Students, faculty and staff in the NIU College of Education recently raised $2,200 to send to the HISD Foundation in support of the Houston Independent School District.
Ravaged by Hurricane Harvey, the Houston schools were forced to delay their opening days by two weeks or more. Seven school building were so badly damaged that their students were reassigned to other locations.
Although Harvey roared ashore more than 1,000 miles away from DeKalb, its devastation hit close to home for the College of Education, which partners with HISD for the Educate U.S. program.
Educate U.S. enables select participants to work side-by-side with mentor teachers, observing in classrooms, preparing lessons and engaging in co-teaching strategies outside of Illinois.
NIU students chosen for the donor-funded, all-expenses paid journey further enrich their experience by joining with Houston students, host families and community members in a variety of extracurricular and community events.
Program administrators placed cash jars in three locations within the college and held bake sales to raise $1,100 in four days. Dean Laurie Elish-Piper matched that amount, resulting in the $2,200 donation.
“I’ve been keenly aware, for more than 20 years, of the big hearts and the kind souls passing through these hallways. We are a family that cares for others, whether in Illinois or Texas. This is the NIU College of Education I know and love,” Elish-Piper said.
“Believe me, our partners in the Houston Independent School District will appreciate and make good use of our contribution to their recovery – and they will continue to honor our friendship by hosting our students for the life-changing Educate U.S. program,” she added. “We are fortunate indeed.”
Meanwhile, faculty member Laura Ruth Johnson is gearing up to help Hurricane Maria victims in Puerto Rico.
“Chicago’s Puerto Rican community has been a great partner to me, and to NIU students, in providing community immersion experiences for our graduate students, and helping to develop research partnerships,” Johnson said.
She is hoping to organize a December break service trip to Puerto Rico to assist with clean-up and rebuilding efforts, and would invite other members of the NIU community – faculty, staff and students – to join her, especially those with expertise in engineering, health care, agriculture and social entrepreneurship.
“The recovery in Puerto Rico will be long and arduous,” she added. “They are predicting that it could take up to six months to restore power to the entire island. More funds and support will be needed as the island tries to recover from this disaster, and the poorest residents will be the most affected.”
When there is no response – no “Here!” or “¡Aquí!”– a child stationed at the front of the classroom carefully removes that classmate’s photograph from the outside of the “We Wish You Well” heart and places it inside the heart.
“They say, ‘Let’s put them in our heart and wish them well,’ ” says Wendy Castillo-Guzman, an Early Childhood Education major in the NIU College of Education. “When I first saw that, I honestly teared up. I just thought it was beautiful because teaching kids at that age to care about their friends, and caring about one another, is so important.”
It’s not the only Texas inspiration she plans to pay forward in her teaching career.
“The teachers there, man – they’re just so loving,” says Castillo-Guzman, a senior from Rochelle.
“They told me that whenever you do something, do it with love, and always do it believing that every kid can excel. Never leave a child back. Show them that you believe in them, and that they can do it. Take the time to work with them. Take the time to show them that you care, and that you’re invested in them.”
Ashley Kivikoski, Early Childhood Education major
Educate U.S., a component of the college’s hands-on Educate and Engage Program, enables select participants to work side-by-side with mentor teachers, observing in classrooms, preparing lessons and engaging in co-teaching strategies.
And as much as the NIU students relish their transformational time in Houston – “This trip was amazing, and I miss my host family already!” one posted on Twitter – the HISD hosts call the feeling mutual, says Jennifer Johnson, the college’s director of teacher preparation and development.
“Houston teachers love our students,” Johnson said. “The teachers there are motivated by how excited our students are, and it’s fun to have someone come into your classroom who’s so excited. The teachers are so gracious and welcoming.”
Visiting the HISD classrooms during the last week of the school year allowed the 20 students from NIU to observe assessment and grading as well as “closings and transitions,” Johnson says.
