Practice What You Teach

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Kathy Redman entered Alverno College to earn her bachelor's degree at a low point in her life. She was going through a divorce, had two small children, and felt terrible about herself.

"All I had was low self-esteem,'' remembers Redman, who is now teaching kindergarten in the Milwaukee public schools.

When she graduated two years ago, Redman was a different person: confident of her abilities, ready to take charge of a classroom, and unafraid to speak her mind. Now, when she argues with her ex-husband, he says, "'Don't use that Alverno tone with me,''' Redman laughs.

Redman learned to trust her own judgment at Alverno, a small, urban, Roman Catholic liberal-arts college for women that set out 20 years ago to turn traditional college education on its head.

In the process, the college in Milwaukee charted a course that now has the world beating a path to its door. The changes at Alverno--defining what students should know and developing assessments to measure progress--parallel the reforms now being advocated for public schools. Its teacher education program, in particular, has drawn notice from K-12 educators because Alverno's future teachers are learning in the same way that many reformers would like to see American schoolchildren learn.

By all accounts, Alverno turns out topnotch teachers, at a time when many school districts, and teachers themselves, remain extremely critical of teacher education. The typical Alverno graduate, says John Hays, the principal of suburban Wauwatosa East High School, has "a passion about young people, total competency in her subject and grade, understands herself as a student and a learner, and knows and can analyze why she's not reaching students.''

What's more, these exemplary teachers are emerging from a student body of largely low- and middle-income students. More than 75 percent of Alverno's 2,500 students, many of whom are not traditional college age, receive financial aid. Many are the first in their families to attend college. Twenty-two percent are members of minority groups, the highest minority enrollment of any college in Wisconsin.

'Good Old Education'

Alverno, a small campus of sand-colored buildings in a modest residential neighborhood on Milwaukee's South Side, has become a mecca for schools, districts, and state education departments.

Administrators at the college are swamped with requests for workshops, presentations, and technical assistance. Since last fall, they have received 129 requests for help from precollegiate educators. They've accepted 106. Each semester, educators from schools, colleges, and universities turn out for a "Day at Alverno'' to get an overview of the college's methods. In the summers, the college hosts longer workshops.

What is Alverno doing that so many people want to learn about? Joel Read, Alverno's president, has a simple answer: "It's just good old education, is what it is.''

In 1973, a time of ferment in higher education, Alverno introduced a new curriculum that expanded the concept of a liberal-arts education. Instead of defining only the knowledge that students should acquire, Alverno also committed itself to developing eight essential abilities in each student, regardless of her major.

These abilities--communication, social interaction, analysis, taking responsibility for the global environment, problem-solving, valuing, effective citizenship, and esthetic response--were greeted with some skepticism, recalls Austin Doherty, the vice president for academic affairs.

"The argument used to be, 'What is happening to content if your students are learning to think?''' she recalls. The same sort of questions, Alverno faculty members know, are now dogging the push to change public elementary and secondary schooling.

Many critics believed the abilities weren't teachable--that people were either born with them or would forever lack them. And they certainly weren't regarded as measurable. "The point is,'' Read says, "they weren't measurable because we hadn't figured out how to make them teachable.''

One of the primary ways Alverno teaches the abilities is through performance assessments. Because students learn to evaluate their own progress and receive constant feedback, the assessments themselves help students develop the abilities.

Many of these assessments are videotaped group exercises. Faculty members enlist the help of hundreds of "external assessors,'' drawn from businesses, hospitals, social-service agencies, and other employers throughout the city, to evaluate students' work and talk to them afterward about their performance. The assessors help judge the abilities that students will need in the real world.

Perhaps most important, the assessment criteria aren't secret. By knowing how their work will be judged, Alverno students come to understand the abilities and can develop increasingly complex levels of performance.

Higher Calling

Although now governed by a lay board of trustees, Alverno was founded in 1887 by the School Sisters of Saint Francis to educate members of a teaching order. Today, the Catholic tradition remains strong at Alverno, where faculty members regard teaching as "a calling and a mission, not just a job,'' says Mary Diez, the chair of the education division. "It's the most important thing you can do.''

