May 14, 2014 | Connor Sterchi

The third grade students in Shannon Hendges’ class are learning about fractions. But for this particular math lesson, Hendges was observing the class. Two college students were teaching the lesson instead, trying to convey that 3/4 is greater than 1/2 is greater than 1/4. At first, Hendges' students seemed puzzled by the concept. But then, the student teachers showed them cutout circles with shaded portions, overlapping them to visually illustrate how 1/3 of a pie is less than 1/2 of a pie. The concrete illustration triggered a chorus of “Aha."

When we cut out the shaded part of the fractions and laid them on top of each other so the students could compare the fractions and see which one was bigger and which one was smaller,” said Allison Boes, an elementary education major at Calvin, “all of a sudden it made sense [to them].

Learning from one another

Boes co-taught the math lesson in Hendges' class with Hannah Lee, who is also an elementary education major. Boes and Lee are both enrolled in Math 323 at Calvin, an elementary education class taught by Jane Genzink. In recent years, the Calvin class has partnered with local elementary schools, mutually benefiting both the elementary schools and Calvin’s elementary education majors.

“The teachers here at West [are] so good to their learners and they’ve been so gracious in hosting us,” Genzink said. “It’s really been a positive partnership; Calvin has benefited greatly and the teachers at West seem to like it too.” Genzink recalls a conversation she recently had with one of the West teachers. “She told me that she gets ideas from them – the Calvin students.  They’re so inspired, they’re so energetic, and it’s an opportunity for [her] to observe someone teach. She said, ‘I learn things about how my kids work that I don’t see when I’m the instructor up there.’”

The Calvin College and West Elementary partnership has its roots in a grant awarded to Jan Koop, professor of mathematics at Calvin, in 2011. Genzink and Gary Talsma, professor of mathematics, support Koop in her work by deepening content understanding and developing ideas about effective practices in mathematics with current elementary practitioners. “As we are in the classrooms observing and supporting the teachers for the grant work, we develop relationships.  The teachers are then very willing to open their classrooms to our college students because they’re familiar with our work, our goals and our vision.”

Earlier this semester in March, the students from Genzink’s class also led “Math Night” at West Elementary, where children and their parents came to the school for an evening of math games.

“It was wonderful for us to be able to give to their community,” Genzink said, “and it allowed their teachers to just enjoy that night, they could interact with the parents and the kids, they didn’t have to lead the games. It was also a wonderful opportunity for our education students to interact with students and their parents. These are all important experiences for the students who are preparing to enter the field of education.”

Calvin’s elementary education students theorize, study, and read extensively about mathematics education and pedagogy. But according to Boes and Lee, there is really no substitute for the hands-on experience of teaching a classroom of students and sorting out the opportunities that come with it.

“I think it helps a lot with reminding us that we have to differentiate a lot,” Lee said, “because as we saw today, there are a lot of students that got it just like that, whereas other students needed a bit more prompting, a bit more explaining. And I think it also reminds us that it’s always good to over plan. We actually had other activities planned, but time didn’t permit, so we just let it go.”

“I think it’s also just a really good reminder of what planning looks like,” Boes said, “and what it means to be able to adapt your lessons quickly."

Genzink says if the student teachers are well-grounded in the content, knowledge of learners and effective strategies, then they will be better equipped to face the variables of students’ learning styles, acumen, and disposition.

“There’s a lot of responsiveness that has to happen with teaching,” she said, “but if students can be really well prepared and understand learners and the content, that will allow them to do this, to be responsive. If they don't come in prepared with the content knowledge and a good plan of how they’re going to help students understand, then they can’t be responsive, and things fall apart.”

Learning the art of teaching

Laura Wheeler, an early childhood education major at Calvin who taught a math lesson to a kindergarten class at West Elementary, agrees that adaptation and accommodation are indispensible skills.

“The biggest thing that I learned is that flexibility is key,” Wheeler said. “We came in with so many different activities, [but] we were only able to accomplish two out of the four activities that we came in with… You have to keep the child at the center, because at the end of the day, if we went through four different activities but they didn’t understand any of it because we were just flying through, it’s pointless.”

The Calvin-West relationship has spawned further community partnerships with other schools in the Wyoming district such as Parkview Elementary. Koop also has a strong partnership with the Godfrey Lee district as a result of similar grant work.  Genzink, who teaches Math 323 in the spring and interim, plans to continue to foster and engage the elementary school partnerships.