Originally published in CenterEd in 2013
Kerin Steigerwalt is one of those rare and wonderful individuals who love teaching middle school students. She loves their quirky and sometimes inappropriate sense of humor, their nascent and uncertain search for their own identities, and the constantly evolving opportunities they present for her own professional and personal growth.
“I have to say, it takes a certain type of crazy to enjoy middle schoolers, but I love them,” she says. “They are the absolute joy of my day, which probably means I’m due for a CAT scan.”
All joking aside, Steigerwalt is passionate about what she does — she teaches 7th grade language arts at a large school an hour outside of Philadelphia — and how she does it. Toward that end, she is ever in search of new and challenging learning experiences to hone her teaching skills and give her practical tools to use with her students.
Lifelong learning for ongoing professional growth
When she discovered the National Institute for Professional Practice online master’s program developed around Dr. Robert Marzano’s Art and Science of Teaching, she jumped at the chance to add to her repertoire. “I was looking for a master’s program that would provide me with truly useful classroom strategies, not just theory-based bookwork but things that I could immediately implement into my classes,” Steigerwalt says. “I wanted something that would make me improve, that wouldn’t be just a cakewalk. And, of course, I had heard Dr. Marzano’s name in all the theory classes I’d taken before and had always felt his concepts were things I agreed with. The rest is history.”
Steigerwalt was among the first class of graduates from the National Institute program. She has gone on to teach several of the online courses, while maintaining a full and busy teaching load at her school. “My husband would tell you I’m kind of a teacher geek in that all of my hobbies have to do with teaching, too,” she confesses.
Learning to love — and use — data
Her middle school students are the primary beneficiaries of her magnificent obsession, since she brings everything she learns back to her classroom. “The biggest change I’ve seen in my practice is in how I use data with my students, which goes hand-in-hand with that reflective aspect of teaching,” she says.
“After going through the program, I make a conscientious effort to gather hard data about how effective my teaching was. How much learning did my students gain? Do they feel like they’ve grown? Do they know why they’re doing this? And how much did they actually grow?”
Differentiating done right
Another important skill Steigerwalt was able to refine through her grad studies was the delicate but crucial technique of differentiating instruction. Within her five periods of language arts classes — three “regular” classrooms and two “gifted” periods — she sees a range of students at different levels of learning, even within the same class group.
“So you’ve got 52 minutes to teach this curriculum to all of these kids — how are you going to get it across to them?” Steigerwalt asks. “Having gone through the program, I learned that if I do an inquiry-based lesson as opposed to just a lecture, then I can differentiate the material.”
As an example, she describes how she might have two students working on two different assignments to practice the same content. “One kid might say, ‘I’m getting this work, but my friend who sits across from me is doing different work because I’m really good at idioms and he’s from a foreign country and has no idea about American idioms.’ They see that we’re all working toward the same goal.”
Who says there’s no such thing as inquiry in language arts?
Part of working toward the same goal is getting the students engaged and interested in the topic, and the ideal way to do that is to create an inquiry-based lesson that captivates their attention. When she was tasked with generating an inquiry lesson as an assignment in her graduate program, Steigerwalt admits she was initially skeptical as to how inquiry could be done in a language arts classroom.
“I said, ‘We don’t do inquiry in language arts! Would you like me to have them dig around the room and find nouns or something?’” she says with a laugh.
But then, inspiration struck: She came up with the idea of asking students to hypothesize about the qualities of an ancient Greek hero, investigate different myths, and generate a personality quiz of the sort you might find in a magazine.
“You know, like ‘Are you a hero?’ and then ask a series of questions: Did you die a tragic death? Has someone been trying to kill you since birth? Is your wife someone you rescued or someone who was given to you as a gift for rescuing someone else? Did you fulfill some terrible prophecy?” she explains.
“They start out, of course, thinking a hero is going to be tall, blond, and handsome, that he’s going to be strong and rich, all of those things. And then they realize that none of the Greek heroes were at all what they were expecting.”
The fruits of this labor are very sweet, says Steigerwalt. “I tell my students at the beginning of the school year, ‘The better you can speak and read and write, the better your overall quality of life is going to be, because doors will open to you.’”
Stay tuned for Part II of Kerin Steigerwalt’s story to hear more about how she continues to make Marzano classroom strategies part of her practice.
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