GCU and Westwood: Teacher training accelerated

The pre-service resident teachers posed for a celebratory photo.

Third of a four-part series

Story by Theresa Smith
Photos by David Kadlubowski, Bethany Huffman and Theresa Smith
GCU News Bureau

The concept of past, present and future resonated with the first-graders in Samantha Finch’s group. They understood when Finch applied it to the chronology of their day: waking up and eating breakfast happened earlier in the day – the past. Learning the timeline was the present and going home after school fit the future category.

One student did not understand, however -- he put the pictures depicting past, present and future in the wrong order. So Finch explained it again – with a different example.

“He was able to redo it, recall it and say it to the other students,’’ Finch said. “It touched my heart.’’

Finch was thrilled to see her student’s eyes light up with pride and excited that her re-teaching effort produced results.

Assistant Professor Jena Akard is demanding yet inspiring.

Moments like these are common for Grand Canyon University students in the College of Education (COE) who are gaining accelerated teaching preparation in an innovative pre-service resident teaching program. In its second semester at Westwood Elementary School and fourth semester overall, the program puts educational theory into practice.

During the first semester, on Mondays and Wednesdays in classrooms on the Westwood campus, they learned theory in University classes taught by their ebullient and meticulously prepared leader, Assistant Professor Jena Akard. On Fridays, in collaboration with Westwood classroom teachers, they presented detailed lessons.

Pointing the way

One of the lessons prepared and delivered by Jasmine Diaz involved teaching north, south, east and west to 27 first-grade English Learners (ELs). Making it fun and memorable, she wrote a song with motions: Jump to the east, swim to the north, dance to the south and slide to the west.

Resident teachers Daisy Garcia (left) and Tammia Jones show enthusiasm.

“They started getting it and we expanded on it with a scavenger hunt,’’ Diaz said of preparing a map of individual classrooms with a color-coordinated key and directional markers. “They had so much fun following directional clues to find hidden cups in each room. We celebrated with a roller-coaster dance.’’

The confidence Diaz gained throughout the fall semester is paying off now as she meets teaching licensure requirements by serving as a student-teacher in Nipomo, Calif.

“I definitely felt more confident,’’ she said. “The first week (Jan. 14-18) you are supposed to sit back and observe and get the routines down, but on the first day I was already assessing students, getting to know them, and already doing hands-on activities. The whole experience at Westwood prepared me for that. I didn’t feel like I should sit back and observe, I felt like I should interact with the students.’’

Jasmine Diaz beams on her first day as a student-teacher in Nipomo, Calif.

Diaz evaluated kindergartners and first graders as they read out loud, emphasizing the “ai’’ sound from words like "sail" and "pail." Also, she asked them to count from 1 to 100 and wrote down their end point.

“It was fun,’’ she said. “I learned a lot of their names on the first day. I want to immerse myself in the school community the way we did at Westwood.’’

Like Diaz, Jordan Williams also worked with EL students at Westwood and learned an important lesson about adjusting to change. When an influx of students enrolled after the school year started, the first-grade classes were reconfigured to balance the number of EL students.

"We were starting over and getting to know them all of them was difficult at first,’’ she said. “But you see a lot of improvement. They progressed from drawing pictures to writing sentences with capitals and periods.’’

Westwood students made drawings for their resident teachers from GCU.

Thankful for GCU teachers

By Thanksgiving, when asked to draw what they were thankful for, several Westwood students drew "GCU teachers."

The drawings were hung in the hallways for all to see.

“It was so nice to know the kids were thinking of us,’’ Williams said.

Mediating a conflict between a pair of first-grade students ranked high on Hannah Pastor’s list of daunting challenges.

“Honestly, I didn’t know what to do because I’ve never been in that situation. You don’t want to overstep with the classroom teacher,’’ she said of Taber Landis. “So I asked her what to do. They have a behavior chart, so if they misbehave they have to clip down. I explained to the student that she should be nice and kind to her peers.’’

As Pastor analyzed afterward, she realized the conflict stemmed from a disagreement over the rules of a new math game.

Resident teacher Hannah Pastor writes down student responses.

“It was challenging for our students, so I think it was a good game to play,’’ she said. “But anytime you introduce a game, you are going to have problems the first time. I would try it again because they seemed really engaged. But I would demonstrate it with one group and have everyone watch.’’

The flash cards for the game showed two numbers. In pairs, one at a time each student determined which number was higher. The student with the most correct answers was the winner. 

“They were excited to score points, so it was competition,’’ Pastor said. “And I think competition is really good in the classroom just because it encourages students. I feel like math is difficult to teach to younger kids. It takes creativity. For a lesson about fractions we demonstrated by dividing up chocolate bars. Manipulatives are really helpful for kids.’’

Westwood Principal Theresa Killingsworth presents teddy bears to the GCU resident teachers.

Pastor is student-teaching this spring and graduating in April.

”Especially with giving a lesson with some kids not listening and some acting up, I wouldn’t know what to do as a student-teacher if I didn’t have this experience first,’’ she said.

A complete view 

Westwood Principal Theresa Killingsworth said the assimilation into school culture and the myriad of experiences provide a complete view of what a teaching career is all about.

“The program helps GCU students realize early whether or not this is for them,’’ she said. “Sometimes I think college students go into a classroom and they don’t get the full picture and they think, ‘This isn’t for me.’ So I feel like having this program gives GCU students the full picture. They get to see the family nights, they get to see what happens in the teachers’ lounge, and they get to see what it is like in the morning when they greet the students getting out of their cars.”

