Tag: Greg Conderman

Early Childhood majors visit Riverwoods Montessori School

Stephanie DeSpain

Stephanie DeSpain

Thirty-nine Early Childhood Education students from NIU recently enjoyed inside looks at a Montessori school.

Donations to the NIU College of Education from alumni Anthony L. Kambich (B.S. ’59, Physical Education) and Carolyn A. Kambich (B.S. ’60, Elementary Education), founders of North Shore Montessori Schools in 1966, financed the Feb. 13 and Feb. 27 trips.

“Students in my class last year were asking more about Montessori,” says Stephanie DeSpain, an assistant professor in the Department of Special and Early Education.

“When I talked to our chair, Greg Conderman, he said, ‘Well, we happen to have this funding to start to infuse some of the Montessori style and approach to teaching and learning in our classes to just expose our students to this other world of teaching young children,’ ” she adds. “This semester was kind of our first step in doing that.”

NIU students watched demonstrations by the school’s teachers and were able to ask questions of the faculty.

Montessori education, according to the North Shore website, “is based on Dr. Maria Montessori’s scientific observations of the young child … young children learn with great ease by simply ‘absorbing,’ like a sponge, everything to which they are exposed, rather than learning through logical analysis.”

Riverwoods Montessori School – one of three under the North Shore umbrella – provides a toddler program for 2-year-olds, a preschool classroom for ages 3 to 5 and a school-age classroom for children kindergarten through sixth-grade.

Arranged “in a homelike fashion for students to feel like they’re home,” DeSpain says, it features a living room of sorts in the middle of the school. Other familiar spaces include a regular kitchen, a dining room and a laundry room.

“It really does feel kind of like a home,” she says.

On the bus to Montessori

On the bus to Montessori

Called a “prepared environment,” the classroom is, according to the website, “designed to support these (developmental) periods of the children and allow them to easily learn at their own individual rhythm.”

A few Huskies were able to watch children in action as they stacked blocks and counted colored rods – these are called “manipulative materials” – to learn concepts such as quantifying and fractions.

Manipulatives, according to the website, are located “low on small shelves which are easily accessible to every child. This gives the children freedom, within the limits of safety and respect, to choose activities for themselves that they will succeed in doing. Many little successes build self-confidence and develop knowledge.”

“They have a three-stage lesson: I demonstrate, I have you show me and then I have you do it. That’s kind of how all their teaching is,” DeSpain says.

“When it’s introduced in our textbooks, it’s as a very child-directed approach to teaching, a natural environment where the teacher just serves as a guide and the children watch that guidance,” she adds “We’ve not necessarily had that as a component of our program before. It’s a little bit outside of what our students are familiar with. That prompts a really good discussion, like, ‘Wow, how do I do these things when they’re child-directed?’ ”

Lauren Van Havermaet, a junior Early Childhood Education major from Inverness, enjoyed the trip.

“I thought it was very insightful because I hadn’t known a lot about Montessori,” Van Havermaet says. “They did a good job of showing us what the teachers do and what the kids do, and they showed us a different way of teaching.”

binomial-cubeVan Havermaet was fascinated to see the Montessori teachers “never telling the kids that they were wrong” but focusing on “more of what they’re doing right.”

Children were interested in learning, she says, partly because they were able to choose their activities. One 4-year-old girl even was learning to sew using a shoelace.

She also noticed parallels between the Montessori method and the education of her boyfriend, who was homeschooled by his mother.

“The children were so well-behaved,” adds Van Havermaet, who appreciated that the children were generous in their sharing of toys and manipulative materials. “The whole classroom is very calm.”

NIU students also were curious about how Montessori schools serve children from diverse backgrounds, DeSpain says.

“When we talk about working with young children with special needs, we talk about supports and modifications,” she says. “In a Montessori school, children all work very independently. They grab the materials they want. They do the work they want. For a child with a disability, that might be more difficult.”

Those students who visited were grateful and excited by the opportunity to do so.

Early Childhood is a unique field, DeSpain says, that offers careers in public preschools, private preschools, church-based preschools, Head Start programs and, of course, Montessori.

“Our candidates get a chance to go into a lot of Early Childhood settings, but Montessori is not one they typically get. With the donor funding, it really allowed us to go in and get that exposure to this other type of programming,” she says.

montessori-logoSome already have expressed a desire to undertake their student-teaching in a Montessori school, she adds.

“If a few students in your cohort walk away feeling inspired, empowered and passionate about the job they want to do, then these trips are worth it,” DeSpain says.

