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Teaching the Teachers

For decades, possibly dating all the way back to 1916, the phrase “pay it forward” has been a part of American society. Variations of the adage have been used throughout history by poets, leaders, and philanthropists.

Claire St.Peter teaching a class At West Virginia University, three professors have taken that philosophy and built their research and service projects around the belief that helping one another can spread throughout society and create a movement that strengthens West Virginia’s education system.

Claire St. Peter, associate professor in the department of psychology, Michelle Withers, associate professor of biology, and Laura Pyzdrowski, professor of mathematics and pre-collegiate mathematics coordinator, all have earned national recognition for their scholarly research.

But they’ve also made it part of their mission to support K-12 teachers across the Mountain State, arming them with the tools they need to create innovative curricula and send a ripple effect throughout schools that has the potential to reach thousands of schoolchildren.

”I like tough kids”

Claire St.Peter interacting with other teachers

Claire St. Peter has partnered with Monongalia County schools for years to offer three distinct programs that focus on behavioral challenges in the classroom. Each of the programs, Behavioral Analysis for Teachers (BAT); Groups United to Inspire, Develop, and Educate Students (GUIDES); and Behavioral Education Assisting Children in Overcoming Needs (BEACON) are near and dear to St. Peter’s heart.

“The idea behind behavioral analysis in general, is that our behavior is a product of our environment. With that philosophy, it takes the blame out of the student,” she said. “We’re not trying to change these kids. These kids are good kids. Something has gone wrong in their world, and we need to change the world in which they live.”

The programs are financially supported by Monongalia County Schools, which makes them free to any teacher who is interested. Each promotes effective ways to address the behavioral needs of students diagnosed with autism and ADHD, conduct disorders aggression, communication issues, and children who act out for attention or to get out of work.

“Teachers don’t get a lot of training in behavior analysis,” St. Peter said. “There’s usually one course in behavior management for teachers, but we have students who are coming into school systems with ever-increasing behavioral and academic needs.”

The programs incorporate a three-step plan to help students with behavioral issues.

  • First, the BEACON staff meets with teachers to see what methods have already been implemented, whether they are providing additional praise or attention to students, or rewarding them for good behavior.
  • The second step is the assessment phase where the staff will try to determine why the behavior happens so that the intervention can address this cause.
  • The final step, where the change actually takes place, is the intervention phase, which is tailored to meet individual needs.

In some instances, St. Peter said, assessments of academic progress reveal that some students are acting out because they are not engaged in the instruction.

“It would be like if you dropped me in Calculus IV, or differential equations. On my best behavior I would be staring at the ceiling and goofing off, not engaged in the instruction, just because it’s so far over my head.”

Think about a fifth-grader who doesn’t know his letter sounds, who can’t decode, who doesn’t recognize numbers,” she said.

Kara Samaj, a Monongalia County teacher who’s gone through two of the professional development programs, said participants benefit professionally and personally from programs like Behavioral Analysis Training and Groups United to Inspire, Develop, and Educate Students.

“I felt more confident,” Samaj said. “BAT gave me the opportunity to expand in a field I’m already in. It was an opportunity to grow as an educator.” “Claire St. Peter is amazing. She’s a wonderful resource—so helpful,” she added. “She inspired me. It was a tough program, always a challenge. She was always supportive and positive, and she helped me grow to do things I never thought I could.”

Samaj went on to be a teacher in the Groups United to Inspire, Develop, and Educate Students Program. It is funded by a million-dollar grant from the West Virginia Department of Education and is an alternative education placement program for elementary school students.

Students who experience severe or challenging behavior and who are unable to be successful in their zoned schools participate in GUIDES. “These students just need a little bit more support,” St. Peter said. “GUIDES is there to give them that support. It’s a smaller class size, the student-to-teacher atio is better, and it’s an entirely behavior analytic class.”

The Behavioral Analysis for Teachers Program, which ended in 2011, provided teachers in Monongalia County the training needed to become behavior analysis certified instructors.

The program structure involved five graduate-level courses and 750 hours of supervised experience where teachers worked on modifying environmental factors to eliminate a student’s poor behavior.

The BEACON Program offers teachers learning strategies to help students with learning disabilities. It is offered in Monongalia County and is funded entirely by the Monongalia County School System.

“We want to help any child who needs that help, regardless of whether or not they have a particular diagnosis or a particular issue,” St. Peter said. “We deal with aggression and destruction and all of these severe things—I also help kids who have messy desks, who aren’t getting homework assignments turned in on time, and even though they are smart kids they are at risk of failing because they don’t have good organizational skills.”

While St. Peter is committed to helping all students she comes into contact with, there is one group of students in particular who motivate her and inspire her to continue working within public school systems.

