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New Educate Local program transports Special Ed majors to try literacy projects in alternative Chana Education Center

January 9, 2019

For years, Mary Gardner has required her LTCY 300 students to create theoretical “listening center” projects on paper.

Gardner, an instructor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, expects these assignments to propose good nonfiction texts to read aloud to children. She also asks students to devise five hands-on activities connected to those readings.

Her rationale is simple. “The language arts need to be developed together,” she says, and showing future teachers a way to accomplish that goal will enable their future students to “feel that they are valued and that they have a voice.”

Mary Gardner

Mary Gardner

This fall, however, Gardner took her concept one step further. Well, make that 30 miles further.

Project TENT (Teams Exploring Nonfiction Together) became the latest initiative in the NIU College of Education’s Educate Local program, sending 14 of Gardner’s students – all Special Education majors – on two trips to Chana in neighboring Ogle County.

Educate Local provides teacher-licensure candidates with opportunities to gain experience and develop their perspective of education through volunteering, observing and participating in various campus, community and educational settings.

The destination Nov. 6 and Nov. 27 for Project TENT travelers was the Chana Education Center, an alternative, therapeutic day school that serves kindergarten through high school.

Most of the children there have emotional or behavioral issues, Gardner says, and their literacy levels vary from non-readers and emergent readers to reading below or on grade level.

Working in pairs, the NIU students read texts about food, including apples, pumpkins and pizza, and then brought the information to life with experimenting with pumpkin pie recipes, studying fractions with wedges of mandarin oranges, counting seeds or drawing life-size cornstalks.

Texts were provided by Illinois Agriculture in the Classroom.

“Chana was an opportunity for us, as future teachers, to put plans into action,” says Special Education major Andrea Kastor, one of Gardner’s students.

“In preparation for the visits, we collaborated with at least one other classmate to select mentor texts; developed pre- and post-assessments; built support materials; and highlighted connections between objectives and Common Core standards,” Kastor adds. “This intense planning involved a big learning curve for many of us, but it was so worthwhile. I think we entered Chana each time more than prepared to help the students learn.”

Special Education major Gabrielle Kuney calls Project TENT an “amazing experience.”

“I don’t think, as future educators, that we think about teaching anywhere else besides a public school at the grade level we prefer,” Kuney says. “Seeing this alternative school, and how it can be an option for my future, was amazing because I think it would be very different than a public school. Being able to make those adjustments, and to help the students to understand the rules there, would be fun and beneficial for me.”

Gardner, the Illinois Reading Council Reading Educators of the Year in 2001 and a former president of the Northern Illinois Reading Council, liked what she saw from her Huskies as she moved from room to room.

“Engagement was high. My students were flexible and professional, and I think they enjoyed it as much as the Chana students,” Gardner says.

“For some, it was their first time working with a group of kids, but because they were partnered, it wasn’t so scary,” she adds. “They had good materials to work with, and they saw that the interaction with the students – the conversation, the language – was probably as important as anything else they did during the lesson. A lot of times, teachers don’t get to listen to kids in small groups. We don’t have time. They enjoyed the attention.”

Lynn Kalnins, assistant principal at the Chana Education Center, enjoyed welcoming the NIU contingent and hopes for future visits.

“For our students here, it’s just nice for them to be able to experience other types of learning opportunities,” Kalnins says.

“One thing we try to emphasize is learning in multiple ways, and having the NIU students come out here and try things and strategies that maybe our teachers don’t use on a frequent basis just gave them that chance to experience something new,” she adds. “It was really cool to see.”

Kalnins especially appreciated the literacy component.

“A lot of times, our students don’t see the value of books because books are frustrating,” she says. “When they get to experience written text and do something more with it, it really increases the value of books. It’s not just something that someone opens up and reads, something that’s a difficult, frustrating task. We’re reading for a purpose.”

She expects the NIU students gained valuable knowledge as well.

“It’s a great opportunity for students who are going to become teachers to work with such diverse learners,” she says. “Our kids are challenged in many ways, and we have to come up with a long list of unique strategies to teach them – and there are challenging learners in every school building across the state.”

Kastor definitely understands, saying that her trips to Chana boosted her confidence and provided strong motivation.

“Every time you can practice your craft, it helps in the long run,” she says. “This is a challenging field that requires as much experience and energy as you can give. Our time at Chana gave us access to professionals who show up every day and give their best, just like we hope to do. It was inspiring, and an experience I won’t soon forget.”

Other students making the trips were James Albright II, Carmen Barry, Alexis Chacon, Cynthia Clark, Alexa Dechant, Caleb Flex, Haley Grant, David Hibner, Mallory Julen, Melissa Munoz, Kate Smith and John Weir III.