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Agents of Change: Educators Partner to Put Students at the Heart of the Curriculum

The following is an extension to the November 2016 Council Chronicle article on the NCTE’s Professional Dyads and Culturally Relevant Teaching (PDCRT) program, which pairs teacher-educators and classroom teachers from schools where a majority of students are students of color and at least half are from low-income families. (Read the full article here.)

The PDCRT program, developed by the Affirmative Action Committee of the Early Childhood Education Assembly (ECEA) of NCTE, launched in 2013 and is now on its second cohort of K-2 teachers and teacher-educators. This year’s cohort includes seven pairs, working in communities in New York, Kentucky, Texas, Georgia, Illinois, and South Carolina.

New York: Mapping the Subway

How young is too young for inquiry-based learning? A New York dyad began the year with a mapping project. But their work really took off when they developed a unit based on student play.

Carmen Llerena teaches at PS 75 Emily Dickinson School on New York’s Upper West Side, where she has a classroom that includes English language learners and students on the autism spectrum.

She and Columbia University professor Haeny Yoon began their dyads year with her kindergarten class on a unit called “Where Am I From and Why Does That Matter?,” which included research into a subway line in their neighborhood. Their inquiry took the class into New York’s subway systems and to the New York Transit Museum. Other activities included studying the history of ethnic enclaves in the city, visits from the mother of a student from Haiti, and discussion of the Haitian community in Brooklyn.

The unit went well. But, says Yoon, the inquiry was still teacher-driven. “We could incorporate kids into it—they were receptive—but it was generic. It was us posing what they should be thinking about.”

The dyad's second project grew directly out of student conversations.

Llerena had set up several play stations around the classroom, including a block center, a dress-up center, a kitchen center, and a drawing center. During her weekly visits, Yoon began to record conversations while students were playing, sometimes playing with them.

She used the transcripts to create “play stories,” which she then read back to the students and shaped further based on their group storytelling. Gradually, Yoon says, “We went from me deciding the direction of story to them deciding the direction of story.” By the end of the year, students were making up and telling their own stories.

At another point during the year, after Yoon overheard boys in the class arguing about whether boys could wear lipstick or have purple hair, the class tackled a writing unit about opinions and gender that integrated different versions of the Cinderella story.

“When you say inquiry [in reference to] four- to six-year-olds, that doesn’t resonate with everyone,” Llerena says, but she explains that having students tell their stories allowed all of them to be included in the conversation and to connect with each other at a much deeper level.

Now in their second year of the dyad program, Llerena is teaching second grade and she and Yoon are working through the district’s reading program, debating how to make their first unit on fairy tales less Eurocentric and more culturally relevant for their students.

“We have a shell of things we want to do, but we know that kids will dictate the shape. Haeny says the children will hand you the curriculum, and it’s true,” Llerena says.

Impact on the Academy

As dyad pairs try out new inquiry-based models in their classrooms, they are helping document and feed ideas back into teacher education programs.

“It’s been life-changing for me philosophically,” said Georgia State professor Roberta Price Gardner, who is in a dyad with Atlanta teacher Rachel Gilmore.

“After mornings spent in Rachel’s class," she says, "I've taught an afternoon class and been able to share explicit examples about what was happening.”

Yoon said her weekly work in Llerena’s classroom has led to “honest truths” in her classroom discussions with her preservice teaching students.

“I think I’ve been a lot more cognizant about how to make practical the work that I’m asking them to do,” she said. “I realize and acknowledge it’s hard work.”

Trisha Collopy is a Minneapolis writer and editor.

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A Professional Association of Educators in English Studies, Literacy, and Language Arts