Valuable experience: Students continue to research, present with COE professors

Lorena Flores glimpsed how just one NIU Department of Curriculum and Instruction class in multiculturalism could influence the beliefs of the students who had come before her in Gabel Hall.

Gisela Lopez-Lauderdale learned how P-12 schools can best engage Latino families of children with disabilities.

Courtney Rieb explored how music can promote language acquisition as well as the power of developing interventions that help young children to self-manage their classroom behavior.

All were among NIU College of Education students who conducted research at the behest of their professors and who, during the fall semester, attended professional conferences to present their findings.

Fall road trips included the fall convention of the Illinois Council for Exceptional Children, held Nov. 1 to 3 in Naperville; the National Association for Multicultural Education annual conference, held Nov. 27 to Nov. 30 in Memphis; and the Illinois Statewide Conference for Teachers Serving Linguistically and Culturally Diverse Students, held Dec. 4 to 7 in Oak Brook.

“They are learning how to be researchers, and they are learning how to be leaders in the field – taking work they have done and disseminating it to strangers,” says Natalie Andzik, an assistant professor in the Department of Special and Early Education (SEED).

“I just find it so exceptional,” Andzik adds. “When I was an undergraduate, you did not do research. You did not go to conferences. You did not present. This is a nice way of showing them that the work they’re doing in their classes is not busy work. It’s meaningful. It’s impactful. What they’re doing can really make a difference.”

Natalie Andzik and James Cohen
Natalie Andzik and James Cohen

James Cohen, an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, agrees. Cohen long has worked with his students on research, inviting them to accompany him to conferences and collaborating on published articles.

“Doing this really shows that they’re not just users of information, but that they can also be creators of knowledge, because that’s what researchers do,” Cohen says. “That’s really exciting for an undergraduate. How many undergraduates get an opportunity to go to a national or statewide conference?”

FLORES BEGAN WORKING WITH COHEN in November of 2016, when the professor offered her and her classmates in LTIC 400 the opportunity to conduct research and perhaps get published before they graduate.

Cohen always presents his teacher licensure candidates with a number of “facts and misconceptions that a lot of us weren’t aware of,” Flores says. “He makes people think about themselves, to truly reflect on, and consider, that some of their students have different situations that they might not have had when they were students.”

Therefore, the question became clear. How effective was Cohen’s teaching? What level of paradigm shift can take place in just one semester in terms of their beliefs about multiculturalism and privilege?

He provided Flores with survey results from prior semesters to form her data base.

Lorena Flores
Lorena Flores

“During the first year, we were just reading through surveys where they were expressing their thoughts and how they changed,” says Flores, a senior Middle Level Teaching and Learning science major from Carol Stream who also collaborated with Assistant Professor John Evar Strid and three undergraduate classmates. “After that, we decided to actually evaluate their lesson plans to see if what they learned in 301 was actually being applied successfully.”

Progress was observed in both cases, she says, but more dramatically in the former. Their ability to plan lessons is still taking shape, she explains.

“LTIC 301 is the very beginning of the six courses for the ESL endorsement, so we saw that a lot of them had the concepts down – but the pedagogy they still had to work on,” she says.

“It’s so early in their educational career. They have not been placed yet in clinical placements. They haven’t seen a classroom yet,” she adds. “They might think, ‘Let’s celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.,’ but then they don’t go into his work. We saw that they did have the concepts down, but they didn’t know how to go deeper. We wanted them to go deeper by bridging the past to how it continues to currently impact society.”

Flores, who is earning her ESL and Bilingual endorsements, is student-teaching this semester at Leman Middle School in West Chicago.

She already is realizing why Cohen’s philosophies are important.

“Teachers need to be able to self-reflect and to actually understand where students are coming from before they ever try to judge them or their actions. There’s a reason they are the way they are,” she says. “It’s allowed me to take a step back and just really reflect, to see how the beliefs or thoughts or actions I have can be perceived by students. I’m self-aware of how I present myself.”

Her experience at NAME, meanwhile, adds to her positive memories of presenting with Cohen at conferences. She did the same in December of 2017 at the Illinois Statewide Conference for Teachers Serving Linguistically and Culturally Diverse Students.

“The NAME conference in Memphis was a little more intimidating, but it was actually a very open and welcoming environment,” Flores says. “The other educators knew we were undergrads, but they were open to research and how we presented ourselves.”