“At the end of the day, we want our students to go and get jobs. Everyone needs to feel like they’re going to work somewhere that fits them, and this gives them that exposure and helps them to understand what they need to do to become a credentialed Montessori teacher, which requires some more training,” she adds. “Or, if they found ideas to implement in their future teaching, but realized that Montessori was not the right fit for them, then that’s empowering as well.”

DeSpain hopes to make the field trips to Riverwoods a regular event, and also is planning to use some of the donor dollars to purchase some Montessori materials to place in a designated NIU College of Education classroom or the Learning Center.

That is likely to please Van Havermaet, who is open to borrowing Montessori concepts for her classroom.

And no matter where she finds work, she is eager to start.

“You get to teach kids the first things they learn, and that’s something they’re always going to take with them. They’re always going to need their social skills. They’re going to need their numbers, colors and words,” she says. “That just kind of draws me there, just to see the kids grow.”



Getting to Know You: SEED finds creative way to engage freshmen, transfer students

Angie Lobdell

Angie Lobdell

Angie Lobdell knows her way around schools.

When her youngest child was born in 2001, she became a stay-at-home mom. And when that child began kindergarten, she maternally followed.

“I decided to work at the school. I got a job as a para,” Lobdell says. “Later I got a promotion to reading aide – or Title I aide – and I thought, ‘I’m already doing some lesson-planning, and I always wanted to finish college, so let’s just do it.’ ”

Heather Kerfoot found inspiration from one of her oldest son’s former teachers.

“Both of my sons, who are both teenagers, have special ed in their educational lives, and I have seen the great things it can do for students who really need it. I’ve seen it make a big change in their academic abilities and performance,” says Kerfoot, who lives in Naperville.

“There’s one great teacher who really made a difference for my 17-year-old when he was an eighth-grader,” she adds. “In fact, he still communicates with this teacher, and I can’t say enough about what he did for us.”

Roxanne Espinoza’s light bulb moment came long before adulthood.

“I got the wonderful opportunity to do a Partners Club in junior high,” Espinoza says. “They pair you up with a student with a disability, and you do fun activities after school. I just enjoyed the experience. I helped students with disabilities with their homework, and I just loved that.”

Lobdell, Kerfoot and Espinoza have plenty in common.

Toni Van Laarhoven

Toni Van Laarhoven

All are majoring in Special Education. All are transfer students, from Sauk Valley Community College, the College of DuPage and Harper College, respectively.

And all recently earned one credit each in a new course called “Exploring the Special Ed Major,” now required for all students who declare the major.

“For years, everyone has talked about the quality and importance of recruitment and retention,” says Toni Van Laarhoven, Presidential Teaching Professor in the Department of Special and Early Education.

“In our program – in Special Ed – we’d say the problem was that we never get to reach the freshmen and sophomores, and to pull them in to get to know our program, until they were in their junior year and in the professional block,” she adds.

Van Laarhoven noticed that her licensure candidates in Block 3 (the semester immediately before they begin to student-teach) were largely unaware of amazing resources and opportunities they had all through their NIU careers.

Student organizations. Student Services. The Educate and Engage Program. Undergraduate research. The Learning Center.

“But it was almost too late,” she says, “so we as a faculty started talking about, ‘What are the cool things we would like potential Special Ed majors to know?’ And we just developed this course.”

Coursework includes the making and keeping of one-on-one appointments with academic advisers and with Van Laarhoven herself, who taught the fall class one day a week in a blended face-to-face and online format.

Greg Conderman

Greg Conderman

Students learn about the structure of the program, including the professional blocks, as well as the requirements of getting in and staying in the major. They are told where to find more information on the Educator Licensure Test of Academic Proficiency (TAP) as well as tutoring, counseling and more.

They must complete “passport” activities such as locating faculty and departmental offices, meeting Department Chair Greg Conderman and conducting interviews with professors to learn about their academic backgrounds, their daily work and their research interests.

“We also do silly things,” Van Laarhoven says. “They have to go down to the Learning Center and take a selfie of themselves getting coffee. It’s like our best-kept secret: You don’t have to go to the library! There are a lot of things here that are fun.”

Beyond the basics, she says, the course offers comfort and early camaraderie.

“I tell students that we want them to feel like this is their home, and that they can come to any of us at any time,” she says. “They also have to write directions for how to go downstairs, how to find the advisers’ offices and all the way down to the little lounge in the basement of Graham Hall – ways to find all these places where they can belong.”

After piloting the program in Fall 2017, the professor believes the department has earned a gold medal for innovation.

