From Dirt Roads to Three-Lane Highways!
My journey and beyond...
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
For young children, this question seems to be quite easy to answer. Often times, elementary aged students can supply an answer quickly, ranging anywhere from a dance teacher, to a police officer to an astronaut. However, as we grow, this question seems to transform itself into understanding a completely different language. Rather than the question being about whom we admire or look up to, the question becomes about ability, resources, and personal fit. When I was in school, it was expected that high school students had a vision for their career for the rest of their lives. It was necessary to have a clear picture, in order to apply to our college, or university choices. I remember becoming so overwhelmed by the thought of deciding how I would spend the next 30-40 years of my life, at the prime age of 16!
So probably like most high school students, I was given a “test;” a test to tell me what career I would be best suited for. I still question the validity of how a test that takes probably less than one hour can be so accurate to determine your life journey. In any case, I took the test and the results were either an elementary school teacher, or a counselor. I knew that elementary school was not the place for me, however, I was convinced that teaching could be a path that I would like to follow. After all, I had spent the past 13 years of my life witnessing, what I thought was the life of a teacher. So jumping in with both feet, I decided that I would give teaching a try, but still apprehensive on whether the career choice was right for me.
If we fast-forward five years after my high school graduation, I have just walked across the stage at the Breslin Center on the campus of Michigan State University! The thrill was irresistible! The next step was my yearlong internship where I would finally “become” a teacher! This was the moment I was anxiously waiting for! Did I choose the best profession?
To summarize my internship experience, I will provide you with a vision. A vision, that if any of you have seen America’s Funniest Home Videos, you are probably well aware of the situation that I am going to describe. Imagine, if you will, a child who has just taken her training wheels off for the first time. Visualize this cute little girl, with pink ribbons wrapped around her curly pigtails. The helmet, kneepads, elbow pads and wrist guards, all in pink, match her brand-new bike. She is excited and can’t wait to hit the open road. With her dad behind her, she starts to slowly pick up speed. His walk has now progressed to a slow jog. But little does she know, the terrain is about to become a little, well let’s be honest, a lot more difficult! Instead of the flat incline she is accustomed to in her driveway, the road is comprised of turns, hills, rocks, and potholes. As she gains more confidence, she starts realizing that a mailbox is getting closer and closer. What does she do? She’s not entirely comfortable with steering, but it’s her only hope! Before she knows it though, she is lying flat on the ground, starring up into the sky, with tears in her eyes. This is the part where the audience of America’s Funniest Home Videos, all drop their jaws and laugh. What is never witnessed, however is the journey that the little girl takes after that. Yes, she is scared half to death of what will happen when she gets back on that bike, but she does it anyway! After about two months she grows more and more confident in herself, and the fear she still seems to hold, is much less controlling. By six months though, she has convinced herself that she really can ride a bike. While there is still a fear of falling, she knows that challenges in the terrain, will never hold her back from riding her bike!
My internship can be described in the same manner. The little girl with all the safety gear on, was myself with all my cool teacher sticky notes, pens, pencils, highlighters, a new wardrobe, and my diploma, reminding me of the work that I had done to reach this moment. The “father” was all those that supported me throughout my internship, my field instructor, my professors from Michigan State University, fellow teachers, my mentor teacher, but most importantly my family supporting and encouraging me, every step of the way. While there were times that they could not be there for me, to catch me before I fell, they were always there, staring down at me with an outstretched hand. Yes there were tears, challenges and people that threatened my confidence as a teacher, but I was going to be a teacher, an excellent teacher at that, and there was nothing and no one that could stand in my way!
Like most passionate and positive people like myself, being “mediocre” is not acceptable. Being a teacher was simply a title for me. I wanted and thrived for so much more than that… I wanted to be an excellent teacher. I wanted to be a teacher that students, teachers, and administrators looked to for strategies. If we fast-forward three more years, I have just finished teaching 8th grade math and Algebra I for Coats-Erwin Middle School in Dunn, NC. The vision I had to be an excellent teacher is still very much engrained in the very essence of who I am. But how should I strive towards excellence, because excellence is never really achieved.
In 2010, I looked to Michigan State University to continue my education, in attempts to better myself as a teacher within my classroom, and within my school system. The undergraduate program I accomplished through Michigan State was unmatched, so it was not a difficult decision for me, as to where I would achieve my masters degree. Through this journey, I have gained indescribable self-confidence to move from a teacher who rarely participates in school-wide faculty meetings, to a teacher that presents district-wide professional development. Michigan State University has given me a great sense of accomplishment but at the same time, motivated me to yearn for even greater accomplishments. I can honestly say that every course I took throughout this program pushed me to become a better teacher, specifically one that reflects on the education profession at much deeper levels.
