I’ve recently been asked to work with our career office in the School of Education, doing consultation and professional development around our student teachers’ e-portfolios. This means that I’ve got to confront head-on some of my misgivings about the e-portfolio project and how it relates to preparing student teachers.
When I first became a student teaching supervisor, I asked a colleague what he covered during the weekly two-hour seminar. The answer: “Their placements. I find out what they want to talk about and we talk about that.” As an educator committed to student-centered learning, it was comforting to know that there was a precedent for using students’ interests and questions as grounds for curricular decisions. But when I asked my students what they wanted to cover at one of our early seminars during that first semester, I only got two answers: classroom management and how to find a job. Certainly, we would devote time to the first, but I’m not particularly qualified to deal with the second. Nor did that seem to match what I’d been told by my supervisor was the purpose of the student teaching seminar: to prepare students for the profession of teaching, in whatever classroom they might be in.
(This dearth of topics, by the way, was no fluke. Last semester, my students still had only two answers: Classroom management, the monkey on the back of all beginning teachers, and how to teach the presidential election. While student teachers want to feel that seminar is responding to their interests and concerns as teachers, they often are still in the process of developing those interests and concerns. But that’s a topic for a later post…)
What’s more, in the first set of observations, I was seeing a whole host of issues worth addressing that were not necessarily at the forefront of student teachers’ reflections—issues like authentic questioning, cultural relevance, or higher-order thinking. Fortunately, these observations fostered another type of authentic, student-centered learning: Student teachers’ practice became the site of our curricular interrogation.
As the semester unfolded, however, I found that I often approached this interrogation of practice from quite a different perspective than my student teachers or their cooperating teachers. My perspective was guided by an understanding of and commitment to the principles of our program’s mission:
The Elementary Education program has a multicultural focus designed to educate teachers who: are effective at encouraging high academic achievement in students from diverse racial, cultural, linguistic, socio-economic, gender, and ability groups; recognize that their own race, culture, language, socio-economic group, gender, and abilities shape their thinking and actions; reflect on their practices and change them to better meet students’ needs; are aware that institutions like schools reflect both the strengths and inequalities of society; are committed to social justice and equity through their classroom practice and interactions with communities; welcome parents, caregivers, and community members to their classroom as partners in the educational process; work within communities of educators who are professionals; and implement research-based practices in their teaching [emphasis added].
How could I, in turn, cultivate my students’ commitment to this mission statement, both in the abstract and as a means of evaluating and interrogating their own practice? How could the principles of our program’s mission become the framework through which we reflected on our practice? This has driven the evolution of my philosophy and pedagogy in the fifth-semester seminar. It is, I think, the most important aspect of my work with student teachers.
As important as this focus was, it was only one aspect of my rapidly evolving approach to the fifth-semester seminar. The other aspect seemed far more logistical and burdensome: The e-portfolio. The sine qua non of the elementary education program, the e-portfolio was the focal point of every semester’s work during. During fifth semester, student teachers are responsible for documenting their progress towards the fifteen university teacher education standards. Students were overwhelmed by this project, as was I. We worked together during that first semester to ensure that students both understood what was expected of them and that they felt supported in their efforts to meet those expectations. The portfolio, while presenting a tremendous opportunity for professional growth, very much seemed like a certification burden. The e-portfolio was the last hoop that students needed to jump through before they could become certified teachers. As the semester progressed, students complained more about the portfolio, obsessed more about the portfolio, and questioned more about the portfolio. We worked together to make it not a hoop-jumping exercise—and for some students it became a powerful reflective tool—but for others, it remained a burden.
As an educator, I am guided by the belief that learning must be personally meaningful and relevant. Indeed, transformative learning only happens when experiences are personally meaningful and relevant. How then could this e-portfolio project become more than a hoop-jumping exercise and instead become a transformative process? As the semesters have progressed, I have increasingly focused on this question, with some success. At the end of each semester, I repeatedly hear from students how powerful the portfolio process is, how grateful they are that we spent more time on the portfolio than some other seminars, and how helpful the finished product was in getting a job.
Unfortunately, at the same time that I’ve been working to transform the portfolio into a meaningful learning opportunity, I’ve also felt that it increasingly robs our attention from addressing that most important framework for interrogating our practice—the framework of social justice, equity, multicultural education; the framework of the elementary education program’s mission statement.
My challenge now is to integrate the two: How can the portfolio become a means of using a multicultural, social justice framework to interrogate our practice? How can these two demands on our attention work together instead of compete?
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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