Elementary Education: Walsh School Observations

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I recently had the opportunity to do some field work in Ms. Ionita’s 5th and 6th grade classroom at Walsh School. Ms. Ionita is an amazing example of what a teacher should be. Her interactions with her students are lively, humorous, thoughtful, and engaging. She takes diligent notes while instructing students in small groups so she can continually adjust her planning based on what the students are demonstrating each day. She’s highly invested in the education of her students and told me that at the end of the year she hopes that her students walk away with (if nothing else) an understanding that reading is cool. And that having discussions about books can be exciting. We’ve been talking a lot about getting middle school students invested in learning this semester, so this was of particular interest to me. It was very validating to meet a middle school teacher who is pursuing these same ideas and doing it very successfully.

I haven’t been able to share a lot of my work on this blog, but I did want to share some of my findings from my field experience at Walsh. This is an excerpt of my observations of a guided reading session Ms. Ionita led while I was in class.

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Mrs. Ionita was very supportive and active during the guided reading session. Mrs. Ionita explained to me that she asked this particular group to answer questions by writing one sentence responses, identifying a quote from the book that supports their response, and then referencing an additional page that supports their response. Mrs. Ionita then reads their journal entries and provides scaffolding notes that describe what she is looking for with the question she asked. She then gives the students the ability to adjust their answers and turn them back in so that she can determine if they’ve grown in their thought process.

During the guided reading session, Mrs. Ionita checked over the student’s responses to the chapter they had read on their own. She quickly assessed misunderstandings, and then led the students through a discussion that slowly helped the students readdress the questions verbally. She modeled a think aloud as she went through the passage and noted anytime someone had pulled a clue from the text. After the discussion, she asked the students to reread their responses to the questions and to take some time to adjust their answers based on their discussion. I noticed that all of the students had some revisions to make. Mrs. Inoita told me that many of her students, because they are ESL, have difficulty addressing their ideas when they write them down the first time around. Taking the time to lead them through the ideas of the book and allowing them to express their ideas verbally gives her a better understanding of where they are with the text, while also allowing the students to adjust their original understandings as their comprehension develops.

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Ms. Ionita and I spent a lot of time talking about her experiences at Cameron, a school in West Humbolt Park. She taught 8th grade (her preferred grade level) there for five years, but eventually needed to leave the environment. She spoke of students who were pregnant, students who were drug dealers, and parents who were addicts. She said that the hardest thing about the process of teaching there was that 90-95% of what she did was behavior modification. She feels like she is able to focus more fully on teaching at Walsh and can see the results of her work more clearly. She did say, however, that the teachers at Cameron were some of the smartest and hardest working she had ever met. She told me that she does hear from some of her students from Cameron and feels a lot of pride that they are doing so well now. She said she focused on trying to give them skills that would help them feel more comfortable when they reached high school and that most of her students do remark that they felt very accomplished when they arrived as freshmen because of what she had given them.

She also mentioned something to me that I think is of incredible value. She said that graduate students spend a lot of time coming into classrooms observing and teaching, but not a ton of time just talking with the teachers about their practice. She noted that a lot of the value of what is happening in the classroom is thoughtfully planned out by teachers and that all of that planning is of extreme value to graduate students who are just starting out in their own classrooms. I do have to say she is the first teacher I’ve met this semester who I’ve sat with after class and carried on a long conversation. And now I plan to do it with every teacher I meet!

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