Parallels with the Past

Wireless to podcast
While distance education and online courses are well-established in higher education, their employment for K–12 education is more embryonic.

As a leader in teacher education in the state, the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh keeps a keen eye on these developments, responding with a graduate course in online education as well as continued dedication to undergraduate training in learning technologies.

This commitment to technological change is nothing new.

Consider the 1939 radio broadcast of Oshkosh State Teachers College instructor Gertrude Metze. Her talk, entitled “Radio in a Modern School Program,” was part of an established weekly series of broadcasts by Oshkosh faculty that aired on several central Wisconsin stations.

In her address, Metze took issue with a proposed bill in sparsely populated Utah that would support standardized instruction via radio over that in the classroom. Metze argued that radio would not provide the differentiated instruction required for young children and would be useless in teaching fundamentals such as reading that requires more interaction.“That would be like buying everyone the same size clothes,” she argued.

Still, in the spirit of their educational mission, Oshkosh’s Rose Swart Training School staff was happy to experiment with radio in their laboratory school, going so far as to establish a separate radio room for classes to gather. The school used programming from the University of Wisconsin. “Wisconsin School of the Air” provided, among other things, unique music and story time activities.

By working with radio, Metze was able to share practical advice with teachers looking to employ this new supplement to — not replacement of — their instruction. In 1939, it was necessary only to instruct teachers in how best to consume the new technology and its content. Today, education students must learn how to create it.

In their required instructional technology course, UW Oshkosh’s undergraduate student teachers learn (among other things) to develop audio podcasts not unlike radio programs to support their classroom teaching.

In an online education graduate course, teachers learn how such technologies can help them expand their craft to pupils they may never meet. UW Oshkosh education professor Susan Cramer, who teaches the course, noted how much has changed since the days of radio.

By combining “learning objects” found online and creating their own using video, slide show and screen capturing applications, teachers today can provide a variety of tools for students to learn a new concept, she said. This eliminates any concerns about a “one-size-fits-all” approach. With email, chat, Skype and the telephone, “synchronous” education is indeed possible, allowing for the meaningful interactions that one-way radio could not provide.

Teachers afield
Essential to the training of all teachers is their field experience — or student teaching — when hopeful educators observe and are observed in real classrooms full of children. For its first 100 years, the Oshkosh Normal School provided easy and controlled access to classrooms by operating a private elementary and middle school on its campus.

First housed in the original Normal Building along with the adult students, the training school was later moved to its own digs in Swart Hall in 1928. In addition to its service in training college students, the school allowed faculty to experiment with new methods and equipment.

The school added a kindergarten in 1880, the first at any Normal school in the nation. In Swart, the school had its own library, gymnasium and theater.

Field experiences at area schools became increasingly common throughout the 20th century. In 1914, the Oshkosh school district began permitting student teaching in its classrooms. The activity was particularly important for industrial arts, rural and high school practice. These were exceptions, however.

In a 1923 publication, Training Department Director Laura Johnson argued for the efficiencies of on-site teacher training. She felt travel wasted supervisors’ time. To prove her point, Johnson took her stopwatch with her as she traveled by car to each school in the city. Reproducing what the day of a student teaching supervisor would be like, Johnson found she spent nearly two hours in transit alone (longer, she claimed, if there were trains coming through town.)

The Swart Education Center closed in 1974; today, student teaching takes place so far afield it would give Johnson and her stopwatch a run for their money. While the majority of student teaching takes place in a corridor from Appleton to Oshkosh, the College of Education and Human Service’s current service area encompasses portions of eight counties.

Johnson’s modern-day equivalent, UW Oshkosh Field Experiences Director MaryBeth Petesch said that while it can be a logistical challenge for both student teacher and University supervisor, having students in more distant districts can be a great opportunity for all involved.

“These districts really enjoy having our students since they don’t often get the opportunity to host them,” Petesch said. “That interest can translate into more engagement with the student teacher and, in turn, our students can bring fresh energy into these schools.”

Finding qualified supervising teachers in the schools willing to take on college students is becoming increasingly difficult, she added. Budget cuts have eliminated any stipends, leaving altruism as the only incentive for teachers to pitch in. And with large numbers of late career, “master teachers” retiring this year, UW Oshkosh will need to look to the ranks of mid-career professionals to help with placements.

Petesch might envy the convenience of the old training school, but she said that the requirements of today’s student teachers are far greater than anything the small training school with only one classroom per grade could provide.

“Wisconsin requires one full school semester of student teaching, one of the longest in the country,” she said. “This makes our graduates well-respected, nationwide. Districts across the country know they get a well-prepared professional when they hire a Wisconsin-trained teacher.”

Content specialists: Webster and Szydlik
When Emily Webster entered the Oshkosh Normal School (ONS) as a student in its inaugural year in 1871, she came to a school that offered precious few courses dedicated solely to the practice of teaching.

With only two years to prepare most of its teachers, ONS required students to spend their limited time in content courses: English, history, science and mathematics; the subjects required of every teacher.
The content instructors, then, were as responsible for teaching methods of instruction as for the subject itself.

By all accounts, the young Webster excelled at both. She so impressed ONS President George Albee, that he hired Webster immediately upon her graduation in 1875. That fall, the student became the instructor. Over the course of the next 50 years, she became a teaching legend. It is no wonder that after her death, the school published a 50-page booklet of addresses, essays and remembrances about her life and career.

This book describes Webster’s generosity with her time as well as the severity of her expectations. First teaching English and Latin, Webster settled eventually into her most comfortable and memorable role as a mathematics instructor.

In the classroom, she insisted on proper speech, order and comportment. She thought nothing of assigning two to three hours of homework nightly. But to anyone willing to give it their effort, her time was theirs.  Webster worked with several student organizations to which she imparted her love of literature, art and the outdoors. Living close to school, Webster walked to work every day and was even known for walking the 13 miles to her parents’ home in Winneconne.

Her devotion to the campus and its students was recognized by the Regents. “An hour in Mathematics under Miss Webster,” Regent Edward Dempsey wrote upon her death, “was also an hour in the Art of Teaching.” In 1921, on the occasion of the school’s 50th anniversary, the Regents bestowed upon her a distinguished service medal.

Separated by three-quarters of a century, another Oshkosh mathematics instructor has garnered similar praise from the Board of Regents. Professor Jennifer Szydlik also has dedicated her career to teaching undergraduate education students both mathematical concepts and the methods to teach them. She was honored in 2010 with the Regents Teaching Excellence Award, which recognized her capacity to successfully engage math-phobic students, helping them learn how natural mathematics is to the human experience.

Sitting down with the Webster-era curriculum, Szydlik observed how much has changed in the instruction of math. “Today, we focus more on the ‘why’ of mathematics, emphasizing how the problems work rather than the computations required for the answer. Calculators have allowed this,” she said.

The curriculum today also stresses subjects like data analysis and statistics, important skills in the knowledge economy. Also new is the unique international perspective the department offers its student teachers. In 2010, Szydlik accompanied 16 undergraduate students to Peru, where they learned new perspectives on teaching math and broadened their cultural knowledge.

“They also gained appreciation of their own preparation as teachers, giving them confidence,” she said.

A trip to China in summer 2011 was something certainly beyond Webster’s imagination.

And while Szydlik is married (to fellow math professor Steve Szydlik) and devotes much free time to the raising of two active sons, she does share another important trait with the legendary Webster: She walks to school every day.

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