Food for thought: Special Ed faculty tap technology to maintain early clinicals

Lisa Liberty watches a lesson in Blackboard Collaborate.
Lisa Liberty watches a lesson in Blackboard Collaborate.

Faculty from the Department of Special and Early Education (SEED) knew that their technological pivot of early clinical teaching requirements during COVID-19 was making lemonade from lemons.

Among the things they learned from the abrupt shift from actual K-12 classrooms to Blackboard Collaborate, though? “Punctuation is like a cheese pizza, and pepperoni is like a comma” – an analogy made by a student during a video lesson on writing.

Laura Hedin, Lisa Liberty and Lydia Gerzel-Short are enjoying the fruits of their labors to preserve meaningful practicum experiences for juniors in the B.S.Ed. in Special Education program while schools are closed throughout the state.

“This is Lydia’s genius idea,” says Liberty of what Gerzel-Short is calling “Cross-Teach.”

“When the schools shut down, our students still had a week-and-a-half that they needed to finish out in their clinicals,” adds Liberty, an assistant professor in SEED. “This is when they teach their lessons to a small group of students or an individual student. It gives them opportunities to practice applying what they’ve learned in our coursework out in the field.”

Gerzel-Short’s brilliant solution harnessed the power of Blackboard Collaborate to pair students from Block 1 with students in Block 2.

Lydia Gerzel-Short
Lydia Gerzel-Short and Jacob

Block 1 is the first professional semester, when teacher-candidates cover beginning reading and math skills for children with mild disabilities at the elementary level. Block 2 focuses on students with mild disabilities at the middle and secondary levels.

Candidates, who also include some Elementary Education majors seeking their Special Education endorsement, created videos of themselves teaching their lessons to a peer in the program. They conducted their lessons, originally designed on data collected before the sudden end of their clinicals, in real time on Blackboard Collaborate, making videos as they modeled high-leverage instructional practices.

Once one candidate finished, the roles then switched so that each teacher-candidate had a chance to be the teacher and the student.

After each candidate recorded their lesson, they used a reflective framework provided by their instructors to review and critique the videos. They made a second recording of themselves providing feedback to one another in a reflective conversation.

“We’ve had some students that have given some very rich feedback,” says Gerzel-Short, an assistant professor who teaches candidates in blocks 1 and 2.

“They’ve surprised me in an exciting way. They were really taking it seriously. They’re not just responding to the prompts; they’re actually providing examples, and going deeper, which is really what I am looking for,” she adds. “They are beginning to see this iterative process – that teaching is not just one-and-done. It’s a continual reflection on your practice, and then it’s constant.”

Laura Hedin
Laura Hedin

It’s in that student-to-student feedback that the professors learned about pizza, pepperoni and punctuation – something a Block 2 student said while teaching a lesson on writing and the rules regarding commas.

“After explaining a definition or rule, you added an example making it more clear for me to understand,” the Block 1 student responded. “Thinking of punctuation as something to add to your writing to make it better was a perfect comparison to adding toppings on a pizza.”

Some of the input on “areas for growth” takes the valuable form of constructive criticism.

“Practice your letter sounds a bit more and be sure you are consistent with the sounds.” “Slow down a little while talking. It is a little hard to comprehend all the formulas when you are saying them so quickly.” “Having more visuals would’ve been nice.”

Hedin, who begins new duties July 1 as SEED department chair, believes that Cross-Teach is providing an “authentic experience” for licensure candidates.

“You can see that they’re really targeting on things you would expect them to see as substantial, changes that they need to make or things that they really did do well that are part of best practice,” Hedin says.

Block 2 candidates, she adds, “are getting kind of a maintenance experience” through the process.

“We’ve noticed that by the time they get to student-teaching, they kind of forget that they had learned all these critical phonics skills, but now that they’re doing the cross-teach, they’re being taught those phonics lessons again: What are the short vowel sounds? What are the long vowel sounds? Just getting that maintenance and that refresher course, I think, has been very good.”

Jennifer Johnson, director of Teacher Development and Preparation for the NIU College of Education, likes what she sees.

Jennifer Johnson
Jennifer Johnson

“This innovative work is exciting because the model allows for truly collaborative coaching and mentoring,” Johnson says. “Teacher-candidates are engaged in the process of growth in their practice.”

Liberty and Gerzel-Short, known for their innovative ideas, are already thinking that way.

For example, Liberty created a structure within her department that requires teacher-candidates to write their lesson plans, submit them for faculty review, teach them in front of the camera, watch their own footage and then reteach the lessons with revisions and improvements.

Gerzel-Short was instrumental in convincing her colleagues to use video clips and video-taping lessons as part of clinical experiences because she knew the edTPA was coming with that very component.

It was their decision to bring in Jason Underwood, director of Instructional Design and Development at NIU’s Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning, who built “organization shells” in Blackboard Collaborate that facilitate Cross-Teach and its virtual meeting of teacher-candidates.

Meanwhile, their current instructional innovation grant – temporarily on hold for COVID-19 – was intended to create a model that would demonstrate high-quality reflection for teacher-candidates and provide a mechanism for cooperating teachers to mentor students in that practice.

And when their grant work resumes, they will have another angle.

Cross-Teach “has allowed me to think more deeply about the project and how we can structure opportunities for our candidates to be more reflective using technology,” Liberty says.

“I always look at the students’ videos through the lens of what could I add to my classroom instruction the next time I do this to make sure they really grasp that skill or that technique,” she says. “What a powerful opportunity to see how the students are implementing these strategies with a peer – and think about how that would then work for a child who’s struggling or needs that extra support.”

Lydia Gerzel-Short and Lydia
Lydia Gerzel-Short and Lydia

Gerzel-Short is equally excited.

“It’s kind of cool to see how things are evolving,” she says.

“I’m beginning to see that this is another side of research for me that I’m interested in,” she adds. “I can still have my passion about families and how we work with families, but that this other vein of teacher-instruction and teacher-development is really an important aspect of my role as a faculty member and an area of research that I think is really necessary.”

But the prime motivation for the pair remains the growth and heightened confidence of teacher-candidates at NIU and their eventual impact on the field, whether face-to-face in physical classrooms or in unexpected online environments.

“They were disappointed that they weren’t going to be able to return to their clinicals. They had worked really hard on planning these lessons, and had invested so much time,” Liberty says.

“Even though some of them were nervous or scared to turn on their video camera, or were nervous to talk to somebody and teach with somebody that they had never met before,” she adds, “I think now that being on the other side – having done this – it really brought some closure to this experience and allowed them to see that they can deliver a lesson They saw they could do it, and now they’re proud of themselves.”

Lisa Liberty and Lydia Gerzel-Short
Lisa Liberty and Lydia Gerzel-Short

It’s a great feeling, Gerzel-Short says, for students – and for faculty.

“It’s just very powerful to watch someone who – they’re so green – and then to kind of see them evolve and develop! We see that through the blocks before they move into preservice teaching, but I think this experience has let me see it a little sooner.”

Such caring is the mark of great teachers, Hedin says.

The incoming department chair has gained from Cross-Teach the wisdom to “pick the right people and get out of their way,” adding that she felt more than comfortable in “being able to let Lydia and Lisa take the lead.”

“This is their creation,” Hedin says, “and I’m really excited to see what’s going to happen in the future.”

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