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ISU Professor Designs New Model To Teach Teachers

Illinois State University Education Professor Deborah MacPhee has designed a collaborative model of teacher education she says bridges the gap between theory and practice.

She's currently implementing her model as a three-hour instructional course in the Pekin School District, which is one of ISU's Professional Development School (PDS) partners.

MacPhee says rather than hold discussion during class, she partners with Pekin teachers and administrators to teach ISU undergraduate student interns during a course embedded in Pekin schools. The internship occurs the two semesters before the student teaching semester.

“This is a collaborative model, so my course has a syllabus,” said MacPhee. “But that was negotiated with the teachers in the (Pekin) school based on what they were doing at a particular time during the semester. We read professional texts together with the classroom teachers to support their supporting of our teacher interns.”

So what is a typical day under this model? The ISU students embedded in the Pekin PDS School meet five days a week for ISU instruction. Once a week from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m., MacPhee leads the interns in classroom instruction.

“The first 20 minutes or so is time for me to provide the interns with specific instruction. Then we have typically four host classrooms where Pekin teachers have agreed to host a small group of interns in their class to observe a particular practice,” said MacPhee, whose work was featured in the September issue of ISU's research magazine Redbird Scholar.

For example, a “read-a-loud,” a guided reading, or a writing lesson. Generally something related to literacy, which is what the interns themselves are learning, and is part of MacPhee's background.

“The next 30 minutes, the interns move out into the (elementary) classrooms as small groups and observe instruction. They teachers will let us know if they need any support, or if they want us to work with children while we’re in there. But mostly for that first week they are observing,” said MacPhee.

After that, MacPhee said the model is organized to allow the interns to work with the children while classroom teachers huddle with MacPhee in small groups for a debriefing session.

“That’s where the research lies,” said MacPhee. “After the shared instructional experience, the teachers, interns, supervisor, myself, and maybe an administrator or curriculum person come back to the designated space to debrief what just happened in the classroom.”

MacPhee said she facilitates the conversation, inserting questions for interns and teachers to allow everybody to think more deeply about what just happened.

“Is it theoretically sound, and in what ways?” said MacPhee. “And how might we improve it for the students sitting in the classroom?”

MacPhee said those conversations is where theory and practice get bridged.

“I learned that many teachers, or at least the teachers’ representative in my sample ... a lot of the actions performed in classrooms didn't match with what teachers believe and know about how children learn,” said MacPhee.

“And the research I conducted was the research on those actual conversations,” said MacPhee.

As an example, she used the scripted programs required in the No Child Left Behind law.

“And so teachers become accustomed to following a script” said MacPhee. “And maybe they didn’t pay as close attention to, ‘Do I believe the messages that are sent through this curriculum and through me?’ In education we are often following a curriculum or script sometimes without bringing our whole selves to that. We then examine that through a critical lens of what theory tells us what’s best about how we learn.”

Bridging that gap came directly from her dissertation, which was a multiple case study on three practicing teachers. She wanted to know the influences teachers were bringing into their classroom beyond what they learned about education. She found it meshed with what she learned as a literacy coach.

“It’s very rare in education that university and school partners in a space where they can have deep level conversations about teaching and learning,” said MacPhee. “So we have that shared experience.”

Jon Norton's full interview with ISU Education Professor Deborah MacPhee

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.