“I like tough kids,” she said. “I have a particular fondness for students that are more challenging. I also have a particular fondness for elementary school students. I feel like if I can give them help when they’re little—when they’re five, six, seven, eight years old, how much better is their life going to be when they’re 15, 16, 17, 18 years old?”

A Biological Transformation

Michelle Withers Michelle Withers has evolution on the brain. Not the gradual change of biological populations over generations. But rather a change in the way science is taught and how teachers are prepped for the job.

“The first time I ever formally taught a class, I taught three classes of 250,” Withers said. “I had 1,500 students as a na´ve professor with no [teaching assistant] support. It’s scary and crazy and you make all sorts of stupid mistakes when you first start out.”

Her experience, she said, reflects a common question in higher education. Do smart students plus a strong graduate program equal effective teachers? Her vision is that those who teach will veer away from the traditional model of instruction based on lectures and notes.

“That’s not the best way to teach. We know that,” Withers said. “If you look in educational psychology, if you look in the educational field, evidence on how people learn tells us that’s not how we should be teaching.”

That’s why Withers created the West Virginia Summer Institute on Undergraduate Science Education, a five-day professional development workshop focused on scientific teaching.

The program, the only one in West Virginia of its kind, is funded by a half-million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation and is free to current or future science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) faculty. It is designed to train these faculty members how to engage their students better through active learning strategies such as brainstorming, case studies, and problem-solving.

“It’s basically trying to get people to use evidence-based methods in their classrooms,” Withers said. “One of the not-great things about the way we get trained in the sciences is that when you go through grad school, getting your Ph.D., you get a lot of rigorous training in how to do science and how to do research. Somewhere embedded in that is this misperception that if you know science you can teach it.”

Withers employs a process called deliberate practice. Put simply, it means engaging in what you’re trying to learn in order to learn more effectively.

“If the goal at the end of a class is for a person to be able to ride a bike, then what you’re going to spend time with them in class doing is practicing riding a bike,” she said. “I would certainly show you a bike, tell you some things about it and I might get on it and ride it in front of you to demonstrate how it would look, but I wouldn’t stop there.” Withers said she works with teachers to eliminate the practice of showing students material rather than engaging them in activities.

“When people walk into the classroom, what they end up doing a lot of times is what was done to them. If they sat through classes where people told them about science, then that’s what they do in their classrooms,” she said.

Stephanie Young, a teaching assistant professor in the WVU Department of Biology, attended the Institute in 2008 as a student and in 2012 as a facilitator. “The creative process that the Summer Institutes provide takes your entire group for a rather intense roller coaster ride,” she said.

“It takes you through a week of excitement, anxiety over deadlines, frustration with group members, resolution of differences within the group, pride and excitement all over again and finally culminating in a well-developed—and let’s face it, fun—student-centered lesson that allows learners to fully engage in a concept and to develop their critical thinking skills.”

The Institute, Young said, also taught her the “backward design” concept. Instructors use the process to design the assessment before they design their lectures or activities for any certain topic.

“I ask myself what a student could do to show me that they really understand a concept. Once I know what I want my students to be able to do, I can design active learning activities, discussions, and mini-lectures to guide them to that point,” she said.

About 60 percent of WVU faculty in the Department of Biology have attended the Institute. Katrina Stewart, an academic laboratory manager for the WVU Department of Biology, attended the Institute in 2009.

She had attended a National Academies Summer Institute at the University of Wisconsin in 2008, and was familiar with the teaching philosophies of the Summer Institutes, but wanted more practice developing teaching materials and implementing ideas.

“Knowing there were tools and techniques that I could use, that had been shown to work, felt empowering,” Stewart said. The program, she said, impacted her approach to measuring learning objectives. She said unless she had a clear idea of what she wanted her students to know and be able to do, she would never know if her assessments were appropriate.

“Learning objectives of covering chapters one through 12 in the textbook and asking students to fill in the blanks to make sure they completed the reading just isn’t enough,” Stewart said. “Students are capable of more and we owe it to them to design courses that truly help them develop thinking skills.”

She said Withers has changed her idea of what it takes to be a good teacher.

“I feel really fortunate to be working with Michelle. While the scientific teaching techniques she uses and taught in the Summer Institutes are not traditional, they feel natural,” she said. “Because of what I’ve learned, I want to take every opportunity to encourage student thinking.”

Young and Stewart’s experiences mirror that of Withers’ when she was first exposed to active learning training as a young professor at Louisiana State University.

“Before I started teaching like that I was horrible. My PowerPoint slides were a summary of the chapter. I felt like I had to organize the material, summarize it and tell them everything they need to know. I thought that if I didn’t say it, they wouldn’t learn it,” Withers said.

“I didn’t do it because I didn’t care about teaching, I did it because I didn’t know.”