So while high school directed my path, and my internship experience validated my path, graduate school took my path from a dirt road, to a three-lane highway, complete with on and off-ramps and several interstate connections. More specifically, graduate school organized my profession, and the research within it, into three main categories; Technology, Pedagogy and Content. Normally teachers focus their attention on the intersection of how to teach content through various pedagogical strategies and techniques. However, the question that begs to be answered is, where does technology come into play? Often times, we just assume that technology is this abstract entity, floating around within our profession, with little connection to our pedagogical or content knowledge. This is where many scholars, but specifically Punya Mishra and Dr. Matthew J. Koehler organized a teacher’s knowledge through TPACK, meaning Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge. Through TPACK, one can visualize the integration of not simply pedagogical and content knowledge, but also the technological knowledge that each person develops. At the core, the teacher will have the comfort and ability to flawlessly integrate their technological knowledge, and use various pedagogical strategies to effectively teach a content, in order to better meet the needs of 21st century learners.
As I expressed previously, I do not want to simply be a teacher. That may be my “title,” but I want to be an excellent teacher. With that being said, every course I took in the graduate program through Michigan State University developed one or more components of my TPACK. Not every course developed the core in my personal TPACK. Some courses focused on strictly strengthening my pedagogical knowledge, while other courses focused on strengthening my content knowledge. It was my responsibility then, to integrate all courses within my TPACK, in order to strengthen the core of TPACK in the way that it is intended. These “knowledges” will be explored separately, for the sake of organization, however, one must keep in mind that these “knowledges” are very much so interconnected with each other.
Unfortunately, like many professions, teaching does not come equipped with an owner’s manual that explains what to do with every child, and in every situation. Instead, it takes dedication, patience, and perseverance to explore, research, and test different pedagogical strategies. Before a teacher jumps into research within the classroom though, it is necessary to have a strong foundation of what it means to question. What are the different ways in which people research? Why is the educational system structured the way it is today? All of these questions, and more were answered during a course called “Concepts of Educational Inquiry.” (ED 800)
Like myself, the educational system has a past that leads us where we stand today. From strictly teacher-led instruction, to the push for student-centered learning from progressive educators like John Dewey, it is vital to develop an understanding of a global educational background. Students no longer compete in simply a local setting. Rather, students are expected to compete with people around the world. But in order to prepare students for that level of competition, we need to understand our history, background, culture, preconceived notions of not just our culture, but all cultures. As we explore other cultures, and their educational system, we in turn, learn much more about our own culture. As we compare and contrast the reasons for our cultural believes, to other cultures, we are more likely to prepare our students to be global participants.
Once we develop a greater understanding of how the present educational system is designed by it's past, we will be better prepared to hypothesize the future, with a stronger concept of what it means to research and question the system.
Pedagogical Content Knowledge
What does it mean for a child to be successful with education? What pedagogical strategies should be used to develop a child to the fullest? Where do you turn if it seems like you have tried everything with a challenging student, but he or she still does not respond in a positive manner? Two courses, in particular, pushed the connection between the strategies used to teach a curriculum, and the student success rates that follow, to attempt to answer some of these struggling questions.
During a course entitled “Action Research within the K-12 Math/Science Classroom,” (TE 861C) I had the ability to research a topic that boggles the minds of many teachers; “How do I design cooperative learning activities so that they are successful?” Through compiling research articles, there are three main areas that need to be well designed and highly reflected on; communication, feedback and the design of higher-level activities. This course gave me the opportunity to compile research to create a quick checklist in my mind on how to teach my content through cooperative learning activities. When I design these lessons, I can quickly check to ensure that I have trained students, held students accountable as individuals and group members, and developed a high-level activity to push students thinking. Just as John Dewey pushed exploratory learning in “The New School,” we too must push students to move beyond knowledge based learning and rote-memorization. Globalized learners are taught to synthesize versus memorize, so we too must expect that of our students.