Alverno strives to prepare students to teach in urban schools, where the need for expert teachers is the greatest but often goes unfilled. The Milwaukee school system is the largest employer of Alverno's teaching graduates, 85 percent of whom get jobs upon graduation. By comparison, Diez notes, only 25 percent of teacher education graduates statewide find employment in the classroom.

"Alverno students are always so well prepared and so realistic,'' says Margaret Werner, the principal of Milwaukee's Forest Home Avenue Elementary School, which has a formal bilingual-education partnership with the college. "Alverno students know that students do have problems, and they have a multicultural background.''

Along with developing the required Alverno abilities, teacher education students must master five additional skills specific to teaching. They learn to diagnose student behavior, coordinate resources, communicate in the classroom to structure and reinforce learning, plan and implement instruction by integrating content knowledge and educational frameworks, and act as professional decisionmakers. These themes are woven throughout the teacher education curriculum.

In addition to academic work, students get a realistic view of city classrooms. Two of their four "field placements,'' in which students gain early exposure to and experience in classrooms, and one of their two student-teaching assignments, where they take on more formal duties, must be in Milwaukee schools.

One key to the program's success, Diez says, is the care that Alverno takes in placing students in schools. Faculty members, as they work with schools, are constantly scouting for promising places to send their students. While a school doesn't have to be perfect for Alverno students to work there, she says, it must have some teachers who are as passionate about the achievement of urban children as Alverno is. That way, students can learn that it's possible to succeed, even under difficult conditions.

Alverno also takes great pains to make sure students are ready to work in the classroom. Before being assigned to a student-teaching placement, Alverno students put together portfolios to document their progress. They make their cases with videotaped lessons from their field experiences, written analyses of the lessons, sample classroom materials, papers written for upper-level education courses, rÀesumÀes, and letters of introduction--all of which create a picture of themselves for outside assessors to judge.

Volunteer principals and teachers gather at the college on Saturdays to question Alverno students about their portfolios and offer feedback. In fact, the assessors make recommendations, right on the spot, about whether the candidates are ready for student-teaching.

Alverno faculty and staff, who want these assessments to be positive, professional experiences, carefully match the assessors and students, taking personalities and philosophies into account. Susan Stang, the education department's placement director, acknowledges that Alverno's small size makes it possible to personalize the program. Of the 435 students in the education division, 45 to 55 student-teach each semester. "It takes a lot of work, and we put that time in,'' Stang says. "The end result is we turn out very skilled teachers.''

Developing Women

Another way Alverno students become so skilled is by developing their own sense of themselves as learners. That process begins immediately, when students newly admitted to the college are assessed for the first time.

Redman says her first reaction to an assessment that called for her to give a short speech was, "I can't do this.''

On videotapes made for visitors, it's apparent that other newcomers shared her fear. They seemed ill at ease, failing to look up from their notes and stumbling over their words. But over time, the tapes show, students become adept at speaking before audiences, often using charts and graphs to outline their positions.

Noy Somphone, a native of Laos who graduated recently from Alverno and now teaches 1st grade in Milwaukee, says she initially found the assessments frustrating--particularly because she'd already earned a teaching degree in her native country. "They give you something to do and then ask you to evaluate yourself,'' she says. "I thought that was the teachers' job. But it's helpful now. I can think, as a first-year teacher, of what I am doing and what I can improve.''

Learning to evaluate their own progress is a gradual process for students, Alverno educators say, but, in the end, it builds confidence.

"In the beginning, students see what they do wrong,'' President Read says. "As they move on, they are much more able to say, 'I did that very well,' and for women, I think that's very important.''

Assessments take place both within courses and outside of them, often to size up how well students have mastered Alverno's eight global abilities.

Late one afternoon, students in an instructional-media course, for example, were assessed on three-minute videos they had put together. As groups of students who had worked together prepared to show their videos, they freely discussed problems they had encountered and how they might overcome them next time. While the videos were playing, two instructors evaluated them against a set of outcomes they had given students beforehand.

