----------------------------------------------------------------- SI-MAT Moves Teaching Theory to Head of Class ----------------------------------------------------------------- By Karen Fay Twenty-two-year-old Jon Leslie stands in front of a well-lit classroom full of fifth-grade students at Pointers Run Elementary School in Columbia explaining the rules of "bingtac," a game devised to help them understand the complexities of multiplication. He copes with the usual disturbances teachers face with 10- and 11-year-old prepubescent students: notes passed back and forth, cliques forming that make it harder to assign students to work together. His calm voice and demeanor belie the fact that, with only six months of teacher training behind him, his appearance in front of the class is as much a learning experience for him as it is for his pupils. In the back of the room, another teaching intern, 29-year-old Neils Dunn, watches closely, occasionally jotting down notes he'll discuss later with Leslie in a peer coaching session. He is, as he refers to it, "Jon's eyes and ears for the math lesson." While Dunn may not be teaching at the moment, he is discovering a great deal about his own abilities by observing Leslie's teaching style and interaction with students. Both Leslie and Dunn are students in the School Immersion Master of Arts in Teaching program, a unique new teacher education curriculum developed by the School of Continuing Studies Division of Education. SI-MAT requires that education students, whether just out of college or seeking a career change, have a bachelor's degree in either liberal arts--if they plan to teach at the elementary school level--or in the discipline in which they plan to specialize. Then, they are immersed in a 15-month internship that involves them in a single school, with a single class as they teach and learn themselves. The SI-MAT program was created by Ralph Fessler, professor and associate dean of the Division of Education, and his colleagues. It grew in conjunction with recommendations of a task force report on teacher education reform headed by Fessler and commissioned by the Maryland State Board of Education and the state's Higher Education Commission. As educators, legislators and administrators debate the task force's proposal, the SI-MAT program is testing it. SI-MAT is being piloted during the 1994-95 academic year in a partnership with the Howard County Public School system at Pointers Run and Swansfield elementary schools in Columbia, Md. Leslie and Dunn are two of 19 interns in the SI-MAT program who have come from as far away as Alaska and as close as Howard County to take part in what many educators believe to be the leading edge in teacher education. Leslie is a 1993 alumnus of Towson State University with a degree in English. His only post-college work has been as a proofreader for six months. Dunn has more than eight years' experience in the finance and criminal justice fields, after graduating from Howard University. Their peers have worked in jobs as varied as a bondsman, a children's ski instructor, an actress and a wilderness therapy counselor. It is not their past that binds them, though; rather, it is the innovative approach to creating teachers and the chance to make a difference even as a student. "The intensity of the program is very appealing," Leslie said. "I liked the chance it gave me to immediately immerse myself in teaching." "Our program is quite different from the traditional student teaching experience, which is usually one semester long with the student having little prior knowledge of the school," said Toni Ungaretti, chair of the Department of Teacher Development and Leadership within the Division of Education. In contrast, interns in the SI-MAT program are involved in every aspect of the school year, from summer introductory sessions to the closing day in June. For example, interns familiarized themselves with each school's curriculum, policies and procedures prior to their classroom experience, in addition to spending the summer months providing one-on-one instruction in reading and math for elementary school children. "We wanted the interns to have an initial dose of personal work with students, so when the time came for them to teach in front of an entire class, they would view each child's needs individually, instead of as one whole group," Dr. Ungaretti said. Lenore Cohen, assistant professor and coordinator of SI-MAT, left her job as coordinator of the Montgomery County Teacher Education Center because she viewed the new program as an exciting challenge. "Programs such as SI-MAT are the future of teacher education and school reform," she said. "I want to be a part of it." She compares the program to a teaching hospital: "Interns learn theory throughout the year, during six hours of coursework held two evenings each week," Dr. Cohen said. It's a problem-based approach to learning, in which the interns are presented with a situation and must conduct research around it. We then set up workshops based on the problem they discover and the theories that will help to resolve it. "The exciting part is that students are able to immediately see how the theory is implemented in the classroom setting," she said. "I can't imagine another way the program would be as effective in terms of in-class experience," Leslie said enthusiastically. "The full year allows for a greater opportunity to absorb the teaching profession. I can already see things starting to gel and the program is only half over. "It's also tougher in some ways," he said. "I find myself juggling my roles in the classroom and asking 'Am I a teacher? or am I a student?' There is a lot of reflection necessary." SI-MAT interns are provided with an extensive support network to assist in understanding and coordinating their dual roles. Each intern is assigned a mentor within the schools, although they have the opportunity to meet with other mentors and observe different teaching styles throughout the year. As various classroom situations occur, specialists are brought in to cover related theories. For example, when questions arose about the development level of 7-year-olds, Dr. Ungaretti built a series of human development seminars around those questions, illustrating the full spectrum of human development instead of merely concentrating on one age group. Specialists are also recruited for such subjects as language and social studies. Interns gain the most support from each other. Some is structured, such as the peer observation Dunn conducted for Leslie. In the discussion the two held immediately after Leslie's math lesson, Dunn's constructive criticism is positive and uses phrases that encourage, such as "planned effectively" and "well thought out." The two discuss for a few minutes some of the more difficult moments in the lesson, particularly when one student became upset and teary-eyed. Underneath the formal review, the underlying elements of friendship and teamwork are evident. The peer reviews, the lesson plans, the research and other materials created in the program, such as daily progress jour-nals, as well as samples of students' work and letters from parents, are compiled in portfolios developed by each intern. "The portfolios are the invisible architecture behind the program," Dr. Fessler said. "The interns have to present evidence that they are meeting SI-MAT's objectives, so portfolios are the vehicle for documenting their research and teaching experience throughout the year." "In the long run, our interns will recognize that their experience is more marketable, because they have had exposure to more than one classroom in different grade levels. They have the ability to examine the full scope of curriculum and their view of the classroom is more global in nature," Dr. Cohen said. "SI-MAT teaches the interns to look at bringing the world into the classroom," Dr. Ungaretti said, "as opposed to the world being the classroom."
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