Professional Development

Teachers Seize Chances To Be Students Again

By David J. Hoff — July 09, 2003 7 min read
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On the first day of school this fall, thousands of teachers will be able to write riveting essays about how they spent their summer vacations.

Some 100 will tell of digging for artifacts in Colorado that will provide clues to life there almost 1,000 years ago. Another 800 might re-create the improvisational plays they performed in one of New York City’s leading performing-arts centers. And 100 more may write of their trips to a San Francisco museum where they saw science in action.

This summer, more than ever, teachers are expected to take part in professional development that expands their own knowledge and gives them new classroom activities. Such adventures go beyond the workshops available during the school year and offer a chance at in-depth learning—often while having fun.

“If you’re going to get teachers here in the summer, you have to have fun,” said Paul Doherty, a co-director of the teacher institute at the Exploratorium, a San Francisco science museum. “We try to do fun science activities with simple science materials and to teach teachers to be good observers of nature.”

But the encounters have a serious side, too. They give teachers the experience of being learners, acquiring knowledge they can pass along and reminding them of the inquisitiveness—and helplessness—their students feel every day.

“Once teachers feel comfortable learning, and they model that, then they can ask their kids to do the same,” said Julie A. Ferriss, the director of education at the U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., which offers an academy where teachers learn about space history and the scientific challenges of space travel. “I’ve had teachers say to me: ‘Now I know what my kids feel when I stand in front of them and speak a language they don’t understand.’ ”

Summer learning experiences are on the rise, experts on the topic say, because policymakers have been pushing to improve the academic-content knowledge of teachers, particularly those of science and mathematics, and teachers are feeling pressure to see that their students meet the learning goals set in state standards. And those demands will only rise as states start implementing the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, which requires all students to make annual progress toward reaching proficiency in reading and math.

In the almost 30 years since the creation of the Lincoln Center Institute, the New York City performing-arts center has seen attendance rise from 46 teachers in 1976 to almost 800 this summer, said Cathryn Williams, the deputy director of the program.

While the Lincoln Center was the only arts organization conducting such an in-depth experience in 1976, she added, many such groups are now offering similar experiences for teachers.

“There are more offerings of different kinds of experiences that will add to teachers’ expertise,” said Linda L. James, a senior program specialist for teacher quality at the National Education Association.

Digging and Dancing

When Peggy Yotti Lynch spent several days last summer combing through dirt at the Albert Porter Preserve, all she found were bits of charred wood. Her colleagues nearby unearthed arrowheads and a needle made from a turkey bone. The Pueblo Indians left the artifacts in southwest Colorado long before Europeans landed in North America.

“It’s really fascinating to see something ... that was made by a culture 900 to 1,000 years ago,” said the Greenfield, Wis., teacher.

Even though Ms. Lynch doesn’t teach archaeology in her art classes at Elm Dale and Maple Grove elementary schools, she applied some of what she learned from her weeklong seminar in subtle ways.

In the most recent school year, she assigned 5th graders to make ceremonial medicine bags. The bags included the symbols and colors often used by the Chippewa tribe. Until the class undertook the exercise, Ms. Lynch said, most students’ knowledge of the American Indian tribe was of the casinos that it runs near their hometown in western Wisconsin.

“I try to show children that there were cultures here before us,” she said, “and that they had art, too.”

Ms. Lynch’s experience is similar to that of others who participate in the seminar at the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, which is based near the ancient cities of Mesa Verde.

Because few K-12 educators teach archaeology as a discipline, the center’s seminars instead focus on helping teachers of science, history, and a variety of other subjects to infuse the scientific study of the past into the curriculum.

“The kind of teacher we’re bringing in,” said Laurie R. Austin, the marketing manager for the center’s teacher seminars, “is embellishing state standards by introducing an archaeology program.”

Other programs home in on showing teachers new ways to introduce materials to students.

The Lincoln Center Institute at the New York City performing-arts center runs a summer program in which teachers and administrators attend performances, study them in depth, and discuss the art with the performers. Teachers sometimes are required to improvise dances or plays themselves.

Such exposure enhances the more than 500 educators’ understanding of how artists approach their work. What they learn can help them prepare their students to, say, watch a show at Lincoln Center or read a novel.

“Teachers can understand the power of asking questions to cultivate a curiosity for learning,” said Cathryn Williams, the deputy director of the Lincoln Center Institute. “They bring a heightened sense of imagination to the teaching of the curriculum.”

Focus on Content

Other programs are designed to provide teachers with a direct link to the subjects they teach.

About 150 current and future math teachers, for instance, will attend intensive, two-week sessions at the University of California, Riverside, this summer. Their seven-hour days will be filled with lectures that illuminate for them the high-level mathematical concepts underlying what they teach to K-12 students.

The UC-Riverside program will also include activities designed to show teachers how to demonstrate those concepts to their students in real-life situations, according to Shirley Roath, the director of the university’s Mathematical Achievement Via Collaboration of Teachers and Students.

“It’s nice to have two weeks back to back,” Ms. Roath said. “It’s difficult to have such an intensive experience scattered through the school year. So many times you go to a wonderful inservice [program], but then the materials sit on your shelf.”

The development of math teachers’ content knowledge is especially important, Ms. Roath said, because many of them didn’t major, or even minor, in the subject. They may not understand what skills are vital for students to learn in their classes for them to succeed in higher-level courses.

Science teachers face a similar dilemma. At the same time, they also have to keep track of scientific breakthroughs that could change what they teach at the introductory level.

“Science is growing so fast that there’s no way a teacher can know everything,” said Ms. Ferriss, the Space Camp education director, who will leave her job next month to become a 2nd grade teacher in the Osseo, Minn., district.

At the Exploratorium’s seminars in San Francisco, teachers have watched Webcasts of French researchers as they conducted groundbreaking research on gravity, Mr. Doherty said.

While few teachers will lecture on the topic to their own classes, some might face questions from curious students who read about it in newspapers or even scientific journals.

“They know that they need to learn this themselves to survive their students,” Mr. Doherty said.

Showing the Money

Grants—frequently from federal sources—are often available to pay for many of the summer learning opportunities. The stipends usually cover the costs of travel and room and board, which might otherwise be financially prohibitive. Funders sometimes also provide classroom materials for teachers to take back to school.

The National Endowment for the Humanities underwrites seminars at Crow Canyon, Chicago’s Newberry Library, and 28 other locations throughout the country. The agency spends about $4 million a year on the summer seminars and institutes, according to Michael Poliakoff, the director of its education programs division.

The federal agency is expanding such programs. It is reviewing proposals to offer weeklong seminars based at important landmarks where teachers would learn about the historic events that happened there. The NEH expects to underwrite between five and 10 such projects each year.

Congress is also considering the Bush administration’s proposal to spend $100 million on the “We the People” program in American history education over the next three years. Of that total, $25 million would be spent on teacher professional development in seminars like those currently going on.

Already under way, of course, are the Exploratorium and UC-Riverside programs, paid for by the National Science Foundation.

Beyond the money, teachers now have an added incentive from their school districts to participate in summer workshops. In the past, districts only accepted higher education credits to fulfill continuing education requirements. Now, says the NEA’s Ms. James, they’re more likely than ever to accept alternative programs.

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