An innovative and successful summer practicum for pre-service teachers is helping the Department of Curriculum and Teaching to achieve one of its primary goals: developing well-prepared graduates who are ready to lead and excel when they walk into the classroom. The flourishing practicum is in its 26th consecutive year on the campus of Auburn University.
This well-designed outreach program for local pre-school students gives Auburn early childhood teacher education undergraduates their first real opportunity to teach. “These students plan and lead large and small group activities where learning in reading, writing, physical knowledge, music, and several other areas takes place simultaneously. This integrated approach, according to established research, is in line with how young children naturally learn.” said Dr. Sean Durham, an assistant professor in Auburn University’s College of Education.
The six-week program has many unique learning opportunities that are a far cry from old-school “drill and grill.” For example, the students recently joined their teachers on a Tiger Transit ride to the Arboretum as part of their study of music. As they explored the beautiful outdoor space on the Auburn campus, the children listened and looked for examples of music in nature. They concluded the lesson with a group writing activity where they detailed many examples of music they found, including wind rustling leaves, rippling waterfalls and pool fountains, and singing birds.
“Within the structure provided by our pre-service teachers, the children guide their own projects whether it is within this year’s theme of ‘Music and Music Making,’ or emerging from children’s interests, such as testing the material and design properties that make paper airplanes fly,” Durham said. “By playing with materials like blocks, ramps, marbles, sand, and water, the children are building their own cognitive foundations for future experiences with engineering, physics, and general creative problem-solving that will be used throughout their lives. We see their developmental process when the teachers work closely with them during their activities. Rather than ‘testing’ the children we listen to their ideas and hypotheses, write down their predictions, and allow them to experiment and observe the results of their actions. Really, it’s an exercise in the scientific method – for preschoolers!”
In addition to the morning sessions with the children, the pre-service teachers are also in afternoon classes with their professors exploring the literature on child development and innovative teaching practices. The program affords the pre-service teachers a valuable opportunity in multicultural education as about half of the children in the program have Korean or Chinese as their primary home language. Durham saw this interaction among cultures as an opportunity for research, and invited Dr. Jamie Harrison, who specializes in teaching English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), to lead a new project.
“Dr. Harrison has shared strategies with our students that will allow them to connect, build relationships, and teach emerging bilingual children. For example, ‘total physical response,’ where one would ask a child to sit down (in English) while modeling the movement of sitting down, allows children to learn practical vocabulary that is very useful in the classroom.”
Multicultural connections have indeed been beneficial to the Summer Enrichment Program. Following last summer’s program, PowerTech America Inc., a unit of Seosan, Korea-based Hyundai PowerTech pledged $40,000 for new furnishings and materials.
“And this generous gift really made a difference,” Durham said. “This block-building area used to be wide open and the program did not have a number of blocks sufficient for sustained and challenging children’s play. This nice new ‘structured’ space with its own arched entrance, spacious shelving, and multiple block choices has really enhanced the capacity for children’s creations. Also, this play area used to primarily interest boys but now we see girls frequently coming in and exploring block construction. The Powertech funds have also allowed us to purchase high-end sand and water tables, art easels and supplies, and many other tools that are necessities for high-quality early learning environments.”
A one-hour visit on a typical weekday morning reveals many different concurrent activities. In one area there is a live saxophone demonstration, and afterwards children model their own saxophones out of foil and other materials. Another area has students playing an original math game called “Rainbow Fish” developed by Emily Bethea, one of the pre-service teachers. Out in the hall students are painting a large-screen backdrop for an upcoming stage presentation of Cinderella. And in another area children are building ramps and pathways using problem-solving and reasoning skills that are consistent with Common Core and developmental learning standards.
“A big part of this is organizing and interpreting the passionate work of children,” Durham said. “To some, all of this activity may look like chaos. But, respect is a critical part of everything we do and we ensure that each child and his or her work is respected as well. This is essential to building a self-guided, confident learner. Unfortunately, some classrooms stifle a child’s dispositions to wonder, ask big questions, and energetically seek new knowledge. But respect for the child’s interests and unique process of learning has benefits that extend beyond the classroom. When we respect children, they respect each other and we have a more peaceful classroom community. When we begin to create classrooms and schools where children learn to solve their own problems instead of looking to an authority figure to tell them what to do, we are impacting our world and promoting a civil, democratic society.”
Durham and his colleagues believe deeply that pre-service teachers must understand the foundation of a respectful educational process, and that this can be transformational for future generations.
“We always want to find ways to make that a real part of the practicum,” Durham said.
Keely Porter, one of the pre-service teachers engaged in the backdrop painting, said she was learning as much or more than the children she worked with.
“I have had to learn what each child likes, what they are interested in, and then make my own adjustments,” she said. “For example, this little boy loves eels. I mean he just loves to draw eels and look at pictures of eels in books. So I’m thinking of ways to make that relate to our curriculum study.”
Pre-service teacher Landon Forbes agreed that the experience was enlightening.
“For me, patience is the big issue,” she said. “I want to convey book-type learning, but the children are not necessarily going to want to do it my way – especially when they do not even speak English. When I really understand they may not want to paint the backdrop that I had in mind, we need to have mutual respect and make the backdrop be what we all want it to be!”
Durham said he hopes the program is still here in another quarter-century.
“We have some excellent pre-service teachers in this program who are doing great work,” he concluded. “I feel confident they will pass along these teaching and learning techniques to a new generation of student-learners who may be helping children here at Auburn in 25 years. I really believe that.”