Teacher Preparation

Northeastern Urban Ed. Program Emphasizes Hands-On Learning

By Julie Blair — November 03, 1999 3 min read
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Teaching intern James Heffron can’t use English to teach the concept of surpluses in his 6th grade social studies class--half his students rely on Chinese as their first language.

Northeastern’s approach is content-driven and combines education methodology with classroom experience.

So, instead, he chooses a currency known to nearly all 11-year-olds: M&Ms. One recent autumn day, Mr. Heffron, 27, distributed handfuls of the rainbow-colored chocolates to each child at Josiah Quincy Upper School in Boston, encouraging them to trade with each other by modeling the behaviors he hopes to inspire. Some of the students ended up eating their stash, but others got his point, swapping oranges for reds, and greens for blues.

“Its been difficult,” Mr. Heffron confided after the class. “In all the activities, I have to use props. At first I relied on dialogue, but I quickly learned it doesn’t work.”

Mr. Heffron’s professors at the newly revamped school of education at Northeastern University here in Boston recognize the many challenges of teaching in urban schools.

That’s why for the first time this year they have geared their teacher- preparation program exclusively to training teachers for urban classrooms.

“There are uniquely urban experiences that are extraordinarily challenging and frustrating,” said Ed Joyce, an adjunct professor of education at Northeastern and the assistant headmaster of the John D. O’Bryant High School of Mathematics and Science, a public school here. “It does take a special mind-set, morally and professionally. Schools that focus on urban education at least prepare students for the dilemmas they’ll have.”

The education schools at Northeastern, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Wisconsin are among the first in the nation to have made urban environments the significant emphasis of their teacher-preparation programs, said David G. Imig, the executive director of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, based in Washington.

“What we have to do is to focus on ... context-based teacher education,” Mr. Imig said. “If your [university] is in a rural district in South Dakota, you prepare people for a rural district in South Dakota. If it is in Boston, you prepare for that.”

Teacher-preparation programs that are too generic leave out important tactics that help young professionals master their specific jobs, he added.

Hands-On Emphasis

Northeastern University’s model was designed last year and implemented this fall. The approach is content-driven and combines education methodology with classroom experience in Boston throughout each student’s college career, said James W. Fraser, the dean of the Northeastern school of education. Many other teacher-preparation programs instead postpone teaching experience till nearly the end of a student’s college preparation, leaving the student with only one mentor and just a small glimpse of real school life, he said.

Introduction-to-education classes at Northeastern now mandate that students participate in community after-school programs as well.

“Many of our students come from suburban or small towns, so we really want them to go out into urban communities and simply not to be afraid,” said Terry Haywoode, a professor of education at Northeastern who teaches one of the introduction-to-education classes. “We don’t want them to believe the mythology.”

The program’s curriculum, still in development, will ensure that prospective teachers know how to recognize and nurture racial and ethnic diversity each day of class, Mr. Fraser said.

Part of the challenge is making sure that the material that is taught is relevant to urban children, said Robert Fried, a professor in the program.

This year, for example, Mr. Fried is teaching his children’s literature class the bedtime story Tar Beach. The book tells the story of a Native American girl whose family and friends spend their evenings atop their city apartment building cooling off on the “beach.” Themes include prejudice and poverty.

So far, students say they’re pleased with the urban emphasis.

“It’s not that you need different tools,” said Kimberly J. Frazier-Booth, a former journalist who enrolled at Northeastern to begin a second career in teaching. “It’s realizing that I might have kids who come to school hungry. These kids have all kinds of issues.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 03, 1999 edition of Education Week as Northeastern Urban Ed. Program Emphasizes Hands-On Learning


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