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Social studies collaboration supports new teacher growth

Erica Gilbertson

April 18, 2019

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An innovative secondary social studies collaboration is having a positive effect on local teachers and UGA teacher candidates.

Sonia Janis, clinical associate professor and district-wide professor-in-residence for secondary social studies, together with Clarke County School District's Laura Ambrose, coordinator of social studies and school performance, and Glenda Huff, coordinator of high school curriculum and school performance, work as a team to support induction teachers, redesign curriculum, facilitate professional learning and conduct research in a middle school classroom.

In their second year of collaboration, the school-university partnership team meets regularly to discuss the district's goals for secondary social studies education, including supports needed for teachers to create dynamic learning experiences for all students. Janis focuses her professor-in-residence activities in specific areas of need determined by the team.

Induction support This fall, Janis began coaching eight secondary social studies teachers who are in their first year of teaching at four middle schools and two high schools. Through on-site, classroom-based support, she mentors these new teachers in many areas, including curriculum, instruction, assessment and professionalism.

Research shows that during the induction phase of teachers' careers, the first through third years of teaching, they need additional support. In addition to working with assigned mentor teachers in their schools, Janis provides the novice teachers with non-evaluative, ongoing support that promotes their individual growth and learning.

"Shifting the focus squarely on first-year teachers has not only been rewarding to observe immediate growth among the teachers and their students, but it is also addressing a need within the district to deliberately support the needs of teachers in their first five years," said Janis. "As a teacher educator, it also informs my work with pre-service teachers. I want to ensure that the teacher candidates in my program successfully transition from pre-service teachers into in-service teachers."

Nyla Bell, an eighth-grade Georgia studies teacher at Hilsman Middle School, said she appreciates the coaching.

"As a first-year teacher and career-changer, I have found Dr. Janis' observations and feedback to be crucial to my decision to continue in the profession," she said. "She is immensely supportive, has the ability to pinpoint exactly what went well and what didn't go so well, and offer a variety of strategies to assist me in my new career."

Another teacher, Adledih Morales-Bello, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at Clarke Middle School, agrees.

"Dr. Janis has observed and coached me to tailor my classroom management to fit the needs of my students," she said. "I have seen a great improvement in my classroom environment as a result."

Ambrose and Janis work closely to plan new teacher support aligned with the district's goals and standards. Ambrose said Janis is an invaluable resource for new teachers.

"Dr. Janis is a sounding board for new ideas and helps with classroom management, which can be extremely daunting for first year teachers," said Ambrose. "She provides immediate feedback and her understanding of the district's overall goals allow her to guide new teachers in the most productive directions."

Curriculum design and professional learning This year the social studies team has also been redesigning the secondary social studies curriculum. The curriculum includes new elements such as inquiry-based approaches to instruction, revised Georgia Standards for Excellence, rigorous curriculum design and a "C3" framework (college, career and civic life for social studies). Janis, Ambrose and Huff also co-facilitate ongoing professional learning with teachers to help them implement the new curriculum.

Janis has also been involved in co-writing the eighth-grade social studies curriculum, focused on Georgia studies. For example, the team has been aligning the eighth-grade unit assessments with the new social studies standards and guidelines associated with Rigorous Curriculum Design.

Teacher candidate study In addition to supporting Clarke County teachers, Janis also teaches secondary social studies teacher candidates. All of her teacher preparation courses are clinically based and taught on-site at Clarke County schools.

This year, in cooperation with Clarke Middle School, sixth-grade teacher Chris Batson, Janis and two graduate assistants, Chantelle Grace and Kaitlin Wegrzyn in the department of educational theory and practice, are continuing a research study focused on enhancing the pedagogical judgment of teacher candidates in clinical spaces.

Each week during the spring semester, 35 UGA teacher candidates in secondary social studies education take their field experience course in Batson's classroom with half attending a class on Tuesdays and half on Thursdays. The UGA students work with middle school students in small groups to support their learning, including conducting formative assessments and one-on-one conferencing related to learning outcomes. The sixth-graders benefit from differentiated instruction that enhances their understanding of social studies concepts.

At the end of each class, Batson debriefs with the UGA students about their experience working in his classroom, offering his insight and advice. UGA students benefit from the opportunity to ask questions from a practicing teacher, such as "How do you facilitate an effective classroom discussion?"

Batson said he wanted to open his classroom up to UGA students because it benefitted his students as well.

"I wanted to be involved in this partnership and study so that my students could get more exposure to college students and see what it looks like to be in college," he said. "I also wanted to be able to answer any questions the UGA students may have about what it is like to have your own class; being a UGA alumnus myself, I want to be able to pay it back in any small way that I can. I learned a lot from this partnership about my own teaching, as it has forced me to reflect on how I ask questions and what practices are best for our students."

All teacher candidates are required to complete assignments in advance of working with the middle school students and write reflections on their learning experiences interacting the students. Janis, Grace and Wegryzn analyze the assignments and reflections to examine how teacher candidates are making pedagogical judgements during this early stage of their teacher preparation.

They are incorporating the analysis into a larger study that Janis, Grace, Wegryzyn and Mardi Schmeichel, another social studies education faculty member, are conducting on developing the pedagogical judgement of pre-service teachers during their time in the UGA social studies teacher education program. The study builds off initial findings from Janis and Schmeichel's work with teacher candidates during an on-site course at Cedar Shoals High School in spring 2017. The study's findings will be published in the Peabody Journal of Education's 2020 Special Issue on Clinical Practice.

The UGA and Clarke County secondary social studies team look forward to continuing these collaborative, impactful activities into the 2019-2020 school year.