September 25, 2018 | Connor Bechler

Nine smiling students sit at shared tables facing forward in a classroom.
Calvin secondary education students at Ottawa Hills.

When Calvin professor James Rooks, dean of the education department, reached out to Ottawa Hills High School last spring about having an upper-level education class sit in on a handful of class periods, Ottawa Hills’ new principal Kaushik Sarkar saw an opportunity. Sarkar requested that, instead of just observing, the Calvin students should become involved in the classroom.

“This was the beginning of the partnership,” Rooks said; “We spent about seven class sessions working there, partnering with teachers and partnering with students, helping them with their academics and getting to know them.” According to Rooks, 36 students went to Ottawa Hills as part of their secondary education classes.

“The next step is that we’re having the class taught on Ottawa Hills’ Campus this fall,” said Rooks. “All the class sessions are happening there; our students are really embedded, developing deeper relationships and getting to know the school and teachers better.”

Learning to teach in different contexts

John Walcott, the education professor who is teaching the Calvin cohort, explained the course has a dual purpose: “It’s not just about our students learning while they’re there, it’s also about how we can contribute to the learning of the [high school students].”

While the course—“Reading/Literacy in the Content Area”—chiefly examines how reading and writing affect students’ comprehension of secondary school subject areas, Walcott is also incorporating topics of urban education to help contextualize the students’ experiences at Ottawa Hills.

“Typically, in larger metro areas’ public schools, there is much greater diversity in learners’ cultural background, race, ethnicity, and language,” Walcott said. “Our goal is to prepare our students to teach all students, and this guarantees they’re going to have more experiences with that.”

Reshaping perspectives, expanding interest

According to Christina Garrison, a senior English secondary education major, the course offered a new perspective: “After reading so much about urban education in Calvin [education] classes, given that the majority of education students at Calvin did not receive an urban education, it’s easy to make assumptions about what it may be like, but there is a significant difference between reading about it and tangibly experiencing it.

“After talking with teachers, sitting in on classes, and interacting with students at Ottawa Hills, the possibility of teaching in an urban educational setting interests me greatly,” she added.

“The course and practicum at Ottawa Hills helped me understand that teaching tools like literacy is just as important as—if not more important than—teaching content,” said Young Kim, a senior studying social studies secondary education. “Students may not hold onto much of the specific content, so the focus should be on giving them the tools and curiosity to seek out learning on their own.”

“For me, urban education has been something that I've been interested in exploring since my freshman year but hadn't gotten the chance to yet,” said senior English secondary education major Alex Johnson. “This partnership with Ottawa got me into that kind of school setting, which taught me a lot.

“I want to express how grateful I am that Ottawa opened their classrooms to us,” Johnson added. “This hands-on experience really got me invested in Grand Rapids more and in exploring urban education as a potential career.”

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