Rockhurst University students gain teaching experience at Holy Cross School | Team Cansler

Abby Hoover

Rockhurst University elementary school students gain classroom experience while working on literacy skills with second graders at Holy Cross Catholic School.

Hillary Logan, Rockhurst Associate Professor of Education, teaches the third-year class. Their second, junior and senior level students meet with third graders at Holy Cross for an hour every Tuesday, where they are paired with a student or two with whom they work throughout the semester.

Logan has taught the class for three years and fostered relationships with schools in the area.

“It’s a long-standing partnership, and we mostly work with the second and third graders in the building,” Logan said, adding that her class worked with the now third graders last year when they were in second grade.

dr Laura Swartz, the literacy worker who started the partnership, has since retired. She handed over the class to Dr. Mandy Sonnenberg and then to Logan.

“They develop lessons for every single session with every student,” Logan said. “It’s based on student needs, but also focuses on specific reading and writing strategies that we learn in class.”

The particular strategy Logan had her work on last Tuesday had her make student selections based on student needs. Some worked on sight words, some read books, others used laptops or iPads to support their lessons.

“One of the things we focus on in each session is vocabulary development,” Logan said. “They are English learners and one of the things we noticed is a high need, especially at the elementary level, we need to develop vocabulary and so with each and every session they are tasked with practicing a vocabulary strategy, a reading comprehension strategy and then a read and write connection so they make sure they do both the read part and the write connection.

Many of the families who visit Holy Cross speak English as a second language.

“We learned a number of different vocabulary strategies in class, and then they get to choose which vocabulary strategy students are most efficient with,” Logan said. “It can be anything from matching vocabulary to definitions, there can be different ways of identification, it’s a variety of strategies.”

Early childhood students who specialize in areas such as language disorders gain hands-on experience working with real students.

“You work with a variety of learners throughout our program, and as such the courses I teach are intensive internship courses,” Logan said.

She also teaches a course that partners with Visitation Catholic School, which has a much higher socioeconomic status, and she said the students are in a very different mindset. She hopes that next semester they will be able to work with Gordon Parks, a charter school in Midtown, to broaden their experience and place future teachers in a variety of settings.

“They just see the diversity and personality of the students, and they get to work in a variety of environments, which is really fun,” Logan said. “My students learn different teaching strategies and then put them into practice.”

“So after that class, we go back to class, discuss and talk about what went well, what things we might need to work on for the next class, and then I teach, too,” Logan said.

Now, at the end of the semester, the students give presentations and teach each other different reading strategies.

“I’ve seen a lot of growth this semester alone, targeting students’ needs in lesson planning and actual driving instruction with the development of their lesson planning and their ability to work with students at different levels,” Logan said. “I think that was a big win this semester.”

She has also noted her students’ ability to engage students for a long period of time.

“An hour of one-to-one session is really challenging, and so they’ve learned to make sure they offer a lot of different strategies during that time to help meet the learning goals for that particular session,” Logan said. “You just can’t walk in and think a strategy is going to work for that one hour, you really have to be careful to plan engaging activities. I’ve seen a lot of growth planning these engaging activities with her students.”

At the beginning of each semester, university students conduct a student interest inventory with their pair students to get to know their students, which helps in selecting engaging reading materials.

“You can see how they grow and evolve over time,” Logan said. “One of the things we want is that they continue reading outside of this internship unit. We give them a children’s book tailored to their particular student at the end of a session, like a Christmas present. We wrap the books and we give them letters and we give them this, it’s very special.”

“I think it’s nice to see how they develop,” said Becca Niethe, a student in early childhood education. “We’ve only been here seven weeks but I’ve definitely seen progress in her literacy and all that, so it’s been nice.”

Rachel Grable, a student in early childhood education, said the experience is a great way to start their teaching journey by helping them see if there’s anything they want to pursue further.

“When you see progress over time, it’s really rewarding not only for the students but for us just to watch them and look forward to them learning,” Grable said.