“I could see the students’ eyes lighting up, like, ‘Wow, I didn’t even know this was possible,’ or, ‘I’m feeling like I’m so connected already. It makes me feel like I belong,’ ” she says. “For me, it’s just plain fun. I’m even learning about my own peers by hearing some of the interesting facts that the faculty are telling the students.”

Roxanne Espinoza

Roxanne Espinoza

Espinoza, Lobdell and Kerfoot agree.

“You can have anxiety going from a community college straight into a four-year university, and especially into Special Ed, which is such a broad category,” says Espinoza, who is from Schaumburg. “This helps you to look at what’s ahead in the program in terms of, ‘This is what I need to do. This is what I need to prepare for my future.’ ”

With an hour-long commute between campus and her home in Sterling, Lobdell is grateful for being pointed to the free coffee and friendly study environment of the Learning Center. She also enjoyed meeting other transfer students.

“I was very nervous coming from my little community college to Northern; I was only doing that part time and working full time. I finally made the switch this fall,” she says, adding that most of her traditional-age classmates in other courses “weren’t really my peers. Having this class just made me more comfortable.”

Kerfoot, who formerly managed real estate for Hoffman Estates-based Sears Holdings Corp., calls Van Laarhoven “a great ambassador for the Special Education program.”

“Toni did a great job of getting us entwined in the department – who the professors are, who the head of the department is, meeting a professor and interviewing them, talking with Dr. Conderman,” she says.

Heather Kerfoot

Heather Kerfoot

“One thing I thought was really nice was that you get to meet people who also want to be in Special Ed,” she adds. “Special Ed is a lot more than helping out your kid at home, and if I can help somebody else’s kids the way my kids have been helped, I would love to be a part of that.”

Most of all, Kerfoot gained empowerment during her interview of Associate Professor Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez.

“She primarily works with transitional students between 18 and 21, and that’s something I’m possibly interested in but haven’t committed to yet,” Kerfoot says.

“And as a mom, and especially as a mom of kids who have special education and a disability, I’ve kind of struggled with the idea of, ‘I guess this is what I want to do, but how do I not want to take all these kids home with me?’ ” she adds. “Dr. Rodriguez told me, ‘You’re not there to feel sorry for them. You’re there to help them.’ That really spoke to me. That really made sense. That’s something I can take with me. And it kind of got me past that.”



College of Ed names Conderman chair of the Department of Special and Early Education

Greg Conderman

Greg Conderman

Greg Conderman has been named chair of the Department of Special and Early Education (SEED) in the College of Education effective July 1st.  Conderman has been serving as acting chair for SEED since last June.

Dean Laurie Elish-Piper offered her congratulations, stating “Dr. Greg Conderman has done a remarkable job as Acting Chair of the Special and Early Education Department this past year. The faculty and staff have rated his performance as excellent, and I am thrilled to have him take on the role as Chair for the next four years.  He brings a depth of knowledge, collaborative approach, and problem-solving stance to his leadership which will allow him to effectively lead SEED into the future.”

Before entering higher education, Conderman taught special education for seven years, and worked as an educational consultant for two years. His previous faculty positions were at the University of Nebraska-Kearney, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and St. Ambrose University.  He joined the NIU faculty in 2003. At NIU, he has worked as faculty adviser for the Student Council for Exceptional Children and a faculty sponsor for T.E.A.C.H. House.

“I’ve learned a great deal this past year serving as acting chair,” Conderman stated. “I continue to be impressed with the SEED faculty and staff regarding their excellent work ethic, their collaborative spirit, and their willingness to support students. I am looking forward to facilitating new initiatives within the department that will further advance our undergraduate and graduate programs in early childhood and special education.  I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to continue to work with a great team at both the College and department levels.”

He is the author of two books and more than 90 peer-reviewed manuscripts. His areas of interest are co-teaching, strategy instruction and instructional methods for inclusive classrooms. To that end, he serves on several review boards, is a frequent presenter at state and national conferences and conducts faculty development on co-teaching in school districts in Illinois.

Conderman’s dedication to his field have garnered him awards and recognition, such as the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s University Excellence in Teaching Award, the Wisconsin Teacher Educator of the Year, the Illinois Special Education Excellence in Teaching Award, and the NIU College of Education Exceptional Contributions to Teaching Award.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in elementary and special education from the University of Northern Iowa; a master’s degree in special education from the University of Northern Iowa; and a doctorate in special education with an emphasis in learning disabilities and college teaching from the University of Northern Colorado.