Zoom field placements are expanding the playbook for teachers-in-training

November 30, 2020

Students and faculty talk about the challenges and surprising payoffs of their virtual tutoring experiences this semester.

 A elementary student doing a virtual tutoring session with a UM-Dearborn education student, who appears on a laptop in front of her.
A elementary student doing a virtual tutoring session with a UM-Dearborn education student, who appears on a laptop in front of her.

During a typical semester, UM-Dearborn education students are collectively logging hundreds of hands-on hours in area schools. These field placements and practicums are considered crucial parts of their programs because they offer a chance to observe veteran teachers in action, work directly with students, and prepare lessons in their chosen subject areas. This semester, of course, the word “typical” doesn’t really apply. Many schools in southeast Michigan went completely virtual in September, while most others offered only limited in-person instruction. Those changes left many education students wondering if it might simply be a lost year for logging the field hours needed for their degrees.

Associate Professor of Reading and Language Arts Dara Hill, Associate Professor of Social Studies Karen Thomas-Brown, Reading and Social Studies Lecturer Sharon Werner, and Field Placement Director Danielle DeFauw were among the quick-thinking faculty who helped make sure that didn’t happen. Over the past semester, their students have been completing hours virtually through a new partnership with Brilliant Detroit, a group known for its grassroots early childhood education centers that are embedded in city neighborhoods. A couple times a week, UM-Dearborn teachers-in-training have been connecting with elementary students for one- or two-hour Zoom sessions that focus on literacy and social studies skills. Most often, their so-simple-it's-brilliant approach centers on reading aloud — an activity that’s both straightforward enough for students to do virtually and allows teachers-in-training to apply lessons from their coursework.

Education senior Muna Nasser says one technique she’s used with the second grader she’s tutoring twice a week is predicting what happens next in a story. “We’ll read for a while, and then I’ll stop and ask, ‘So what do you think the character is going to do now?’. Then we keep reading, and we check and see how accurate our predictions are.” And Fatin Alasadi has been thinking a lot about her coursework on “constructivism” — the idea that student learning is deeply influenced by their lived environments and personal experiences. “With my kindergartner, his family really prioritizes education, so they make sure our sessions are in a quiet environment with few distractions. For my 4th grader, it’s much more challenging. For example, when it was nice outside, his family took him to the park, and so we tried to do the tutoring session on his mom’s cell phone. But he was so distracted. So you saw how each family’s approach had an impact on how the kids react to education.”

Werner and DeFauw say this “embedded” quality of having the students more or less in the child’s home has been one of the surprising benefits of the virtual sessions. “There’s a lot more emphasis these days on how we as educators can support families, and that’s not something our traditional classroom practicums give them a whole lot of experience with,” DeFauw says. “With these Zoom sessions, there’s often a sibling or a parent or a grandparent participating as well. So our students are getting a chance to observe family dynamics and see the whole child, which will really help them support the children in their future classrooms.”

Going forward, DeFauw and Werner say such activities aren’t likely to replace face-to-face field hours. But the experience this semester will very likely expand their future playbook. DeFauw says the Michigan Department of Education is requiring significant changes for teacher preparation programs, specifically around application-based learning. And these kinds of activities where “students can learn a skill and then immediately go apply it” are just the kind of thing that could fuel planned curriculum revisions. Meanwhile, Werner says the social studies lessons her students developed this semester already have a life post-pandemic: They’re planning on donating them to Brilliant Detroit so the group can continue to use them with the hundreds of Detroit students they serve each year.