“They got an idea of how teachers get the students ready for the next year, where they think the children should go from here and what would be the best fit for them,” she says.
Portia Downey, professional development coordinator in the College of Education, returned to DeKalb with a folder full of sticky-back visitor badges she acquired while observing NIU students throughout the 284-campus school district.
Bailey Fisch (left), Special Education major, and Nycol Durham (right), Early Childhood Education major
Downey saw the 20 Huskies engaged in decision-making over grades for HISD student report cards.
She saw them learning how HISD teachers work in teams. She saw them collecting strategies for differentiating curriculum for bilingual and ELL students.
“It was really eye-opening for them,” Downey says.
“Frank Black Middle School is 75 percent Hispanic, so I got to see a lot of dual-language teaching, which will be really valuable going forward in my future teaching endeavors,” says Foelske, a junior. “I’ve only been in middle school classrooms in DeKalb, so just seeing the different experiences there just taught me so much that education is not one-size-fits-all.”
She spent her week rotating through sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade social studies classes.
Katelyn Horton, Early Childhood Education major
“My favorite thing was with the sixth-grade class,” she says. “They were doing presentations on different countries around the world, and I got to grade those projects.”
Like Castillo-Guzman, she found “a lot of ideas” to borrow for her own career.
“I actually spent a lot of time with the department head. He showed me everything he had in his classroom, and where he bought everything. He had an interactive notebook, which was really cool,” Foelske says. “I took a lot of notes.”
Her motivation to teach math and social studies comes from working at a summer camp, she says. “I like how different they are in middle school,” she says. “Sixth-graders are still like elementary school students. They’re innocent. By the time they get to eighth-grade, they think they’re in charge of everything.”
Castillo-Guzman, meanwhile, is picking the pre-school route to make good on a goal formed at her church as she taught Sunday School and Vacation Bible School.
“At that young age, it’s important for them to have a teacher who cares about them. It needs to start when they’re little,” she says. “I love to see how they grow. You get to see that lightbulb go on in their head when they learn something.”
May 2017 Educate U.S. participants reporting for duty!
Jennifer Johnson, the college’s director of teacher preparation and development, and Portia Downey, professional development coordinator, covered basics such as transportation times, liability forms, ground rules and more.
But the orientation session was mostly fun and festive.
The room was adorned with numerous Texas flags, many taped to the door and walls with others in the forms of paper plates and napkins at the buffet table, which dished up walking tacos, Downey’s homemade Texas Cowboy Cookies, Texas Sweet Tea and drinking glasses in the shape of cowboy boots.
Students also had their choice of Educate U.S. T-shirts and official College of Education red polo shirts.
David Walker, associate dean of the NIU College of Education, congratulated the group for pursuing the “phenomenal program” that sends outstanding pre-service teachers to Texas for donor-funded, all-expenses-paid experiences in a large, urban school district.
Elementary Education majors Marcus Lewis and Abby Spankroy listen during the Educate U.S. orientation.
“You made it. You’re the best of the best. We’re really excited for you to be a part of this,” said Walker, who also promoted this summer’s Educate Global program in Taiwan. “When I was a student many years ago, I wish I would have had these opportunities.”
Educate U.S. participants work side-by-side with mentor teachers, observing in classrooms, preparing lessons, and engaging in co-teaching strategies. They also participate with students, host families and community members in a variety of extracurricular and community events, further enriching their experience.
Marcus Lewis, a junior elementary education major, applied for Educate U.S. to glimpse how school is taught outside the borders of Illinois.
“I’d like to experience a different area of the United States, and see how they take on education and pedagogy,” said Lewis, who also is participating in Educate Global this summer. “I value education as a tool for change, and I believe it’s one of the most important aspects of society.”
Lewis, who’s heard “nothing but great things” about Educate U.S., hopes to teach fourth-grade. “It’s a great transition time,” he said. “They’re moving into adolescence. They’re not babies anymore. They’re starting to rationalize.”