After Landis asked her first-graders to tell a story, through pictures and words, of what they do with GCU “teachers," their responses were heartfelt, including:

  • GCU students are smart.
  • They help us when we are confused.
  • They make us happy.
  • They are excited to help us learn.
Genesis Gonzales (left) and Alexis Bontrager prepare a lesson together.

In Landis’ classroom, the color-coded carpet helps the students sit on the floor in orderly rows for speaking and listening activities, and their numbered tables organize them for written tasks. She is a huge proponent of incorporating GCU pre-service resident teachers.

“The kids love it,’’ she said. “They look forward to Fridays. My attendance is better on Fridays because they know they have four sets of people coming in to teach. And I have a GCU student intern on Thursdays. She leads a small group, so attendance is good on Thursdays.’’

Among the science content last fall was a unit on clouds. Landis taught the types of clouds all week, emphasizing their different shapes, and the pre-service resident teachers topped it off with a Friday lesson in which first graders made motions for each type of cloud while repeating the name of the type called out by their aspiring teachers.

In an informal assessment at the end, GCU students made the cloud motion and asked the 27 first-graders to call out the corresponding cloud name. They did so correctly.

Alexis Bontrager explains the bug markings.

“I give a standard and a suggestion and they make it meaningful for the kids,’’ Landis said of the GCU students. “And it is nice because there is more than one person, more than just me. I love that they are here. I think it is great practice to have resident teachers. We all have different teaching styles, so it is good for them to see a variety. I see them pick up what I do, making lines for the 'War' game. I do help with class management because of the eight new kids.’’

Extra instruction 

Along with Akard, who scoots in and out of classrooms taking detailed evaluator notes, Landis meets with the pre-service resident teachers when her first-graders are away at specials (physical education, library, art or music).

Assistant Professor Jena Akard (right) works closely with Westwood Principal Theresa Killingsworth.

“They ask a lot of questions in person and by email,’’ she said. “They really want to plan the lessons well.’’

The post-lesson conversations start with a Landis compliment; then she asks if they considered other approaches.

Positive feedback from Landis and other Westwood teachers prompted an increasing number of their brethren to ask Akard to send them GCU pre-service resident teachers. At the beginning of the fall semester, GCU students were paired with six Westwood teachers. By the end of the semester, 15 were on board.

 “Teachers are very protective of their classroom time,’’ said Dr. Jennifer Johnson, GCU’s Director of Academic Alliances and a former teacher, principal and superintendent. “They have a lot to accomplish in a limited amount of time, so they are not going to waste time. They want to make sure when they let our kids in to teach lessons that it is actually going to help. And I think our students did a spectacular job proving to those Westwood teachers that they were well prepared.’’

GCU collected and gained donations for 1,600 teddy bears; the surplus went to students at Barcelona Elementary School.

After watching her students in action, COE Dean Dr. Kimberly LaPrade heaped on the praise in an address to all pre-service resident teachers.

“I could not be more proud of our faculty and our students,’’ she said. “Your professionalism and how you’re role models for these kids is infectious. It is emotional for me, knowing that you are going to be teaching all over; you are going to change lives.’’

When several of the GCU students attempted to donate teddy bears for a Johnson-led drive that yielded one teddy for each Westwood student and a surplus of 600 more for nearby Barcelona Elementary, Killingworth insisted that they keep them. She made sure each pre-service resident teacher went home from their last day of the fall semester with a replica of the school mascot.

“Once a Westwood Teddy Bear, always a Westwood Teddy Bear,’’ she said at the end-of-semester celebration. “We are always here for you. We appreciate every one of you.’’

Starfish poem

Akard, who mixes high expectations with unconditional love for her students, shared the starfish poem with all 40 young ladies, as a last piece of motivation about the importance of making a difference, even if it is only for one student or one starfish.

Brittney Girard shows off her resident teacher certificate on celebration day.

Presenting each student with a starfish pin and a card, Akard wrote, “Be a starfish thrower.’’

Surrounded by symbols of their success, she used a PowerPoint to illustrate their door-decorating project, their help with the school carnival and their lessons on habitat, sun dials, self-defense, reindeer and growing lima beans – never mind the ones that accidentally developed mold.

Mark Yslas, Superintendent of the Alhambra Elementary School District, and GCU Board of Trustees member Dr. Jim Rice were among the stakeholders attending the celebration, which was replete with presents, positivity and pabulum, as evidenced in a celebratory video prepared by Bethany Huffman of GCU’s K-12 Educational Development.

For many of the students, the mid-December celebration was a going-away party since the vast majority are student-teaching this semester, graduating in April and starting independent teaching jobs in August.

“They actually get a lot of experience teaching, so they feel so prepared to go into student- teaching,’’ LaPrade said. “And we’re seeing many of them go from this type of program into the student-teaching intern certificate, a paid student-teaching position. We’re really excited about that pathway to build their expertise, skill and confidence.’’

Five GCU students are student-teaching this spring semester at Westwood, and a mostly new group of 40 students are in the pre-service resident teaching program, which is now on a Tuesday-Thursday schedule.

“It has worked out very well for us,’’ Killingsworth said.

It also could be an introduction to future full-time teachers.

“She (Killingsworth) can interview the best of the best, and they are already part of the community," LaPrade said. "It is a grow-your-own strategy. Now they are comfortable in the Alhambra Elementary School District.’’

Next: the effects of GCU’s Learning Lounge on Westwood students.

Contact Theresa Smith at (602) 639-7457 or [email protected].


GCU Magazine (Part 1 of series): Academic Excellence program embraces schools

GCU Today (Part 2 of series): GCU is all in with Westwood Elementary


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