FLC Teacher Education students with their instructor, Jen Rider.
The traditional track of teacher education puts student teachers into classrooms for their final year of college. But there’s little traditional about the way Jen Rider, Lecturer of Teacher Education at FLC, introduces her students to the foundations of education.
Rider is reconfiguring how students get their school-based field experience hours. In partnership with Durango’s Mountain Middle School, Rider is placing student teachers in a progressive culture of expeditionary and project-based learning. And forget about waiting until they’re seniors—her students start while they’re sophomores.
“For our students to get to see that model flips their perspective on teaching and learning,” Rider says. “Because a lot of them come from pretty traditional public schools, what they're seeing in the Mountain Middle classroom is so different. It gets them thinking outside the box about what education can look like.”
Mountain Middle School, a charter school, prides itself on cutting-edge instructional techniques, such as cross-disciplinary, inquiry-based learning and the High Tech High model of personalization and connection. In other words, Mountain Middle School classrooms encourage kids to be creative, responsible, and independent in an interactive technological environment facilitated by the teachers.
Rider introduces her Teacher Education students to these philosophies in her “Foundations of Teaching” courses because that’s where they start to learn about lesson design, curriculum design, assessment, inquiry, multicultural education, and meeting the needs of diverse students.
“Mountain Middle does such a great job of all that,” she says. “It’s visible in the learning process, so my students see it really happening.”
Student teachers at this stage spend 30 hours in the school throughout the semester. Because the classroom experience is so hands-on, the student teachers are not mere observers. The expectation for their field work at Mountain Middle School is that they dive in and start working with students.
“Our responsibility while we’re here is to help facilitate the education and experience of how teachers are able to encourage students to learn more,” says Patrick Maharrey, a junior Teacher Education major.
This semester, Maharrey is working with seventh-grade science students on their cancer studies. The projects are not old-school poster-style presentations. Rather, each student is constructing a facet of a larger collaborative installation that will be displayed at the local hospital. Each student is studying a different aspect of cancer, becoming knowledgeable about symptoms and treatments. “They’re becoming little mini-doctors themselves,” Maharrey says.
“This school is very different from most schools people my age grew up with,” he elaborates. “Here, it encourages creativity. It encourages kids to be independent, to lead their own studies and take responsibility.”
Sophomore Elementary Education major Ani Cassabone values this opportunity to experience such interactive classrooms before her senior year, when other student teachers are determining their preferred age groups without much on-the-ground experience.
“It's nice to get into a school and feel out the age that you want to teach, what works and what doesn't work,” she says, “so that by the time you start teaching, you know that you're in the right place and doing the right thing.”
“I really like the experience of a project-based learning school because I've never experienced it,” she adds. “It's cool to go behind the scenes and see what the teachers do, because I think I would definitely enjoy teaching at a school like this. I didn't know about it before I got to student teach here.”
Rider views this classroom engagement as a critical part of developing a new generation of teachers. There are so many teaching philosophies, and her Foundations class helps her students explore their beliefs around teaching and learning.
And she sees a difference in the process since she forged the partnership with Mountain Middle School in 2016. “My students are absorbing the class content a lot deeper, and I think that they're asking more critical questions about education,” she says.
Whether or not these student teachers go on to work with project-based learning schools, Rider’s students perceive the value of exposure to philosophies they can implement in any educational system.
“My teachers so far have motivated so many of us to go above and beyond, to get out of our comfort zones,” Maharrey says. “And it's only when you do that that you truly get that experience that lets you know, hey, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”