Sarah Younglove, a special education major, expects that her week in Houston will provide a view completely unlike her “predominantly white” hometown of Oregon, Ill.
Sarah Younglove (right) and Emma Foelske
“I’m from a really small town with less than 4,000 people,” she said. “This is a great opportunity to go to a school district that’s got more than 215,000 students, and to experience different cultures.”
Younglove is equally excited for her future career. “I just feel very passionate about seeing students reach their full potential,” she said, “and I think the world needs as many passionate teachers as it can get.”
Lorena Flores, a transfer student in Middle Level Teaching and Learning, is eager to explore Houston’s bilingual classrooms.
“I’ve never seen that applied at the middle level,” she said. “I want to see how they do it.”
Flores, a veteran of the U.S. Navy who developed a love of teaching as a drill instructor, also looks forward to observing and living “the everyday life of a teacher” who must balance school and home.
Her goal as a science teacher is to emulate one of her former instructors. “In high school, I had a certain math teacher who ended up being my math teacher for three years in a row,” she said. “I hated math – but he made it fun and interesting, and he treated us as people, not just a name or a number.”
Early Childhood Studies majors traveling in May are Nycol Durham, Malika Lee, Ashley Kivikoski, Wendy Castillo-Guzman, Katelynn Horton, Ashley Hodges, Caroline Stephens and Catherina Rousonelos.
Elementary Education majors are Nicole VanGarsse, Abby Spankroy, Erin Kostos, Sarah Raila, Jennifer Lucchsi and Marcus Lewis.
“Middle school was when I learned how to become a person. I learned how to work hard, and I learned how to fight for what I want,” says Grazutis, a senior from Palos Park. “I want to assist and inspire students to become the most competent and engaged students they can be.”
“I want to teach middle school because that was a struggle for me,” adds Amaya, a junior from Carpentersville.
“Middle school is such a transition, and not just education-wise. It’s more of a personal and awkward time for students. It was for me,” he adds, “and I feel like knowing that, I can relate to the students. I can do different methods and really just connect with students in a different way.”
Grazutis and Amaya were among 22 students from the College of Education who traveled to Texas in January to spend a transformative week observing and working in the Houston Independent School District.
NIU’s Educate U.S. program provides select students with donor-funded, all-expenses-paid experiences to view, practice and live in an out-of-state school district.
Beyond equipping NIU graduates with a great advantage in the job market, Educate U.S. reinforces several values and priorities of the student-centered College of Education. Those include diverse and innovative real-world learning opportunities through collaboration with schools, communities, agencies and businesses.
And Houston, which hires a significant number of new teachers every year, is an excellent partner.
More than 215,000 children are enrolled at Houston’s 284 campuses, home to innovative programs that include dual-language schools offering immersion in cultures and languages including Mandarin Chinese, Arabic and French.
Participating pre-service teachers live in the homes of HISD administrators, gaining a unique perspective of the business side of schools.
Jennifer Johnson, director of Teacher Preparation and Development in the NIU College of Education, calls the week “above and beyond” a typical clinical experience.
She’s accustomed to hearing Educate U.S. students say “once-in-a-lifetime” – and she agrees with their assessment.
“The reason we’ve reached out to partners from other parts of the country is to allow our candidates the opportunity to broaden their perspective in the areas of classroom environment, of professional development, of teaching methods, of instructional methods and management methods, and of culture and language,” Johnson says.
“They’ll be able to really enrich what they already know … and see other places and ways of doing things,” she adds. “They’re not just learning and hearing about other ways to do things, but (getting) to experience them.”
For Grazutis, that became true on Day One.
She was assigned to a seventh-grade class in Life Science – “I love science, just because science is all about asking why,” she says – but was surprised by an email she received from her cooperating teacher before the trip.