Gisela Lopez-Lauderdale
Gisela Lopez-Lauderdale

LOPEZ-LAUDERDALE BEGAN HER PROJECT at the suggestion of Myoung Jung, an associate professor of Early Childhood Education in SEED.

“My research was more of a review of the literature that’s out there on working with families of Latino children with disabilities,” says Elgin native Lopez-Lauderdale, who is pursuing her M.S.Ed. in Early Childhood Education.

“What I found was that there wasn’t a lot of research out here,” she adds. “That was a challenge.”

Many of the strategies offered in the studies that Lopez-Lauderdale could find were, unfortunately, applicable to families of all races and ethnicities.

Yet one study did provide a good recommendation. “One researcher suggested making sure you have staff who are not just bilingual but bicultural,” she says.

“A lot of school districts have staff who are bilingual, but that can be a challenge in and of itself because the Latino culture varies so greatly between countries and regions, she adds. “If you have staff who are Puerto Rican, they might not understand all of the language and culture of a family from, say, Central America.”

Lopez-Lauderdale uncovered two other worthwhile ideas.

One advises giving professional development to non-Latino school staff who work with families “to bridge those gaps of the different Latino cultures that exist with the larger Latino culture.”

The second urges “working with Latino families to educate them more fully on their rights and responsibilities,” she says. “Even though school districts might try to provide what they can, they might not always know what a family needs. They needs families to express what the need – to advocate for themselves and for their children also.”

Now beginning her student-teaching at Huff Elementary School in Elgin U-46, Lopez-Lauderdale calls her experience at Illinois Council for Exceptional Children (ICEC) a great one.

Joining her peers provided her with confidence through the realization that neither conducting academic research nor presenting at conferences seems “scary” like they did before.

“Something important in my career is to be able to see that I am capable of those things,” says Lopez-Lauderdale, who holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and worked for a decade in child care centers and with Head Start before coming to the NIU College of Education to obtain teacher licensure.

ICEC also allowed her to make professional connections, some of whom prompted self-reflection.

“When I was at the conference, a lot of people I spoke or presented to asked if I was planning to be a special education teacher,” she says. “That’s not my goal, but I do understand my role in the process. The more I am able to engage a family to help them or help their students, they more they’ll be able to engage in their children’s education.”

RIEB PRESENTED AT TWO CONFERENCES, both ICEC and the Illinois Statewide Conference for Teachers Serving Linguistically and Culturally Diverse Students.

Her poster talk at ICEC was the same one she gave last spring for Undergraduate Research and Artistry Day and the College of Education’s Student Research Symposium.

Courtney Rieb
Courtney Rieb

At the other conference, she covered something new: a review of available literature on the influence of music on language acquisition. As Lopez-Lauderdale had experienced, however, Rieb discovered there wasn’t much to read.

But the study – Rieb’s senior capstone project – merits further investigation.

“I like to listen to music, and so do a lot of people. Music means something. It can conjure up memories,” she says. “If music can make that much of an impact on the way we feel and the way we think, we should be getting some language from it.”

Many people already use music to lower their inhibitions in new environments, she says, or as a vehicle to learn and speak a foreign language.

One study Rieb perused reported that people unfamiliar with the culture of London and Great Britain listened to English songs to understand “the ways they speak and the things they do.”

Conversely, the senior Elementary Education major from Antioch knows that she finds familiarity in the music that she prefers.

“I like to listen to country music,” she says. “For me, it talks a lot about life, about the way people are living life together with their family and friends. It reminds me of my own life, and of summer.”

Rieb received help on the project from one of Cohen’s former students – Lila Chavez, a music teacher in Elgin U-46 – who was able to supply existing lesson plans backed up by the research Rieb had found.

“Music can be great for the classroom,” Rieb says. “It can help make students comfortable in the classroom. It can put them at ease, especially if it’s something they’ve listened to before. It encourages students to practice together. It encourages a sense of community. It encourages students who aren’t comfortable speaking on their own to participate in class.”

Teachers also can use song lyrics and rhythms to help students pronounce different sounds and to hear those sounds compared to others, she adds.

Such ideas went over well at the conference.

“It was really cool to share that with everybody; I was getting some emails back from people, and that was very encouraging because it meant they were listening and wanted more information,” she says. “I was really honored to be there, and I thought it was a rich learning experience.”

Rieb and Cohen now hope to promote her findings to a larger audience.

“We will be preparing my paper for publication this spring, going over it and putting it into terms easier for teachers to understand,” she says. “I want to give more examples and more applications that are based on the research I found.”

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