Seventh-graders from Clinton Rosette Middle School stood in a circle, each clutching a several-feet-long string tied to the same marker.
Their task: cooperate to insert that marker into the mouth of a 20-ounce plastic bottle.
First, they remained still as they pulled tightly or loosened their individual grips to position the marker over the target and then carefully feed it in. Later, they tried again as they walked slowly in their circle.
Neither looked easy, but plenty of success was had – and all thanks to their teamwork.
And that was indeed one of the missions of the events in the Anderson Hall gym, where nearly 225 middle school students came in two groups on the final Wednesday of October and the first Wednesday of November.
Meanwhile, their presence offered an unparalleled opportunity for Middle Level Teaching and Learning majors in the MLTL 302 clinical experience course to practice their skills.
For Donna Werderich, a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and coordinator of the Middle Level Teaching and Learning program, the Fall 2021 edition of Project TEAMS: Team-building Experiences and Activities in Middle School also provided a full-circle moment.
Emily Paniagua, in her second year as ESL math interventionist for students in sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grades at Clinton Rosette, is an NIU College of Education alumna who first participated in Project TEAMS in 2018 while still a Huskie.
“It was a really cool experience because that was one the first times we got to be hands-on with the middle school students,” Paniagua says. “We didn’t really know what to expect, so it was a lot of trial and error.”
Her activity three years ago involved asking the visiting children to write statements on paper and then discuss those with their groups.
Observing the creativity this year – other stations this fall required collaborative stacking of red, plastic cups, or collaborative drawing straight lines or star shapes, all again with the use of strings, or some fierce rock-paper-scissors battles – made Paniagua just a bit envious: “I was like, ‘Wow, I wish I had done that!’ ”
But she long has been aware of what helps young adolescents to engage in their learning and the need for an open mind.
“We know what middle-schoolers like to do and what gets them actually involved and wanting to participate. You can’t always do a fun activity, but maybe you can do a walk-around activity around the room so they’re not just always taking notes and doing a paper activity,” she says.
“Trial and error is a huge thing with teaching,” she adds. “Even my teaching first period compared to my last period is totally different. That first period, you get to see, ‘OK, this went well; this didn’t go well,’ and, ‘OK, so now I want to do this next time. I want to maybe try not doing this next time.’ It’s just always being flexible.”
PROFESSOR WERDERICH WAS excited to see Paniagua, who graduated in 2020.
Middle Level Teaching and Learning’s mission is to prepare teacher candidates who understand the intellectual, physical, social, emotional, ethical and cultural needs and interests of young adolescents; who demonstrate content knowledge expertise; and who commit themselves to a developmentally responsive approach to curriculum and instruction at the middle school level.
Faculty, however, rarely see the fruits of their labors.
“As faculty, we provide content. We provide methods. Our supervisor and our cooperating teachers out in the field get to see our candidates in action in the classroom,” Werderich says. “With this opportunity, we get to see them in a different light. We get to see them developing as a teacher.”
She knows that the Project TEAMS approach – “My motivation still stems from my own experience of being a middle school language arts teacher, and always wanting to make a difference,” Werderich says – benefits its alumni.
Principals of the schools where those students are hired tell her so during annual Professional Advisory Committee meetings.
“I believe that caring has always been, and most currently still needs to be, the foundation in our classrooms in this context we’re in. We still hear from principals that if a middle school teacher does not have that connection that they can make with the young adolescents, they’re not going to be hired,” she says.
“We are now in the fifth iteration of this, and it’s been so strong. We can see the effects of it on our candidates when they start building those relationships and understanding the dynamics of middle school students – they are quirky, and they have so many unique needs and interests. You really have to tap into that in order to be a successful teacher in the classroom and then help your students become successful as well.”
Baum remains deeply involved.
She delivers professional development seminars focused on how student-teacher relationships affect student learning. She also leads the Huskies in team-building, and helps them to imagine and develop the activities they will lead with her students during the on-campus events.
“It’s important on two different ends,” Baum says.
“I really love it from the perspective of getting to show the kids I teach how close we are to a great university, and to get them out of their comfort zones, because we can mix them up and do a lot of things that we just don’t have the facilities to do back where we are. It also gives them a window into being a college student looks like,” she says.
“I also really love getting to engage with the preservice teachers, talking to them about team-building and then getting to see them do these activities with the students for the first time.”
Moreover, she adds, “I love that the Middle Level Teaching and Learning program is a very diverse group because I think, for a lot my students, their parents maybe didn’t go to college, and they haven’t had a chance to see themselves as college students. This is a great way to make it accessible and real to them instead of just something that’s intangible.”
The NIU students will enter the profession with an advantage, Baum confirms.
“When they go into their first teaching experience, they’re doing a lot of watching and not getting a chance to get their hands dirty. This is a great chance for them to be in the person in charge of something that’s kind of high-risk,” she says.
“When you’re a teacher, you’re up at the front of the room; you’re teaching kids; you have your materials out – it’s pretty safe,” she adds.
“This is pretty high-risk because they/re moving around, and there are pens and strings and things like that. It’s a good way to throw them into the deep end with what they’re doing with kids, but in a safe space where they have people who have experience – who are here to help them process it and to help them make sure it runs smoothly – but with them having the onus of facilitation on themselves.”
Baum also makes sure that her Clinton Rosette students take the lessons of Anderson Hall with them.
“We go back and talk about it in debriefing. We watch a movie that has to do with team-building. In the coming weeks, we’ll be referring back to this and hopefully getting to practice some of these skills,” she says.
“I’ve already had conversations with a couple of my kids about communication and how we need to work on it. I think that this gives them a shared experience that we can learn from and grow from and build on.”
WERDERICH AND BAUM have fingers crossed for invitations to present on Project TEAMS to other educators at national conferences and panel discussions to boost its visibility and recognition.
They also hope to expand the number of licensure candidates in their program, and are soliciting more feedback from the NIU students on how to modify and improve the experience for future Middle Level Teaching and Learning majors.
Comments from this and previous cohorts already prove the initiative’s worth.
“Our students enjoy starting to step more into their shoes of being teachers, but they were hesitant about what their role is. How much can they engage with students, or make instructional or classroom management-type decisions? It’s that teacher identity that they are starting to develop,” Werderich says.
“I explained to them, ‘Remember that you are a teacher-candidate. That’s who you are. So, while you are students in our classroom, you are always being reflective and you also have this other hat you wear of being a teacher,’ ” she adds.
“Being with kids and interacting with them and having fun is a trait perhaps of all teachers, but especially middle school. You really have to want to, and enjoy being around, those dynamics, and they do love that part. They love being active with them and hands-on, and they are just starting to become aware of their own teacher identity, so it’s very transformative.”
Paniagua has found that truth at Clinton Rosette.
“I love the atmosphere, I love how everyone is involved with each other and how the students make it worth coming to school every day,” Paniagua says. “Because I teach math, a lot of times kids just give up. They don’t want to do it if they don’t understand it. But when I see that, ‘Oh, I get it!’ or a strategy I gave them made more sense to them, it’s just why I’m doing this. It’s like a little reward. It’s a very rewarding job.”