“I was looking at this, and I was like, ‘Am I really going to teach this on my first try at teaching?’ It was sexual reproduction – different types of birth, male vs. female reproduction, sexual vs. asexual,” Grazutis says. “I was just really proud that, after that first lesson, I was able to get through it in such a professional way with grace and poise.”
Amaya also appreciated the immersion into teaching math to sixth- and eighth-graders.
“By the end of the week, I was able to prepare myself for a full lesson. Prior to that, I had yet to teach a full lesson, and that was my first time. It was a great feeling,” he says. “Having all those students just look at you, and actually answer the questions you’re asking, and paying attention, all eyes on you – it’s a great experience. I know I passed on the knowledge that I have to them.”
* * *
Cal Moyer found confirmation in Houston.
A junior Special Education major from Elmhurst, Moyer hopes to teach Life Skills in high schools. His assignment in Houston offered preparation in just that and, he says, he’s stayed in touch in the hopes of returning for his student-teaching.
One of the students he taught there has autism – and is a member of the football team.
“He gets a jersey, and he goes to football practice every day. I got to go and coach football with him for a while,” Moyer says.
“It was amazing how all the football players completely embraced him as one of their own. We’re cheering for him when he was doing his drills, and just completely backing him up in everything he did,” he adds. “It’s just so amazing to see how they made him feel like he was one of the players rather than just someone tagging along like a little brother.”
Moyer understands why: Students with special needs bring joy to everyone around them.
“Their happiness just glows,” he says, “and they just project it so much that it’s impossible working with them not to feel their happiness and (to) go home feeling amazing. The amount of energy and excitement and happiness they bring every single day just makes you feel like there’s so much more out there than what you see every day.”
During his time in Houston, Moyer worked with students on employment skills such as shredding paper, sharpening pencils and mopping floors.
He also realized what else occupies a special education teacher’s day, including meetings on Individualized Education Programs and communication between teachers, students, administrators and parents.
Sarah Paver, a second-year graduate student pursuing licensure to teach physical education, spent her Houston adventure at Pin Oak Middle School.
Her days began at 6:30 a.m., when she and her home-stay teacher left the house to arrive at school by 7 a.m., and the long hours continued until 8 or 9 p.m. each evening after assisting extracurricular sports coaches and athletes.
“It wasn’t like a clinical class at NIU, where you go from 1 to 3 or however long the class period is. It was truly living the life of a teacher for one week,” says Paver, who grew up in Big Rock.
“I would be there during the lunch hour. I’d have time to prep assignments. After school, I would have to manage all the students in the locker room or in the hallways. It really opened my eyes to what teachers to, and how much work it is,” she adds.
“However, it was also very rewarding. By the end of the week, students were coming up to me and saying, ‘You taught my class yesterday.’ It was very rewarding to have the students remember you.”
Paver found in Houston a perfect place to implement her NIU preparation.
“The things I have been learning at NIU have been reinforced,” she says. “How to manage a classroom. Make sure you provide positive reinforcement. Keep students on task. Walk around to observe all students. Never turn your back. In Houston, I applied all of those skills.”
Like many, she remains in contact with her host family. “They still text me every week just to see how I’m doing,” she says. “That’s the kind of relationship you build down there.”
* * *
Zahidelys Tapia felt right at home in Houston, where she spent her week at Farias Early Childhood Center: Teaching preschool is in her DNA.
“My mom has been an early childhood educator for 20 years,” says Tapia, a junior Early Childhood Education major from Belvidere.
“After years of going with her, and when she finally allowed me to start story times, or just helping the kids out, you start growing a passion for it,” she adds. “And then seeing some of the differences you start making, and then seeing them happy … it’s amazing.”
In the Houston Independent School District, where the poverty rate is 76 percent, Tapia found children and teachers who buck the conventional wisdom.
“We hear that students who live in poverty are already 18 months behind if they’re 4 years old. If they’re a minority, they’re behind. You just have these kids that have so many statistics that are holding them back,” she says.
