Fieldwork and Observation in Secondary English: A Mix of the Theoretical and the Practical

Fieldwork and Observation in Secondary English course workshop featuring TC Professors David Hansen and Megan Laverty, "Philosophy in Schools"

The Teaching of English M.A. program offers a bi-weekly workshop series with a goal of connecting M.A. students with the work of nationally eminent theorists and teachers in ways that will inspire them to implement innovative instructional practices in their own classrooms.  Developed by Professor Sheridan Blau and coordinated by Doctoral student and Adjunct Instructor Nicole Callahan, the Fieldwork and Observation course in secondary English brings together 115 students for full-day or evening programs with a “next day” rule: what the students learn on a Wednesday night, they can ideally take into their classrooms and apply the next day.

The lineup of presenters includes master practitioners and leaders in English Education, including such luminaries as Linda Christensen (Oregon Writing Project), Carol Olson (UC Irvine Writing Project) and William Strong (Utah Writing Project).  Callahan credits Professor Blau’s deep professional connections for the “amazing” talent on the roster.

What happens in these Workshops? A mix of the theoretical and the practical. “The idea is to to have hands-on activities that can actually be translated in a classroom, but framed in theory that is more generative than that one activity,” Blau explains. Future teachers will come away with a set of principles and a theory that will generate other classroom ideas.  Blau continues, “It’s not just, ‘Here’s a lesson, do this lesson.’  The idea is ‘Here is a lesson, and a way of thinking about lessons.’ And now you can generate a whole bunch that are similar.”  And as Callahan explains, no two classrooms will ever be the same, so the theoretical is very important.  “Something that works for me might fail for someone else.  But if we talk about the reasoning behind why I was doing what I was doing, (student teachers) can apply that same reasoning and shift the lesson to fit their own class.”

A novel twist to the class requirement involves written reviews: should a student teacher miss a workshop, he is required to write an in-depth review of another workshop that he did attend. Andrew Rejan, M.A. student in the Teaching of English, curator of the department’s blog, takes the written reviews and posts them, in part or in full, on English Education’s Pressible site. Callahan encourages students to give their honest opinions—even on workshops she presents—because reviews are a great professional resource.  Presenters may read the reflections and gauge the impact of their material, using the reviews to see what works and what doesn’t.  And students benefit from the writing exercise as well: included in a review written by student teacher Katie Campbell, “It’s actually really nice to look back over my notes from that night right now.  It’s helping me re-focus what has already become…scattered in my mind!”

Fieldwork and Observation in Secondary English course workshop featuring Cliff Lee from the UCLA Writing Project, "Real Talk: Recognizing and Affirming the Languages and Literacies of Our Young People"

What are two hot workshop topics thus far?  Webquests and Class Websites, presented by Callahan herself, and Teaching for Social Justice, presented by Linda Christensen.

Webquests are online self-guided research projects that are structured by the teacher who will vet, say, 50 websites on a subject and then ask students to decide which sources are reputable. Callahan presented a webquest to her student teachers and they worked on a piece of it, as if they were students.  She describes the theoretical framing of her presentation as such, “Often as a new teacher you will encounter problems with the curriculum, and you won’t be allowed to throw everything out and start from scratch…My aim was to find ways to combine things and create synthesis assignments and use best practices ideas we talked about in the Teaching of Writing course.  Like how to teach writing in a way that doesn’t make students hate it, plus authentic ways to assess reading.  All synthesized into one, big technological assignment.”

The actionable side of the webquest workshop struck a chord with student teachers. From Jessica Manners: “I love all things Austen. This is precisely why I am extremely reluctant to teach Austen. Not only would I be disheartened by the students who refused to read the book, or who dismissed it as boring or lame, but I would be terrified that I would suck the joy out of the book by linking it in students’ minds with homework and tests. This project—and the in class simulation we did—gave me some courage to attempt it…I think I will still be a little hesitant to throw Pride and Prejudice on my syllabus, but now I won’t run screaming if I do happen to find there.”

Callahan also pointed her student teachers online—but this time to websites she designs and uses as innovative classroom management tools.  While teaching at Marymount High School in Los Angeles, Callahan decided to “…eliminate paper entirely.  No handouts, syllabi, assignments or study sheets.”  Instead, she posted all information on a website that she custom-built for the class. Via a server on campus, students submitted work by according to deadlines, and Callahan reviewed it, commented digitally, then re-submitted to students.  “The students loved it.  It eliminated the paper shuffling that is so much of students’ lives and they didn’t have to worry about losing anything—they could just go back to the site.”  In the workshop, Callahan gave student teachers links to all the sites she has made, since they are valuable as theoretical models and as practical curriculum sharing.

On March 23, the Fieldwork course was thrilled to welcome Linda Christensen (Director of the Oregon Writing Project, at Lewis and Clark) to the campus of Teachers College.  With the cooperation of other instructors in the department, Callahan was able to extend the class from its usual 100 minutes to nearly four hours, enabling Christensen to do a full and complete workshop on social justice teaching and also ample time to discuss theory and philosophy.   Using a chapter from her new book, Teaching for Joy and Justice, her “workshop helped students to understand how a highly professional classroom teacher can adapt to the demands of current policy mandates in schools while staying true her intellectual ideals and commitments to social justice. Linda’s workshop was almost transformative for many of our students,” reflects Professor Blau.  As student Lindsay Morrow put it, “Linda Christensen’s presentation reminded me… that as teachers, we can do more than just be allies when injustice happens. We can teach for justice by incorporating social justice into our curriculum. We can confront, acknowledge, and discuss the power relationships that pervade our everyday lives, while maintaining academic rigor.”

The student teacher reviews express both their admiration for the presenters (“I was thrilled to see such an enthusiastic and expert educator present such an eloquent argument for the importance of valuing student writing and voice,” from Lauren LaTorre) and for the actionable skills they learned (“Your work…was impressive and it gave me vision for practical and creative ways to use technology in the classroom,” from Alison Eitel).  The Fieldwork and Observation in Secondary English: course is  innovative, uniquely TC, and provides a great model for new teachers looking to create an impact all their own.

To read excerpts of student teacher reviews, visit the English Education blog on Pressible by clicking here.

For an example of a webquest, click here.

For Nicole Callahan’s class websites, click on each of the below:

English 9

English 10

English 10 Honors