Jan Solano arrived at the home of virtual strangers to watch, like a fly on the wall, how they prepared themselves for the day.
It was 6 a.m.
The mother of the family knew that Solano, a junior Middle Level Teaching and Learning major, was coming. She’d invited the NIU student, in fact, as part of volunteering as subject matter for Solano’s research project.
But the children, ranging in age from preschool to high school, did not. They were in various stages of waking up and going through the motions of their morning rituals, and Solano wanted to see their natural behavior.
Did it seem dysfunctional – or natural? Did it resemble in any way their classroom behavior?
Her visits – she peeked inside two different homes within the school-university partnership community – were borne from more than mere curiosity, however.
Solano was conducting field research under the umbrella of Educate Local’s Project CUP (Clinical Urban Plunge) to help preservice teachers like herself to understand some of the unimaginable challenges that students might face beyond the school grounds, to recognize how children might exhibit the effects of that trauma and how to accommodate those young learners.
“When we’re in our clinicals, a lot of times we only get to know our students on one side,” says Solano, who grew up in Niles, “but there might be so many things happening on the outside.”
For example, neither family she observed during her Spring Break from NIU has a father or husband present in the home.
Considered one way, it’s a good thing: Both of the men were abusers before they abandoned their families – one still plays a minor role in the care of his children, while the other’s whereabouts are unknown. In another respect, though, it’s forced the mothers to become the sole financial providers and has drafted older siblings into the role of co-parent.
Both families also had experienced homelessness and required the assistance of shelters after the fathers left.
“The mothers are the heads of the household,” Solano says. “They signed up for this program to get their stories out.”
Among those stories are tales of a boy who throws temper tantrums and tosses chairs across the classroom. Or of a boy who yanks his shirt over his head to hide, keeping his feelings inside while remaining mostly nonsocial with his classmates and defiant to his teacher.
Or of a girl who treats her anxiety with food; the 15-year-old freshman is left physical and mentally exhausted each morning as she gets her siblings out the door and frequently arrives tardy to high school because of it.
“If no one told me the background of these students – if I didn’t know their fathers had left – then I would never know in the classroom that something deeper was going on,” Solano says. “With one of these kids, I could have misinterpreted their behaviors as wanting to be antisocial or just wanting to be the weird, outsider kid. It’s hard to tell with a lot of these kids.”
Gathering her data included following the elementary school children to their buildings after their older siblings had fed and dressed them. She observed them in class, and interviewed their teachers, principals and social workers.
Later, she returned to their homes after school to watch the family dynamic as they waited for their mothers to arrive following the end of their work shifts. Finally, she chatted with each mother about their situations.
Solano’s research began at the school district headquarters, where she spent Day One learning about the McKinney-Vento law from the family liaisons who assist students from unstable homes with services such as securing access to tutoring, being able to attend field trips and even finding transportation to school or medical appointments.
As a result, her eyes are wide open to the complicated landscape of education and the steep challenge presented to teachers.
“It’s kind of hard to balance the social-emotional aspect with what you’re teaching students. There’s so much more to teaching than just giving information. These students – they’re all people, just trying to go through their lives,” she says. “Walking in these students’ shoes, and hearing these students’ stories, I am able to see these students as a whole person, and to see these students as someone going through experiences.”
Project CUP is grounded in the overarching belief that learning how to meet the diverse needs of adolescent students requires engagement in authentic experiences within diverse learning environments, paces where clinical practice and partnership are central to high-quality teacher preparation.
CUP specifically provides an opportunity for personal growth and reflection in social justice and equity education along with professional development activities. NIU coursework, meanwhile, links theory to practice and focused on supporting students with diverse needs
Donna Werderich, an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, and coordinator of the Middle Level Teaching and Learning program, and Jennifer Johnson, director of teacher preparation for the NIU College of Education, are proud of Solano and her work.
The student presented her Project CUP findings on campus at the Undergraduate Research and Artistry Day and the college’s Student Research Symposium as well at the school district and inside the Illinois State Capitol as part of the Illinois Innovation Network’s “Posters Under the Dome.”
“How fortunate we are to embark on a research mentoring relationship with Jan,” Werderich says. “She is an enthusiastic, inquisitive, and empathetic undergraduate researcher who has become empowered to generate meaningful work and inspire her fellow peers.”
“Jan is research-minded, articulate and culturally proficient. She has been a positive influence among her peers, and has represented NIU with distinction,” Johnson adds. “Participation in the Clinical Urban Plunge provides candidates the opportunity for personal growth and reflection in social justice and equity education, and through the process of mentoring Jan, I was able to observe firsthand the transformational impact of the experience.”
Solano clearly is changed.
As she nears the end of her yearlong clinical placement in another urban school district, where she has taught science at a middle school, she wishes she gained her understanding earlier.
“The situations that students are going through in my research are very similar to what my students are going through. Family separation. Homelessness. Families where parents are not allowed to see the children,” she says. “I’ve been in my placement since the fall, and I’ve been aware that these situations are going on. But have I been emotionally aware about it? Not really.”
It’s what makes Project CUP’s lessons so important to her.
One of her students, for example, is a sixth-grader who is the oldest of five siblings. His mom’s not around, making him the de facto caregiver for those younger brothers and sisters.
His behavior in the classroom is “loud and curt,” Solano says, and sometimes he opens a book rather than keeping his eyes on the teacher.
Solano initially assumed that boy would rather read his books than pay attention – “His behaviors lead you to believe that he does not want to be there,” she says – but later learned from the teacher that the boy still turns in his work with correct answers.
“You think he’s ignoring you, but this is one of his coping skills. He takes his book out to create a barrier between himself and other people. He’s not reading his book at all. It’s his protection so that others don’t interact with him and so he can focus on the class,” she says.
“Now that I’ve done the CUP experience, I can be kinder and more patient,” she adds. “The person comes first.”
Teachers must think of gentle ways to advocate for these students, she adds.
One teacher she observed during Project CUP, for example, was patient with the boy who tugged his shirt over his face, not forcing something out of him but encouraging him instead.
“What are the things I can do in my classroom to make things better or at least more comfortable?” Solano asks.
“It’s really about focusing on the student as a person. They can’t be only ‘just a student.’ They can’t just flip the switch and have that academic mindset the second they enter the classroom,” she says. “This is their life. This is what they’re experiencing. They can’t just switch that off and forget about it. There’s so much you have to consider when it comes to your students.”
Professional development already helps, she believes, remembering lessons she and her NIU classmates learned during a seminar they were provided on trauma-informed instruction.
ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) training connects well in helping teachers to recognize and empower children who come from difficult situations, she says.
“We can’t change the fact that their dad is gone. We can’t change the fact that they’re homeless. But we can support them. It’s not about making sure they’re A+ students, but making them feel safe and welcome, and showing them that you’re willing to work with them,” Solano says.
“Teachers have the power to shape what happens within the school environment. Teachers can make their classroom environments physically and emotionally responsive to student needs. Teachers can control their own behavior in the classroom,” she adds. “It costs nothing to have a good attitude, to keep promises and to be a reliably safe adult.”