But “when you look at a school district like HISD, you see that they’re breaking the boundaries. ‘They haven’t even started yet and they’re already behind?’ That’s not how we should view them as teachers. We have to help them continue and grow. I love that. That’s something I want to do as a teacher.”
She left empowered.
“From the first day, my teacher said, ‘What can you do? What do you want to do?’ She right away allowed me to be a part of her classroom. She said, ‘Play with the kids. Talk with the kids. When they’re doing their center times, do everything,’ ” Tapia says.
“She showed me, and she sat me down and told me, what she was doing and why she was doing it,” she adds. “It was an amazing experience. I learned how to be a teacher.”
Billy Shea, who plans to teach middle school math, used his time in Houston to calm his nerves and polish his delivery.
After three days of watching his cooperating teacher in action, Shea took over.
“I was able to teach the lesson that my teacher taught. I was able to see what he did, kind of change it to how I wanted to teach it, and then do it in the classroom,” he says. “I’d never taught a lesson prior going to Houston, and being able to do that for two straight days – the full day – was amazing.”
First-time jitters caused him to talk too quickly, he says. “I wanted everybody to like me. I wanted everybody to learn everything they can.”
His second round showed great improvement, he adds, and by the third time, his cooperating teacher praised his work. Lessons learned? “Relax. Truly trust yourself as a teacher. If you don’t necessarily reach Point B, it’s OK as long as the kids are learning.”
“My biggest takeaway from Houston is that I know I can teach,” he says. “I know I can touch lives, and I know I can create educated people.”
Unlike some of his classmates in the Middle-Level Teaching and Learning major, Shea’s motivation to teach took root outside the classroom.
The junior from Schaumburg spends his summers as a camp counselor for children in fifth- through seventh-grades.
“They just make my day go by so fast. I love being with them. I thought it would be the perfect job for me,” he says. “I like that they’re still learning about who they are as an individual – but then they’re also at that point where they want to move on to abstract thinking and thinking for themselves.”
* * *
NIU Athletic Training students
Not everyone who visited Houston in January is necessarily bound for the classroom: Ariel Russell is an Athletic Training major.
But with “Educate” in the program name, and the Houston Independent School District as the destination, classrooms served as the learning ground.
Russell was assigned to a high school, where she observed an athletic trainer who spends two class periods each day rehabilitating student-athletes.
“During the rest of the day, I helped teach in her sports medicine classes, so it was a little bit different for me,” Russell says. “Instead of attending practices and games, I was actually in the classroom, helping teach coursework which I had previously learned here at NIU.”
She is grateful for the opportunity to see a different part of the country and observe how another state’s rules and regulations impact how her profession is practiced. She also enjoyed making connections with other athletic trainers while gaining exposure to working in a high school.
“Having a clinical experience in a high school setting is really important,” says Russell, who plans to work in a clinical or a school, and is considering pursuit of a master’s degree. “I was able to work one-on-one with a student athlete with ACL rehab.”
* * *
Asking Jennifer Johnson what she observed in Houston yields many memories.
Children who become attached to their NIU students and don’t want them to leave.
Tears on the last day, not just from children but from college students and cooperating teachers.
Proof that NIU’s programs are sound.
“We are perceived, not just in Illinois but in other states, as a place where you want to recruit teachers from, a place that has graduates who are able to step into a classroom and make an impact – a positive impact – immediately, who come prepared to teach and learn,” Johnson says.
NIU College of Education students “are so, so authentically devoted to their profession, and passionate about what they want to do, that I know they’re going to be outstanding when they graduate,” she says.
“So many times during the (Educate U.S.) interview process, they would walk out of the room, and I would think, ‘Oh, I have goosebumps. That is who I would love to have teach my children.’ That’s the kind of bar I set,” Johnson says.
“They consider the students first – the children they’re going to be in the classrooms with,” she adds. “They were all very open to learning about new people, new places. They really had the idea that they would be going to learn how others learn, and that to me was huge. These students are doing this for a great reason.”
