On Common Ground: Number 9, Fall 2001

Professional Development that Affects Student Learning

By Mel Sanchez

Education has come to the forefront of politics. Hot topics include vouchers, student and teacher assessment, technology, class size, curriculum, school construction and teacher professional development.

Teacher professional development is an essential element in improving student learning. From the early eighties to the present, it has been an integral part of my teaching career. With local courses and national seminars in my subject area or in new te chnology, I have been able to improve academic knowledge and skills needed to keep abreast of the changes imperative to excellent teaching.

Yale University and the University of California, Irvine, have developed programs to improve teacher professional development. The DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund has supported a National Demonstration Project that includes selected universities th at have demonstrated a commitment to working with a local school district with a large population of disadvantaged students. The UCI-Santa Ana Unified School District connection fit the criteria for such a project. Teachers and professors were given the o pportunity to attend an intensive summer model of the Yale-New Haven experience. With this experience behind them, institutes involving teachers and professors were formed in local areas. In this way, the UCI-Santa Ana Teachers Institute had its genesis.

In its seminars teachers participate in some thirty hours of instruction with a professor over a period of 8-12 weeks. During the seminar and in conjunction with the subject matter, teachers design a plan for research leading to a curriculum unit to be presented during the following school year. The units are published and posted on the internet for other teachers nationwide to use adapt to coursework. Teachers receive an honorarium for their full participation in the program.

As a participant of a Summer Yale Intensive Seminar and co-chair of the UCI-SA Teachers Institute my teaching experience has been enriched, and my colleagues and students have benefited from the curriculum units that are the products of the seminars. I t was a most rewarding opportunity to study with Yale Professor Mary Miller, one of the world’s leading Mayanists, in the summer of 1999. A teacher of Spanish language, literature, composition and culture for native speakers, I was able to design a curric ulum unit around the Aztec culture that included student productions of original poetry and short stories patterned after luminary Hispanic writers. Since Professor Miller’s expertise is in art history, the students’ productions included original, copied and imitated artwork. Technology was included as internet research and art designs. A Southern California Spanish language television station was so impressed with the research and technology involved in the coursework, it did a news story that was broadc ast in the homes of millions of Southern California residents. The poetry can be viewed at the website. With the help of UCI’s Humanities Out There (HOT) program, graduate and undergraduate students aided me in teaching students the elements of short stories and in getting students to write their own. It was found that one student has an extraordinary talent for writing, and her creation will be published in the future. All students felt it was a significant academic opportunity for them to study and produce scholastic material that is part of their heritage.

My experiences with two UCI-SA Teachers Institute seminars have been no less rewarding. Studying multicultural texts with Professors Lindon Barrett and John Carlos Rowe has given me an insight into literature that has profoundly affected me, my colleagues and my students. After completing a curriculum unit and armed with a critical view of both internal and external colonialism, I set about teaching literature in English to an English as a Seco nd Language class for the summer of 2000. One of the pieces of literature we studied was Rudyard Kipling’s tale “Riki Tikki Tavi” set in colonial India. I have read this story for years with students and have enjoyed the relating to them the bravery of th e little mongoose overcoming the evil cobras. But now I saw it from a different point of view. I noticed that the mongoose had been told by its mother that a proper mongoose wishes to be a house mongoose in a white family’s home. Odd? Then later the cobra s stated that they wished to take back the garden the white family had taken from them. Was this story really about colonialism? One of the discussions of our seminar with Professor Rowe involved a website by Jim Zwick that highlights United States and Br itish imperialism at the turn of the century. I decided to investigate Kipling’s views with this website and sure enough, there was a poem he had written entitled “White Man’s Burden” that had caused a stir with lots of newspaper opinion articles. My stud ents were excited about viewing this story from this different point of view. We viewed most of the literature we read that summer as portrayals of both external and internal colonialism, H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine and short stories by Walter Mosely an d the Mexican author Rosario Castellanos. Students were interested to note that internal colonialism applies not only to the United States but to third world countries such as Mexico as well.

Collaborations between universities and local school districts, especially school districts with a large population of at risk students, will benefit the university, the local school district, teachers and probably most importantly, the students. Teach er development is the fundamental basis for the Yale-New Haven Project and the subsequent programs involving colleges and local school district. It is a program to be emulated to address the issue of improving education through teacher development.

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© 2001 by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute

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