In the past seven weeks, the two small classes have met and got to know each other.

“A lot of vocabulary has been developed which is really important, just their understanding and overall knowledge, and then to see that they have different interests in things and their interest grows and develops on their knowledge of the subject, I like that,” Grable said. “I can present a new technique for learning vocabulary or learning to read or write, and they’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do that,’ and at the end they’re like, ‘That was so much fun!’ I enjoyed reading which is super great for getting kids to enjoy reading.”

Niethe said it can be very difficult for children in a classroom to get the individual time they need. She knows that sitting with them for an hour once a week is beneficial.

“I think it’s really important to focus on the students and make sure they’re getting what they need to develop their thinking and that they can just focus,” Grable said. “I love working alone with them for an hour. In the end, it will be very rewarding to see their overall progress and see how they’ve fared throughout the semester.”

Holy Cross Headmistress Shelley Henn began teaching at the Catholic Primary School in 1992. She was the first teacher whose class benefited from the Rockhurst partnership.

“As soon as we started our partnership with Rockhurst — I was teaching second grade — so every year the Rockhurst students would come in and work with my second grade,” Henn said. “This year the second grade teacher was trying to get all our kids to where they were supposed to be, so I moved him down from third grade, put him in second grade, so we have Rockhurst in third misplaced class.”

Henn is happy to share the Rockhurst class with a first-year teacher because she feels the program benefits the teacher as well.

“I’ve always enjoyed it because I looked at what they were doing and got ideas,” Henn said. “I enjoyed it and was able to learn from the Rockhurst students because I’ve been in the classroom forever.”

Teachers notice that the sessions influence the rest of the students’ learning. Henn used the university student visits to explain to her young students that they would continue learning through elementary school, then go to high school and could go to college.

“For me, it was a way of promoting higher education in the classroom, and the Rockhurst students work one-on-one with the kids, so they get to know the kids and the kids get to know the students,” Henn said. “I think sometimes people don’t get the opportunity to interact with college students or realize that there’s something beyond high school.”

Henn said the program has integrated well into her school over the past 10 years. Last year, despite the pandemic, the partnership continued via Zoom.

“It’s great, they’re doing great things,” Henn said. “COVID has been tough. I was in the classroom at the time and zoomed in so got 20 second years… I had to sign each of the kids in to prepare for the weekly meeting and at Rockhurst their wifi was a little spotty at times which was fun. It’s much better when they’re personal.”

Holy Cross has remained in session in person since August 2020. Logan said she noticed at other schools that language mechanics were affected by their inability to see face-to-face and hold conversations, but Henn believes Holy Cross students didn’t lose a lot of learning

“We closed for spring break when the pandemic first hit and then we were back the following August,” Henn said. “So we were only on the road for a couple of weeks and we actually prepared folders of assignments weekly and the parents would pick them up every week and they’d bring back the completed assignments every week.”

They provided families with devices and internet so they could make Zoom calls with students and held a daily afternoon homework help session.

“I felt like we handled it pretty successfully because there was still that interaction,” Henn said. “I mean, the parents just drove by and we gave them folders, but the parents were very involved.”

Holy Cross is near capacity in many classrooms and plans to add a new construction building to the preschool area for groundbreaking in the spring.

Henn never wanted to be anywhere else. However, she acknowledges that at Holy Cross they have a high turnover rate for first-year teachers.

“We’re going to hire first-year teachers, and they’re going to be here for a year or two, and that’s not what they want to teach,” Henn said. “They’ve been here just long enough to get a little experience and then go somewhere else they’d rather be. So I think for the Rockhurst students this is an open book. This is how it looks downtown, that’s fine. You know it is just that.”

Henn thinks it’s important that future teachers in communities like Northeast take a look at schools like Holy Cross, although she commends her students for their exceptionally good behavior.

“It’s great — I mean, it really is — I think everyone learns from it and everyone benefits from it,” Henn said. “I think it’s good for both our students and Rockhurst students … It’s a great big world and the more experience they have the better off they are.”

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