Reading and Writing Relationships

April 15, 2013

A Teaching and Learning Partnership with McElwain Elementary School

Elizabeth Dutro, Ashley Cartun, and Bridget Dalton

A surprise spring snowstorm could not deter 67 third graders, their three teachers, and parent chaperones from joining 24 elementary education students — known as their “Buff Buddies” — for a day on the CU-Boulder campus. The field trip celebrated the culmination of the redesigned Integrated Reading and Writing in the Elementary School course, in which the CU students spent each Thursday interacting and learning with third grade students and teachers at McElwain Elementary in the Adams 12 Five Star School District.

The dynamic McElwain third grade teaching team — Kim Melnychenko, Nikki Kohler and Jack Chambers — modeled reading and writing instruction and integrated the CU teacher education students into their classrooms, providing opportunities to work with students in multiple instructional contexts. Two Literacy Studies faculty members, Elizabeth Dutro and Bridget Dalton, together with Literacy Studies doctoral student Ashley Cartun (who Elizabeth hired to collaborate through support from grants from WISE and CU’s Center for Outreach), were also at McElwain each Thursday supporting the CU students, collaborating with the teachers, and interacting with kids. 

When Elizabeth had the opportunity to teach writing methods in the elementary teacher education program, she began to envision three goals for the course: to integrate findings from her multi-year Teacher Research for Equity and Opportunity project (TREO ) into the guiding commitments and pedagogies taken up in the course; connect CU to national networks of innovative teacher education research; and adapt and study those models of instructional preparation in elementary literacy.  

As Elizabeth explained, “As soon as I knew I was going to teach the course, I knew the school I hoped to partner with: McElwain Elementary! I had been collaborating with two exemplary teachers there in my research, Kim Melnychenko and Megan Henning [who has recently moved out of state], and admired the school for multiple reasons. The principal, Ardell Rivera-Francis, is very supportive of innovations that support children’s learning and, with her and the teachers, we crafted a partnership focused on reciprocity. And, it was crucial in my view to locate the course in a school that served students of color, emerging bilingual students, and families who face inadequate economic resources. New teachers can be advocates for equity and become leaders in reforming systems that benefit some more than others. McElwain is an example of a school where those equity-focused practices are modeled.” 

The course design tightly integrated conceptions of teaching for equity and social justice with models of practice-based teacher education being implemented and studied by a consortium of leading scholars of teacher education at peer universities, including University of Washington, University of Michigan, UCLA, and Stanford University. Elizabeth particularly modeled her course design on the mathematics methods course in the University of Washington’s Elementary Teacher Education Program. 

Following this model, Elizabeth taught the writing methods course on-site at McElwain Elementary, partnered with one classroom, and immersed CU students in writing instruction from the start of their first semester of teacher education.  Supported by Elizabeth, Ashley, and the classroom teacher, the newly minted teacher education students engaged in a cyclical process each week to observe exemplary instruction, plan instructional activities, rehearse, teach, document their teaching through video, and analyze their teaching videos.  

Associate Professor Bridget Dalton, who joined the Literacy Studies faculty in fall 2012 and was teaching the reading methods course in spring, enthusiastically indicated her interest in joining the partnership with McElwain and envisioned a model for the reading practicum that integrated CU students in each of the third grade classrooms.  Thus, the full vision of integrated learning for both pre-service teachers and children began to take shape and, by the start of spring semester, Elizabeth, Bridget, and the third grade teachers were ready to implement the McElwain Literacy Thursdays. 

The literacy partnership was enriching for all involved. As one third-grader expressed, “It was awesome. It felt like (the Buff Buddies) were actually my teacher.”  Another child described her experience, “It was exciting — we got to do fun things like write fabulous stories!” 

CU sophomore Dani Campbell explained, “I’m more likely to use what I’ve learned in my classroom since I’ve actually practiced it.  What made it so successful is that it was truly a partnership between CU and McElwain — we’d go off what they were doing in order to apply what we were learning about effective teaching.” Michael Lund, another CU sophomore, concurred, “Going to a school for an all-day experience was so rewarding. We got to build relationships with these kids and got to see them in and out of the classroom. Everything that we learned we directly applied. This experience has made me want to recruit other Humanities majors into … teaching because it is just such a great program.”

One of the teachers, Jack Chambers, an alumnus of CU’s teacher preparation program, explained that “The professors gave (the CU students) just enough responsibility to do a good job with the kids so that they had quality instructional time.” Kim Melnychenko explained that the partnership was also enriching for her professional development as a teacher: “Modeling strong instruction to new teachers required me to think about the many elements of exemplary literacy instruction and how to explicitly show the cycles of planning, enactment, and reflective analysis of practice the pre-service teachers were undertaking. It is invigorating professionally to have a role in the preparation of the next generation of teachers.”

The culminating field trip was likewise a wonderful day for all involved. As the third graders poured from two school buses onto the snowy sidewalk outside of Coors Events Center, their Buff Buddies were waiting with claps and smiles.  The enthusiastic greetings were indicative of the close mutual relationships that had developed over the course of the semester.  As teacher Jack Chambers expressed, “The CU students were able to form great relationships with the kids, which is so important.”  

Although the big snowstorm necessitated a shorter day, the hours on campus were packed with excitement, including inside-view tours of the CU Basketball program, play on the official practice courts, lunch at the C4C, and all of it with CU’s mascot, Chip, who interacted, posed, and high-fived with the kids.  Most importantly, the trip provided the third graders, many of whom would be the first in their families to attend college, with insights into campus life. The third graders experienced areas within the athletic facility that the public rarely gets to explore, seeing multiple campus staff engaged in a range of professional positions. As they engaged with CU students and faculty, the third graders gained insight into the many academic paths they might pursue at the university. They got a special surprise when junior point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who played for the USA National Team in Russia this past summer, spoke to them, encouraging them to pursue college, emphasizing the importance of making school a focus, and sharing his plans to use his major in Communication after he graduates.  

One third grader, Richard, described his anticipation of the visit, “I was excited. I thought it was going to be big, and it’s even bigger!”  Sienna felt similarly, exclaiming, “I thought it was going to be ginormous and it actually came true!” 

As Elizabeth and Ashley emphasized, the field trip represented CU’s and McElwain Elementary’s commitments to supporting children’s connections to campus, as it could not have happened without the support of Director of Basketball Operations Bill Cartun, CU’s ODECE, which funded lunch at the C4C for all participants, and McElwain’s administrators and staff. 

The exciting day ended with final goodbyes, hugs, and promises to keep in touch. The CU students waved to the kids until the last bus was out of view.  Bridget, Elizabeth, Ashley, Kim, Jack, and Nikki are all ready to repeat the partnership in spring 2014.  As they expressed, it was intensive but rewarding, and they look forward to honing it in a second round. 

Elizabeth explained that one of the central principles in the writing course is that kids are viewed as knowledge-generators and that pre-service teachers become leaders in recognizing, correcting, and challenging any deficit-oriented language used to position children.  “Our CU pre-service teachers embraced those commitments and practiced engaging, cutting-edge, kid-focused instruction, while ratcheting up their critical analysis of how power and privilege function in education systems. The CU students, kids, and classroom teachers joined us in this project with keen minds and full hearts.”  

Perhaps that positive, child-centered vision of teaching is best summed up by one of the undergraduates, Dani, when she said, “The kids have been role models for us.” 

Elizabeth Dutro
Bridget Dalton
Ashley Cartun