ACU collaborates with local elementary schools

ortiz elementary

They sit on the floor in the hall or on a rug in the classroom - anywhere but behind a fifth-grade size desk.

To a teacher from the old-school way of doing things, it looks and sounds a little like chaos. But to Dr. Sheila Delony it looks like the perfect setting for learning and to Toni Wellhausen it’s "a life-changing experience."

Delony teaches in the Department of Teacher Education at ACU, and Wellhausen is a fifth-grade reading teacher at Ortiz Elementary School. Together they are furthering ACU's goal of establishing Professional Development School partnerships within the Abilene Independent School District. 

Hands-on learning

When they reach their potential, the PDS partnerships will better prepare ACU students going into teaching, enhance the development of university faculty, help the teacher already on the job, and improve the reading skills of elementary students.

ACU is committed to making Professional Development School partnerships successful. Delony was assigned a nine-hour teaching load so that she would have time to devote to PDS development.

Abilene Christian also is putting money into the PDS concept. The university paid for Delony, Wellhausen and another Ortiz teacher to attend a reading conference in Austin.

Best year ever

Wellhausen feels like the luckiest teacher in the Abilene Independent School District for being a part of it.

"This has been my best year of teaching," said Wellhausen, a 14-year veteran.

ortiz2The Professional Development School concept grew out of early 20th century laboratory schools, said Dr. Dana Hood, chair of the Department of Teacher Education. But 100 years later, the PDS has far outgrown that concept.

A PDS is interactive, with everyone participating. College students don’t just
observe a classroom setting and then wait for a grade. At Ortiz, 18 ACU students work one-on-one with Wellhausen’s home room class for 35 minutes one day a week.

Delony observes her students in action, and Wellhausen circulates among the children and their ACU mentors. When the 35 minutes are up, the ACU students and Delony head for the Ortiz cafeteria for an assessment.

Wellhausen takes her class back, and hopefully the children are a little farther along with their reading skills than they were 35 minutes earlier.

ortiz1All the pieces are fitting together nicely now that the semester is almost over, but in the beginning it was a little scary for everyone. Delony first met with Ortiz Principal Karen Munoz to discuss the Professional Development School concept.

Starting from scratch

Then Wellhausen was brought into the picture. She had expressed a desire to basically start from scratch and come up with a new way to try to reach children who might find reading difficult. She had looked at new techniques but nothing had clicked. "She knew she hadn't found it, but she didn’t know exactly what it was," Delony said.

Imagine Wellhausen's surprise when the first thing Delony did was start rearranging the furniture. "It's basic, but essential," Delony said.

Excessive furniture was removed from the room and rugs and lamps were brought in to create a cozy atmosphere. Each child, and an ACU mentor, sits on a rug, in the hallway, or anywhere but a desk. The purpose is to make reading enjoyable, not something that’s done behind a desk.

If anyone questions the process, Wellhausen has the answer. "It's been the most fabulous thing," Wellhausen said. "It's become such a part of their lives."

Wellhausen loves the difference she has seen because of the one-on-one mentoring arrangement. The ACU student can pinpoint what the Ortiz child needs to work on. She can identify strengths and weaknesses and build on that.

The process also is teaching the children to think, not just memorize and recite. Since this is the first year for the process, Wellhausen doesn't yet know how her students will fare on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills reading test.

The children are reading materials that are part of the curriculum, but the teaching and learning method is different. Wellhausen isn't concerned about how the children will score on the test. "If a child can think, a child can pass a test," she said.

Delony is quick to add that Wellhausen and her students aren't the only ones benefiting. Delony, who earned her doctorate from Texas Tech University last summer, is learning how best to teach her students.

Innovation in the classroom

And her students are getting a taste of working one-on-one with a child, plus picking up tips from a veteran teacher like Wellhausen. "My students are also getting to watch the more innovative things she is doing in her class," Delony said.

With a semester under their belts, Delony's students are singing the praises of the Professional Development School concept. "The first few weeks were scary," said Kerri Newton, a junior from Haskell, but now she's seeing the difference in the child she mentors.

Kay Lee Gibbs, a senior from Austin, said one benefit of the one-on-one process is realizing how a lesson plan affects a child. She has a face and name to place on that plan. “Someone is going to be on the receiving end of this,” she said.

The ACU students are required to be creative and do their own thinking. Their professor, Delony, isn’t going to do it for them. She has each student come up with a plan and a written rationale for it.

After the session at Ortiz, Delony has her students provide a written reflection that includes how the session went, whether it went as planned, what was learned about the child, etc. The reflection creates a cycle of always thinking about why something was done and whether it worked, Delony said.

At first, Delony's students were somewhat apprehensive. "I think they were nervous that I wasn't going to tell them what to do each time," she said.

But now they've discovered that they like thinking for themselves. "They have a sense of confidence," Delony said. "I think they've all got the hang of it now."

Kay Lee Gibbs and Kerri Newton would agree. After a semester of working individually with one child each week, they feel more confident and not so nervous.

Gibbs said she now can tell whether the child she works with understands what she is reading. The two have built up such a good relationship that they e-mail each other.

And, Newton said, the process makes her take her own classes more seriously.

"I'm working with someone else, and this is going to affect their life," she said.

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Serving Local Schools
Reagan-Elementary
ACU Teacher Education majors get hands-on with students at a local elementary school.