UM-Flint English and Math professors discuss award-winning collaboration

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UM-Flint Associate Professor of English Suzanne Knight, PhD, and Associate Professor of Mathematics Laura McLeman, PhD

Associate Professor of English Suzanne Knight and Associate Professor of Mathematics Laura McLeman were recently honored as 2018 Provost Innovation in Teaching Prize recipients. The UM-Flint faculty members received first place in the face-to-face category for their course SEC 201: Teachers, School, Society. The professors shared their thoughts on collaborating, the role of community engagement within the course, and more in this Q&A with University Communications and Marketing.

Please summarize the purpose and style of this course and its content. What students is this course designed for?

McLeman: SEC 201 is part of a cadre of pedagogical courses focused on place-based teacher education, designed for those students who wish to teach middle/high school. SEC 201 is an introductory seminar in this cadre with the purpose to explore the interconnectivity of teachers, schools, and society. Specifically, students investigate how the local community and larger society shapes the work of teachers, and further, to explore how teachers impact the local community and larger society. Since this is a big focus of investigation, the course has been structured for students to work collectively throughout the semester to understand a Flint-area community that represents a microcosm of this larger phenomenon. Students first learn about the history of the community and how that community has been represented over time. As the semester progresses, students form teams to pose and research their own questions about what they are experiencing. At the end of the semester, students share back their findings, conclusions, and possible implications with the larger community.

Knight: To build on what Laura has already stated, SEC 201 examines how moments and movements in education history, as well as past and present educational policies, impact local communities and schools. We want the students to understand that what they observe in schools and classrooms is not random and instead, to realize that what they observe is a result of how communities and schools have responded to and have implemented and enacted policy mandates. We also want them to realize that schools reflect the values of the local community.

How did you both get involved in this course and decide to collaborate together?

McLeman: Suzanne and I are the co-coordinators of the secondary teachers certificate programs (TCP), which oversees the SEC courses. We are part of a group of faculty that teaches all the SEC courses, which are co-taught by faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) and faculty in the School of Education and Human Services (SEHS). What this means is that the development of all of our SEC courses is the result of receiving continual input from many different individuals. For SEC 201 specifically, our TCP students have been co-taught by pairs of faculty that include Dr. Jing Fu, Dr. Joyce Piert, and Dr. Pam Ross-McClain, as well as Suzanne and myself. It is the result of these collaborations that have helped shape SEC 201 into the course that it is today.

Knight: The project for SEC 201 is possible because of the Neff Center and the University’s ongoing partnership with Beecher Community Schools. In addition, Leyla Sanker of Discovering PLACE and Maria Salinas from the Center for Educator Preparation work to support that partnership, as well as other partnerships that are essential to the work of all SEC courses.

What is the role of community engagement in this class, and how have you defined what it entails in this course?

McLeman: Community engagement plays a central role in SEC 201. To learn about the evolution and representation of a Flint-area community over time, students are provided multiple experiences and opportunities to interact with the community. They are required to attend, observe, and participate in local school and community events (e.g., local business association meetings, school and neighborhood clean-up events, school football games, homecoming parades). Students must conduct interviews with local community members, as well as current school employees and teachers from the local high school. Students also hear from guest speakers, such as former students and teachers from the local school district, the current principal of the high school, and long-standing community members. Finally, community members are invited to the end-of-semester event where students are sharing back their findings, conclusions, and possible implications regarding their inquiry questions.

How important has it been to work with a faculty member from another field of expertise, and why is interdisciplinary collaboration important at the university?

McLeman: All of the SEC courses are co-taught, with co-teaching partners formed so that one partner comes from CAS and one partner comes from SEHS. This is intentionally done so that the secondary TCP students can learn from multiple perspectives and experiences. In addition, future teachers need to experience what is it like to collaborate and learn from one another, as teachers are increasingly asked to work together to meet the learning needs of their students. Co-teaching provides explicit modeling of what this type of collaboration can look like, including both the challenges and benefits that arise as a result.

Knight: While the co-teaching teams may have varied disciplinary expertise, all faculty share some expertise in teacher preparation. However, all those who teach the course do not share research interests; nor are all faculty positioned in the same way. Therefore, each of us brings a unique perspective that extends beyond disciplinary differences. This is important, as we want our teaching candidates to have an understanding of the complexity of diversity and to be open-minded to many diverse points of view. This is especially important given that we want our candidates to be open to learn from place and from the unique individuals who make up a place. Seeing the collaboration of diverse faculty is imperative if candidates are to begin to develop this mindset.

When did the course start and how has it evolved? What have you learned from the students and course along the way?

McLeman: SEC 201 is a part of the larger curriculum redesign of the secondary teachers certificate programs’ pedagogical coursework sequence, which was implemented in Fall 2015. It has been taught four times, with the first iteration occurring in the Winter 2016 semester. SEC faculty meet regularly throughout the academic year to refine key assignments and course readings, among other things. These refinements have been coupled with input from community stakeholders at various times, where we meet with local area teachers and principals to ensure that the preparation of our teacher candidates is in-line with the needs of local area schools. We have also met with groups of our students, both formally and informally, to receive their feedback and to explore ideas about strengthening the course offerings. Students have demonstrated through their work and their engagement in the coursework that they are receptive and excited to learn about place and the impact that they as teachers can have on the local community and larger society. They are creative and bold, asking deep and meaningful questions when provided the opportunities to do so. However, for the SEC 201 students, these opportunities need to be structured, scaffolded, and integrated within the larger body of their learning to be meaningful and relevant to them. Finally, students in this course (as well as all of the SEC courses) have taught me that we as instructors do not have to be the “experts” that impart our knowledge to the students. Indeed, community members, practicing teachers, P-12 students, the teacher candidates, and the physical community itself act as an interdisciplinary team of experts with a wide and varied body of knowledge.

Knight: The students have taught me about how hard it can be to take a risk, but more importantly, they have taught me that with the right circumstances, context, and support, they are more likely to want to take risks. I’ve come to know that about myself but only from observing and listening to our students. Our students have also taught me to appreciate the small moments of unexpected learning and to be excited about those moments. We sometimes have these grand and lofty goals and believe that suddenly we will arrive at some magical destination. However, it is a slow and painstaking process. Sometimes we can get impatient with that, but the students have taught me to be okay with that.

Robert is a staff writer in University Communications & Marketing. Contact him with comments, questions, and story ideas.