning program, enjoyed her opportunity to take charge.
“Today definitely gives me a chance to have my own soapbox, and to direct the kids the way I would in the classroom,” Rivera said. “This is my first time having my own group, classroom management-wise, and it gives me good insight into how I’m going to manage my classroom.”
Rivera, who plans to teach math, also closely observed group dynamics.
“We can see how different groups of kids work together,” she said. “This gives us an idea of classroom spacing.”
For John Gallione, a future social studies teacher, many of the young faces were familiar ones. The non-traditional student works part-time as a one-on-one instructional assistant at Clinton Rosette.
“These are awesome kids. They couldn’t have picked a better group,” Gallione said. “This is a really great opportunity for the middle level teaching and learning students to practice with bigger groups of kids at a rapid-fire pace. It makes us really have to think on our feet.”
Gallione said the event also enabled middle level licensure candidates to link theory to practice.
Not every lesson is fun, he said, so teachers must know how to motivate every student. Teachers cannot “fix their gaze,” he added, and must keep their eyes and attention moving.
“We’re learning how to keep kids engaged in prolonged activities,” he said. “This is huge for when you get into the classroom.”
Tammy Leigh, a clinical placement supervisor who meets with NIU licensure candidates in the field to observe them and reflect with them, called the morning “fantastic.”
“I just love to see how they’re interacting, how their personalities are coming out,” Leigh said. “When I walked in this morning at 8, they were all here to greet me, raring to go.”
NIU students gained hands-on experience with middle-school students, got a feel for the collaboration of co-teaching and forged professional networks with Clinton Rosette, Leigh added.
Sure enough, Vincent – committed to employing “a diverse population of teachers” at Clinton Rosette – is eager to welcome next semester’s crop of student-teaching placements from NIU’s middle level teaching and learning major.
“I’m excited about what the program can offer us because of the focused training they’re getting,” he said. “For them to identify their passion as middle school really excites me.”
Beyond the learning opportunities for the NIU students, the recent visit proved aspirational for the seventh-graders.
During question-and-answer sessions near the end of the morning, the young people quizzed their temporary teachers on aspects of college life that included online classes, daily schedules and residence hall living.
“It’s just nice to get them on campus,” Vincent said. “There’s only so much we can do at the school to show them that college is possible because some of them don’t have that model in their families.”