The easy atmosphere in the class, where students didn't seem tense about being assessed, is common at Alverno, students say. Because faculty members don't believe it's possible for a student to exhibit on a given day all of the abilities the college is trying to develop, no single assessment ever determines whether a student will pass a course.

"During finals time at Alverno, you will never see people cramming,'' says LeeAnn Brzenk-Nelson, a recent graduate who is now an elementary teacher. "Everything is a process. From the first day of class, they say, 'This is what is expected of you.' There aren't any surprises.''

Assessments administered outside of courses, by the college's assessment center, typically look at multiple abilities. The goal, says Georgine Loacker, an English professor who chairs Alverno's assessment council, is to ask students to demonstrate a mastery of certain abilities by drawing on their academic knowledge to solve real-life problems.

Students might be asked, for example, to listen to a presentation on the impact of music videos on modern culture and society, to watch two videos, and then to work in groups to identify questions that historians, philosophers, and members of religious groups might pose about the videos. (This assessment measures communication and listening, valuing, taking a global perspective, and esthetic response.)

Or, students might be told that Alverno will be host to the Russian ambassador on a visit to Milwaukee schools. Their task would be to watch a slide show of Russian life brought by the ambassador, and then to work in groups to pick 10 of 82 possible slides to create a slide presentation about American life. Finally, they would work alone to select music to go with the slide show. (This assessment examines valuing, analysis, global perspective, and esthetic response.)

A third assessment might ask students to gather information on a societal issue, such as gangs, and work as members of a mayoral task force to make recommendations.

Faculty members work hard to create the assessments and the common vision that underlies them. Friday afternoons, in fact, are kept free of classes so they can work together.

Extensive Outreach

Because teachers teach the way they have been taught, teacher education students at Alverno are learning to help their students make connections between subjects and to encourage them to use what they know. But faculty members have found, says Diez, the chair of the education division, that students don't automatically know how to use performance assessment in their classrooms.

The information and examples Alverno professors bring back from working with area public schools, Diez notes, help students put that valuable lesson into practice. One class, for instance, used real examples of 6th graders' writing, and a scoring rubric developed by an elementary school, to learn to assess children's compositions.

That kind of collaboration is one reason that Alverno's education department is involved in so many outreach efforts. The department currently has $1 million in grants for five projects, including efforts to help Milwaukee teachers use performance assessment; assist paraprofessionals who are members of minority groups to become teachers; and work with four other teacher education programs across the nation to rethink their programs, incorporate performance assessment, and work more closely with K-12 schools. Individual faculty members also travel widely to consult with both classroom teachers and teacher-educators across the country.

Despite the acclaim it has received, Alverno isn't complacent. The college spends about 3 percent of its operating budget to research and improve its programs, a relatively large amount for an institution of higher education.

The teacher education department is struggling to make use of more technology and continues to refine its curriculum. A new, integrated reading program now includes elementary reading, children's literature, language arts, and remedial reading--elements that once were taught separately.

Faculty members strive to teach the way they hope their students will teach, notes Kathy Henn-Reinke, an assistant professor. "We try to model active learning,'' she says. "There's very little lecturing.''

For Alverno's graduates, meshing cutting-edge pedagogy with the reality of schools isn't always easy. Because Alverno doesn't give letter grades, students have to become comfortable with grading children. And some find themselves up against traditional practices that conflict with what they've been taught.

"I'm trying to pave the road in the math department,'' says Mary Meier, a second-year middle school teacher in a Milwaukee suburb. "I'm the only one who's into manipulatives and cooperative learning, but the new assistant principal is supportive of what I'm doing.''

The hardest transition may be adjusting to the lack of dialogue that exists in most schools.

"In the real world,'' Kathy Redman says, "you don't get much feedback, except from principals. When I graduated, I almost went through withdrawal. You find a power within yourself at Alverno.''

Vol. 13, Issue 33

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