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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Connective Power of Project-Based Clinical Experiences

Anthony Pellegrino and Kristien Zenkov

Assistant Professor of Education/Professor of Education
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As long-time classroom teachers now working as teacher educators preparing future middle- and high-school language arts and social studies teachers, we persistently seek ways to improve our coursework and clinical experiences. Enhancing our university classes has been the realm of teacher preparation over which we have the most influence. But ensuring that teacher candidates' clinical experiences are relevant to their future practices has been a harder nut to crack.

Few training experiences are more important to future teachers than their early field experiences, interim practica, and culminating student-teaching internships. It is here that candidates get to work with P-12 students, applying and often refining the ideas and strategies that they have learned in our courses. But these are the clinical practices in which we perceive a troubling lack of forethought and intentionality. Too many teacher education programs use a cannon method for such fieldwork placements -- blindly launching candidates into schools in hopes of their surviving and thriving with quality mentors who promote the skills that this next generation of teachers will need to serve youth.

Partnerships and Collaboration

In our program at a large public university, we have attempted a response to tensions between the research-based theories introduced in our courses and the realities of our community's diverse secondary classrooms. We have developed an incremental but significant revision to our short-term fieldwork practices: project-based clinical experiences. We believe this model holds the potential to enhance teacher preparation programs; strengthen school-university partnerships; and connect teacher educators, teacher candidates, and school-based practitioners via collaboration on intervention-based instructional research projects.

This model is rooted in our desire to establish partnership schools where candidates might have positive fieldwork experiences. We reach out to practicing teachers who might be interested in our projects and in collaborations with preservice teachers. From this place of mutual interest, we coordinate with the future teachers in our classes and the administrative structures of these nascent partner schools. Acknowledging the professional needs and pressures of the teachers involved is essential. With some projects, class meeting times might be an issue; with others, teachers require assessment components that meet accountability needs.

Perhaps most importantly, the model calls on constituents to collaborate around authentic questions that foster robust consideration and contextualized problem solving. To date, we have worked with our teacher candidates and more than 300 P-12 students to address questions such as:

  • What does it mean to be a citizen?
  • What does exceptional teaching look like?
  • What are the purposes of reading and writing?

In each project, the preservice teachers work with youth in one-to-one mentoring relationships over several project sessions.

Listening to Student Voices

Commencement of the project includes teacher candidates interviewing their mentee young adult to generate ideas about the project's topic. Candidates then lead photowalks in adolescents' classrooms, on school campuses, and in community contexts to take pictures that illustrate and extend whatever ideas the young people are trying to convey. An essential part of the process is the series of elicitation conferences, where prospective teachers dialogue with students to compose writings that elucidate the actions and concepts behind their images. These efforts occur in ways that allow students -- or in our case, youths and pre-service teachers -- to demonstrate creativity and have their perspectives valued in ways that few middle- or high-school lessons (and maybe even fewer traditional teacher education clinical experiences) enable.

We have primarily implemented our project-based clinical projects with disenfranchised young people in juvenile justice facilities and in alternative and traditional schools, believing that youths whose voices are least often heard might be the ones to whom future teachers should listen most. And while we are wary of reporting a perfect record of success, across these projects future teachers and youth have amazed us with the candor and complexity of their thinking. For example, one group of young men who were initially resistant to the project collaboratively wrote, rehearsed, and presented a poem that shared the power of the project to make them feel valued and confident in ways no other educational experience had. We asked them to sign their poem, which we later framed.

The Power of Relationships

Through this approach to clinical experiences, teacher candidates learn first-hand about the power of building relationships with young people. Youth gain a sense of empowerment that is rooted in the reality that adults can value their perspectives on questions about teaching, citizenship, and the purposes of school. And we are all reminded -- or learn and live for the first time -- how important a nurturing classroom climate can be. Ultimately, one of the primary lessons of this model is related to how our candidates get to know adolescents through partnering on student-centered projects.

As our nation’s students become ever more diverse, it is increasingly important that we consider how we nurture future generations of teachers to know and serve these youth. Traditional models of university coursework disconnected from real-world clinical experiences serve neither prospective teachers nor P-12 students. A project-based clinical approach offers chances to develop mutually-beneficial learning opportunities for P-12 students and teacher candidates, establishing a model of teacher preparation rooted in authentic collaborations that involve university faculty and classroom teachers -- teacher educators, all -- in this grand venture that we call school.

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