It didn’t take long for Withers to wonder that if it bored her and she loved science, what were the students in the class experiencing? Experts and novices, Withers said, learn things very differently, which is why it is so important to erase the misperception that knowing a subject means it can be taught. Michelle Withers teaching

“If you look at master chess players, and you look at novice chess players, or intermediate chess players, they’ll approach the game differently. When an expert looks at something and they already know the big picture, they organize something from the small bits to the big thing,” she said. “Usually students aren’t interested (in the small bits) because as novices, they don’t know that much yet. They don’t know that you’re going to a really cool big thing.” Withers said now is the time for change.

“We can do such a better job for our students. When people don’t do it, most of the time it’s just because they don’t know—not because they don’t care. If we don’t change, what are we doing? It feels like a crime that everybody doesn’t know about it.”

An Equation for Successful Math Education

Laura Pyzdrowski has a full plate these days. In addition to her regular teaching duties, she’s juggling the Math with Robots Program, the Blue Ribbon Math I-For-All Program, Robot Algebra Project-Based Learning (PBL) project, and the longtime WvEB Program.

2 men in a math class As she works with high school math teachers across Berkeley, Hampshire, Harrison, Mineral, Monongalia, and Taylor counties, she said limited resources for professional development would ultimately hurt students.

“It’s very difficult for teachers to find the time and funding to have professional development—even if it’s something online. If we didn’t have the opportunity to go after funding to support the teachers I think it would be difficult for many teachers to take advantage of these types of things,” Pyzdrowski said. Laura Pyzdrowski

Four years ago, she developed the Math with Robots Program, and while it started in the state, it has since grown to involve high school teachers in Alabama, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, and New Jersey.

Funded by a grant from the West Virginia Department of Education, the program is designed for high school engineering, and math (STEM) into student coursework.

“What we really wanted to do was through the lens of mathematics, integrate the use of science and engineering design,” Pyzdrowski said.

Twenty-Five middle school teachers have been trained on the components of Dimension M educational software and algebra materials related to robotics through Math with Robots.

Pyzdrowski and her husband created a West Virginia branch of the national Robot Algebra Project-Based Learning (PBL) Project, which offers new modules to the algebra mathematics curriculum.

During the 2010-2011 school year, teachers in the project received a mathematics gaming program to use in their classrooms. The students play offline or online in game rooms against classmates and students across the nation.

The company that created the software sponsors national contest annually where students can play online and earn points. The ten students with the most points in the nation at the end of each round win a gift card and are invited to compete in the finals level of competition in New York City. In the spring of 2011, sixth-grade student Jason Didawick from Mineral County, finished ninth overall in the last round of the competition. He is the only student in West Virginia to receive this honor.

Laura Pyzdrowski teaching When Pyzdrowski isn’t tackling robot curricula, she’s managing the Blue Ribbon Math I-for-All Program, which helps Math I teachers in the state develop lesson plans for children with special needs.

“We had a teacher who had never had a student with special needs in her classroom. She got a lot out of her experience in Blue Ribbon Math,” Pyzdrowski said.

She is also heavily involved with the Elementary and Secondary Education Math Program, where she coordinates mathematics courses for WVU students who want to become math teachers.

Pyzdrowski works with teachers in the math department to develop the coursework to fit the needs of the students. Through the WvEB Program, a program in existence for 13 years that offers college credit to high school students across the state, Pyzdrowski works with West Virginia high school teachers to offer courses that will improve the transition of students from high school to college.

Katherine Marino, a teacher at Liberty High School in Harrison County, West Virginia, said she uses the coursework from the WvEB Program in her classroom and has participated in the continuing education offered by the Math with Robots course and the Blue Ribbon Math programs.

“(Pyzdrowski)’s a really special person for knowing what the teachers need and the students need. She has a foresight,” she said. “She’s really the work force. It’s just amazing.”

Diana Munza, a teacher at Fairmont Senior High School, is a former teacher in the WvEB Program and took a class offered through the Blue Ribbon Math Program.

“(Blue Ribbon Math) made me a stronger teacher—better prepared to teach my students,” Munza said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for teachers throughout the state to learn about the new math curriculum.”

Munza worked closely with Pyzdrowski and made it clear that Pyzdrowski had a very strong work ethic.

“She truly cares about the education of teachers and students,” she said. “I’m just one of many who appreciate the opportunity she made available to teachers.”

Pyzdrowski said that although she spends roughly 50 percent of her time on outreach efforts, the payoff of being a part of the experience makes it worth it.

“I find it rewarding. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it. I really enjoy working with the teachers.”

Those sentiments, St. Peter and Withers said, are shared among them as well. Together the three represent a sample of professors whose initiatives spread across the state through hands-on experiments, lesson plans, and outside-the-box thinking.