The Experience of Deep, Coached Practice

By Purnell T. Cropper | October 31, 2011

By Leif Gustavson, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Department Chair

Paul is a sophomore in Arcadia University’s Elementary Education program. He’s tall, loves to talk sports, and offers a quick, subtle smile when engaged in conversation. He is excited to be out in the field learning what it looks, sounds, and feels like to lead a group of third-graders through a writing experiment. His professor is there with him, along with 12 of his peers. They are all going to make this workshop happen together with the help of two veteran classroom teachers. Over the next six weeks, Paul will consistently practice how to catch his students’ interest through engaging introductions, how to read a model text aloud in an authentic and meaningful way, how to build a writerly language with the third-graders through which to talk about the model text, how to write with his students, and how to engage in individual writing conferences with each of his students. Paul will be expected to demonstrate fluency in these skills by the end of the six weeks, and his professor and the classroom teachers are there to mentor and coach him every step of the way.

Here at Arcadia, our purpose is to design learning experiences that best equip Arcadia Education students for the demands, challenges, and possibilities of 21st century teaching, learning, and managing. We see teaching and administrating as an art and a craft. Becoming accomplished at either requires intense and consistent practice, a passionate and sustained love of the work, finding mentors that can coach and support along the way, and finally, it requires a growth mindset where teachers and administrators believe that if they work at something, they can improve.

We know that teaching and administrating are inherently creative and that they involve the development of essential moves that make one truly skilled at what he or she does. There are physical and mental moves that we can make as teachers and administrators that will make a difference in the way our students learn and the way our staff works. Seeing teaching and administrating as moves makes the work tangible and keeps us from forever living in our heads. It’s the key to merging theory and practice.

How do we become artful at these moves? And how do we develop an understanding of why these moves work? It isn’t enough to read a series of articles and books on how to effectively manage a school. It’s not enough to simulate learning environments or classroom activities, imagining what they would look like in a “real” classroom. It’s not even enough to observe current teachers and administrators at work. In order to become truly artful at teaching or administrating, we need to roll up our sleeves and immerse ourselves in the real work of both. This means creating every possible opportunity for our students to be in schools, working with professors, administrators, teachers, and students in real-world educational experiences. That is our commitment at Arcadia.

For instance, take Dr. Jodi Bornstein’s work with her students in ED411 Designing Learning Environments. In this course, Dr. Bornstein and her middle and secondary education students work at a nearby Philadelphia charter school for eight weeks. During that time, the Arcadia students witness and experience firsthand the moves required to be an effective middle school teacher. They co-teach with the charter school teachers. They design and teach their own electives, mentored by those teachers. They practice what it means to lead a group of middle schoolers through a ”circle of power and respect.“ All the while, Dr. Bornstein is at their elbow, carefully watching and choosing times to interject with an important question or suggestion.

This past spring, Dr. Christina Ager mentored her graduate assistant, Dana DiLorenzo, by co-teaching Ed 375 Managing the Inclusive Classroom. They worked together to adapt the course into a set of challenges for the students. Each week students received installments that replicated what might be happening in an inclusive classroom. In the first week, they were given a class roster of 20 students and asked to plan the first week of school around teacher expectations, routines, and building class community.

Every week Dr. Ager and DiLorenzo met to debrief the last class, discuss the course, plan for the following class, and develop materials. DiLorenzo worked with small groups of students during class time and developed biographies of the simulated students in the model classroom. She came up with new ideas for problem-based installments. When DiLorenzo taught the ED. 375 students, Dr. Ager and she debriefed afterward, evaluating what went well and what she could strengthen for next time.

In Learning and Assessment in Secondary Mathematics, Dr. Peter Appelbaum and his graduate students create math circles where youth, future teachers and community leaders come together and identify projects that use mathematics to build strong and equitable communities characterized by creativity, joy, and the courage to act on convictions. In 2010 Dr. Appelbaum and the First United Methodist Church in the Germantown section of Philadelphia obtained a service learning grant to support a math circle which focuses on entrepreneurship and financial literacy education. The Arcadia students integrated high school mathematics, concepts and skills of financial literacy, and neighborhood projects that fit the math circle mission. They met with Dr. Appelbaum after each weekly circle event to discuss what they were learning about the potential of the circle, about the mathematics, and about the local resources in Germantown for groups interested in business, philanthropy, community development, and political leadership. The grant provided funds for flip cameras that students used to make video documentaries, seed money for entrepreneurial and philanthropic experiments, and funds for a trip to Arcadia where the high school students learned about financial planning for college.

In each of these experiences, Arcadia professors and students are immersed in the doing of teaching. Through the process, Arcadia students practice the moves of a skilled teacher. As they mindfully and consistently practice these moves, their professors and cooperating teachers carefully mentor them. What is the result? Arcadia Education students are ready to meet the real and persistent challenges that face public and private education at this time in history. They are creative problem solvers, risk takers, collaborators and innovators prepared to lead classrooms and schools in informed, innovative, and meaningful ways. We are committed to engaging in deep educational practice with and supportive coaching and mentoring of our students as the means to great teaching and administrating.

I invite those interested in learning more about our Education programs to come visit us this fall at one of our many events. Or feel free to contact us. We’re here to explore with you how Arcadia can support your becoming the kind of teacher or administrator the world needs and you want to be.

Graduate Open House
Nov. 9
4-7 p.m., Grey Towers Castle, Arcadia University

For those interested in a Graduate Education program or certification: Make an Education Program Appointment—a brief appointment with an adviser. Bring your transcripts for certification analysis and any questions you may have about our Graduate Education programs. Appointments are available from 4-5 p.m., 5-6 p.m. or 6-7 p.m. Click on a time to register online or call toll-free 1-877-ARCADIA (1-877-272-2342) to reserve your space. More information:

Pictured above: Cheltenham High School student engaging in an artifacts study which was a collaboration between Arcadia’s Secondary Education master’s program and Cheltenham.