If Nicole Morales ever dreamed of a job other than teaching, she doesn’t remember it.
“The materials have always come really easily to me. I’ve always done well in school,” says Morales, a senior Early Childhood Education major from Rockford.
“Even when I was growing up, there were classmates of mine who came to me for help – and I always found that I was able to show them the material in a way that the teacher wasn’t able to do,” she adds. “I could shine a light in a way that wasn’t there before.”
“When I read about Educate U.S., I knew that I would get to see what it’s like being in a first-, second- or third-grade setting and the opportunity to get a feel of a primary classroom before I had to start my clinical observation,” she says. “Getting that experience before I had to do it for school was really good.”
NIU College of Education candidates in teacher licensure and athletic training have submitted applications for the trip in January, when more than 20 will get to take their turns in Houston.
All are eager for the donor-funded, all-expenses-paid experience to view, practice and live in an out-of-state school district that hires a significant number of new teachers every year.
More than 215,000 children are enrolled at Houston’s 284 campuses, which are home to innovative programs that include dual language schools offering immersion in cultures and languages including Mandarin Chinese, Arabic and French.
Participating pre-service teachers live in the homes of HISD administrators, gaining a unique perspective of the business side of schools.
Jeff L. McCanna, the school district’s human capital officer who visited NIU in October to recruit for the program, places a great value on NIU’s pre-service teachers.
“The opportunities students are given through the NIU College of Education really prepare them to go to large, urban school districts and to be change agents and difference makers,” he says. “Many students here at NIU are the first generation in their families to go to college – and are committed as teachers to give other kids those same opportunities.”
Although Educate U.S. is only one week – the 2017 edition takes place from Sunday, Jan. 8, through Saturday, Jan. 14 – McCanna believes that pre-service teachers who participate always grow considerably in their professional skills.
Nicole Morales and Jeff L. McCanna
“Educate U.S. gives them an experience that’s really entrenched at a campus for a week in a co-teaching environment. They’re really learning theory, and they start taking that theory and putting the art into the science,” McCanna says.
“They’re differentiating their instruction when they’re working with the kids. They really get to know their kids. They’re designing lessons to meet the kids where they’re at and getting them to where they need to be,” he adds. “That week will wear you out. You’re mom, dad, coach, cheerleader and counselor.”
By Friday, he says, there are plenty of hugs, tears, goodbyes and unexpected takeaways.
“Many find a true passion for working with underserved populations. We’re an urban environment, and if they like Houston, they can get jobs here and develop the skill sets to be successful,” he says. “But they’re going to be able to go anywhere and be good with what they learn here.”
Morales, who stayed with McCanna’s family last January, would agree.
Once she put her nerves aside to teach language arts to third-graders, she picked up ideas for different instructional strategies and a “vast repertoire of multiple activities you can use to teach a skill because not every students is going to get it one way.”
“I learned not to be afraid,” Morales says. “My cooperating teacher had me watch the first day, but from the second day forward, she threw me right into the curriculum. I did a lot of the read-alouds in front of the kids. I definitely got more of a sense for what a third-grader is able to do in terms of reading and writing, and I’m feeling more capable.”
As she confidently prepares for a spring semester of student-teaching in her hometown Rockford Public Schools, she heartily endorses the Educate U.S. experience.
“It is a chance to maybe work with a group of students at an age level or setting that you might not get to do back home, and I still stay in touch with my cooperating teacher. If I ever have questions, I feel that she’s one of the people I can go to,” Morales says.
Working in the children in Houston was a “privilege,” she adds, telling of sweet farewell cards they presented her on her final day there.
“You feel like you really got to know the kids well in that week, and you want to know them more,” she says.
“It definitely makes you feel like you did well,” she adds. “If a student can recall an experience you shared with them, a new skill you helped them to understand or a read-aloud you gave, you really feel like you made a difference – and you know what you’re doing is working.”