The second course that helped develop my pedagogical content knowledge was “Educating Students With Challenging Behavior.” (CEP 832) From this course, I was able to select one student who was challenging in class. Teachers always seem to have at least one or two each year that no matter what you seem to do with the child, the child does not want to learn. Once the child was selected, strategies were put into place to test how successful those strategies were with that particular child. While the experience of using different strategies were important in developing a versatile “teacher toolbox” for challenging students, this was not the component that had the greatest impact on me. Through this experience, I became an advocate for the child. Advocating for a child means fighting for the child and their future, no matter who tries to stop you of that! Advocating for a child means knowing what is at the core of who that child really is, to better understand his or her struggles inside the education system. This level of concern for a child requires much more dedication than coming into class every day and trying to teach that child for an hour. Actually caring about a child requires one to take time to gain the respect from the child, instead of forcing the child to respect the teacher. This was the greatest lesson I could have ever learned from teaching challenging students because once a child respects you and understands that you truly care about them and their future, they will move mountains for you! In turn, the child will be open to learn the content, but equally as important, learn how to socialize in the educational system.
To briefly recap, in “Action Research in a K-12 Math/Science Classroom,” (TE 861C) it was discovered that higher-level activities are necessary for successful cooperative learning activities. While it is obvious that these activities will push a student to think beyond the mathematical process to develop reasoning skills, I was not entirely convinced that it would raise assessment scores. In an education system that is driven by standardized assessment scores, Adequate Yearly Progress, and No Child Left Behind, teachers need to fully prepare students on the demanding curriculum at hand. In the Nation’s eyes, the success or failure of a school is determined from the results of one test at the end of the year. Since assessments are based on right or wrong answers, students are not given the opportunity to prove their reasoning skills. With an assessment-driven educational system, educators want to ensure that their emphasis on mathematical reasoning will have a positive effect on a child’s ability to pass standardized assessments. Therefore, since standardized testing is focused on right and wrong answers instead of conjecturing and inventing, do tasks with mathematical reasoning positively affect specifically assessment scores?
In “Teaching School Mathematics,” (TE 855), in order to test this theory, I separated two Algebra I courses into higher-level thinking and lower-level thinking lessons for one chapter. When the chapter was completed, I was able to review the assessment scores to determine any discrepancies between the two courses. While the quantitative data was proven to be inconclusive, it was clear that this research would require much more dedication than simply a chapter. This level of research would require years of data collection and comparisons to make reliable conclusions.
As I stated previously though, every course developed some form of my TPACK. Having inconclusive data is not very exciting so how did this research impact me as a teacher? During this research, I witnessed almost the immediate difference in conversations between students in both classes. The tasks of the experimental group had multiple methods to solve the problem, and required students to think through the process. From the well-developed tasks designed in the experimental group, I was able to have deeper conversations that were rich in mathematical reasoning, with students. Students in each group were not asked the same questions. Rather, I took where the students were at, and built them from that point. The growth of each student was much easier to witness in the experimental group versus the control group. As a result, in the control group, teachers will rely on simply assessment scores to conclude growth. In comparison, when we push students to develop mathematical reasoning skills, teachers have the ability to assess growth daily, from the conversations between students.
Equally compelling is my ability to focus on one component of TPACK, namely my content knowledge, and understand the affect that it has on my pedagogical knowledge as well. This research was strictly designed to review student achievement, however the results clarified the idea that the strategies I use to create lessons, affects the entire environment of the classroom, not simply the assessment results. When one aspect in education is changed, a ripple affect occurs and changes the entire system.
Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge
At the core of TPACK, teachers integrate technology, at the deepest level into their pedagogical strategies to teach the content. In order to fully prepare 21st century learners, we as professionals must learn to speak their language. The common language of students is technology. Two courses in particular helped to strengthen this overlapping of my technological, pedagogical and content knowledge.
First, “Teaching Subject Matter with Technology” (TE 831) worked towards developing a critical eye for technology. Technology is not always designed solely for the use of teachers. Teachers must be analytical and learn how to manipulate the technology before it can be used in the classroom. I learned to not only manipulate technology programs like iMovie and SmartResponse Systems to be more effective in the classroom, but I was am now able to anticipate possible challenges that each piece of technology may pose inside the classroom.
The second course, the “Capstone Seminar” (ED 870), taught me how to design an on-line portfolio to create an on-line presence, but it also helped me organize my entire graduate school experience. Normally when a course is completed, it is rarely reflected on in the future. However the Capstone Course gave me the opportunity to not simply reflect on all the courses I took, but connect them with each other. No longer were the courses separated in terms of pedagogical, content or technology knowledge, rather they united to develop my entire profession as a whole.