Grad Students Prepare for Changes in Education
Tara Witte '07, a third-grade teacher at Selser Memorial School in Chicopee, is in her second and final summer as a tutor in the Elms College Summer Reading Program. She has personally seen the positive effect the program has had on students. "I had a young girl last summer who loved to read but struggled with writing. She had previously had occupational therapy because, even physically, writing was difficult for her. Every day we would write back and forth in journals. Then the journal entries started getting longer. When she saw all the stuff she was bringing home, her mom said 'I can't believe she's writing on her own.' Slowly her confidence grew and she came out of her shell."
Christie Stannard, Tara's classmate and co-worker at Selser Memorial School, also recalls a student in the Summer Reading Program whose abilities grew with the aid of individualized instruction. The young girl, a victim of last summer's tornado, suffered through a rough year at school and hated reading when she showed up for tutoring. By the time she left, she loved reading. "You could see the difference in confidence because she got exactly what she needed ... sometimes all they need is that confidence," Christie said.
Like the students they work with, Tara and Christie are confident in their futures as teachers. Now in it's twenty-third year, the Summer Reading Program has provided tutoring to local kids as well as hands-on experience to students in the Elms College master of arts in teaching program who are completing licensure requirements to become reading specialists. The program focuses on four competencies: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. As current teachers, Tara and Christie can immediately bring the techniques they learn into the Summer Reading Program as well as their own classrooms. "Literacy never stops," said Christie. "You use literacy even in math."
More important, however, is the role the competencies will play in the future. In 2010, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education adopted the Common Core State Standards, an initiative designed to implement a single set of national standards in education. Among the highlights of the Common Core standards are a focus on reading and writing across the curriculum and attention to speaking, listening, and vocabulary-all skills Tara and Christie have been practicing all along.
"We were prepared before we even needed to be," Christie said of the Elms College faculty. "They were thinking ahead and innovative in their educational format and the content they delivered to us."
As educators, Tara and Christie constantly have to struggle in the classroom to balance state requirements with doing what is best for each student. "[Right now] we're not teaching for mastery, we're teaching for exposure," Tara said. "Hopefully, with the new Common Core Standards, we'll be able to teach for mastery the way that [teachers] have been saying for a while. We'll be teaching fewer topics in a year but given more time to cover them so that the kids will actually learn them."
An additional change in the works is to measure individual student growth, as opposed to the overall grade of a classroom, set in the context of a national standard. "Some students may not be passing according to state and federal standards but they may make tremendous gains which doesn't show that they pass. It shows that they are improving and I think we need to be looking at that more," Christie said.
Christie and Tara are just a sample of the many students in the master of arts in teaching program that care a great deal about improving education. It is students like them, under the guidance of the Elms faculty, that make the Summer Reading Program so successful–a program that started with ten kids its first year and now regularly reaches an enrollment of more than 60. The small class sizes in the Summer Reading Program are far removed from the crowded classrooms and state regulations that occupy the other three seasons of each year for Christie and Tara. For now, they can spend their summers giving students who are falling behind the attention they need to become successful while preparing for their own futures as reading specialists.