From the Perspective of Chicago Semester Student Teachers

Friday, December 5, 2014

Student Teaching - Looking Back and Looking Forward

by Rogelia Pena - Cooper Dual Language Academy

Student teaching in Chicago has been one of the best choices I have made while pursuing an education in the United States. I wanted the challenge of teaching English Language Learners with low socioeconomics and surrounded by urban issues, and that is exactly what I got! Even though it was hard to keep up with lesson planning, grading, monitoring struggling learners, working on my literacy performance-assessment, etc., it was all worth it! I was very blessed to work with my cooperating teacher, who took on the job of a facilitator, mentor, and friend. I will miss her and the students very much! I also met other wonderful teachers at Cooper Dual Language Academy. It is because of their hard work that the school is now considered a number one school in Chicago despite the many challenges that these students face in their communities.

I have not just learned from these teachers, but also from my Chicago Semester supervisor. Her feedback has been helpful during this time of professional development. It was so rewarding to read her last piece of advice, “Find a teaching job!” Along with the other Chicago Semester staff, my supervisor has been approachable and caring. In class, the other student teachers and I learned about meaningful ways of engaging with diverse students in an urban setting. My favorite topic was definitely about social justice and its relation to education. In fact, I was encouraged by my supervisor to attend the annual Curriculum Fair hosted by the Teachers for Social Justice (TSJ) in Chicago.

TSJ is an organization of teachers, administrators, pre-service teachers, and other educators working in all sorts of environments in the Chicago area. These educators believe that their role involves confronting the social, political, and educational inequities within U.S. school settings. Like me, they see children and youth as critical change agents essential to the struggle for social justice. When I see my students struggling to thrive academically, when I see their brokenness, and when I see their needs, my heart breaks. When I see other students being confined to their neighborhoods in the most segregated city in America, and when I hear about the significant number of students who are experiencing homelessness in Chicago, my heart also breaks. But then I see the work of wonderful teachers who are breaking students’ paradigms and fostering counter-cultural mindsets I get hopeful. I believe education can facilitate social change.

I also get hopeful when I see the church actively involved in the lives of the youth. I have been particularly blessed by the members of Little Village’s New Life Community Church. Their work in my neighboring community is amazing and the way they invest in people is genuine. Honestly, I would not have made it through this semester if it was not for the church that has welcomed me with open arms. I am also thankful for my housemates, especially my roommate, with whom I have shared professional and personal struggles and joys every day. As an international student I am somewhat used to goodbyes, but I still dislike them! I am truly going to miss all these wonderful communities I have been a part of while living in Chicago, especially my students. It is my hope to find a job in the city once I graduate in May. I believe cities have the potential to be catalysts for change. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Student Teaching - Week #12

by Rogelia Pena - Cooper Dual Language Academy

Mrs. V as Frida Kahlo
I am the "Weeping Woman"
I cannot begin to express how blessed I am for working with my cooperating teacher! We have many things in common. She learned English growing up, so she knows about the challenges and rewards of being bilingual and bicultural. She also likes to salsa dance, and she wants to go to Brazil one day (since she’s married to a Brazilian). But most importantly, she is passionate about her students. I have learned many classroom management strategies from her, as well as other lifelong lessons.

Classroom management is not something one can learn through a college course. It comes with practice and by being immersed in the classroom. My cooperating teacher has supported me along the way to refine my time management and classroom management skills. More than preventing and addressing bad behavior, I have learned that classroom management is about staying connected with the students. When this happens, lessons are smooth and students’ learning can be maximized. For example, my teacher taught me how to “read” my students and follow the natural flow of the classroom. One day, students were working on a science experiment and they were so engaged that they were getting louder and louder. I tried different things to quiet them down but nothing was working. I could tell that they just wanted to share their findings, and they could not hold their excitement. My teacher told me that in times like that I should just let them talk with their “elbow partner” about their discoveries. They just need to get it out of their system!

At first, I thought that by doing so I would be yielding to my students’ will. But in reality, I was not losing control… I was just adjusting my decisions based on my students’ needs. Students like options, choices, and to be heard; so why stop natural curiosity? I would say that is one of the most valuable things I have learned from my cooperating teacher.

Humbolt Park neighborhood
Talking about curiosity, I finally tried Puerto Rican food in Humboldt Park, one of Chicago’s Hispanic neighborhoods. Even though I live in Pilsen and I get to enjoy awesome Mexican food, I was longing for something more similar to home (Caribbean food). So, on Veterans Day one of my roommates and I went to a place called La Bomba (The Bomb). Indeed, flavors were explosive! Before that, we also went to the Shedd Aquarium, which was free on that day. I got very excited when I saw a section on the Amazon. It reminded me of Venezuela (I don’t live in the jungle but I have visited it before). There were piranhas, electric eels, and even an anaconda. My students were excited to see the pictures I had taken! Some of them have never been to a museum before, which is a shame since they live in Chicago. Hopefully, I will accompany them to the Museum of Science and Industry in the Spring. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Student Teaching - Week #8

by Rogelia Pena - Cooper Dual Language Academy

I am like a grandma when it comes to technology. When I finally decided to get a smartphone I didn’t even know how to download an app or text through a touch screen. I know, it’s embarrassing! So my sister basically took the phone from me, downloaded and updated everything for me, and handed it back expecting that I would magically know how to work that thing. Well, of course I couldn’t. I told her that she needed to show me and then see me do all of those things by myself before I could handle my new toy independently. Most people actually learn new things through a step-by-step process similar to the one I went through with my phone. Implementing this process in the classroom has been interesting and effective.
In the field of education, this process is known as gradual release of responsibility. The purpose of this teaching technique is for students to have all the previous experiences and supports they need before they must master a skill on their own. This strategy is particularly important for ELLs (English Language Learners) because these students not only have to learn a new skill, but they also learn it in a second language. It requires extra effort and more steps in between before they can become proficient at a new skill or task.

I implemented this strategy last week by having students work on a sample activity with me. We read a story together and I showed them how to identify its plot elements. After that, students practiced the skill of “dissecting” a different story. I thought that they would be ready to do this independently by the third lesson, but they still needed more guided practice. Sometimes they need to read the same paragraph at least three times before they can understand it. Therefore, they definitely need a gradual release of responsibility with all the steps in between, which takes more than one day. Because everything takes longer, getting through the content is also a slower process compared to the other two fourth-grade classrooms I teach.
At first, I was getting very impatient and a bit frustrated because my lessons were not going as planned. They were good lessons, but they were not tailored to the specific needs of my students. After talking to my cooperating teacher and getting to know my students better, I have now accepted the fact that these students have their own pace… and it is OK. Their bilingualism is an asset and not a hindrance!
At the Roosevelt Theater for a performance of
Swan Lake by the Joffrey Ballet 
It took me awhile to remember how challenging it was for me to learn English (not that I have stopped). As I watched a ballet performance last week, I was also reminded of how much practice I needed with dancing in order to feel comfortable and do it independently. I still can’t dance ballet, but I can dance salsa now! One of the art events planned by the Chicago Semester was the classic Swan Lake performed by the prestigious Joffrey Ballet. It was long but definitely worth it! It was amazing to see what humans’ bodies can do with so much practice and dedication. It was very fun to dress up for such an occasion and to enjoy this unique show with other Chicago Semester students.