The glow is
Three dozen bright child faces beam with that exquisite blend of
unconditional admiration and unfettered enthusiasm, the universal byproducts of
children learning and having fun doing it.
The admiration is for their teachers, who are still students themselves, and
are as exuberant as their charges, eager to test their own early steps out of
their textbooks and into real places as teachers/mentors/friends, scarcely
realizing at this juncture in their lives that they were where their admirers
are a surprisingly short time ago.
It is the second day of a semester-long program at De Soto Elementary School
in Ybor City. Over an 18-week stretch, these 36 first- and second-grade kids,
most of them from immigrant families and some indigent—will meet with their 18
UT education students twice a week in an after-school literacy program.
Learning and Loving It
Barbara Hruska, assistant professor of education, launched the program at De
Soto with a small grant and a big vision to help ESOL (English as a second
language) students early in their school lives, and at the same time, introduce
her students—who are juniors and, she stresses, not interns—to the real world of
It is a realm Hruska knows well. She taught elementary school for 21 years,
mostly in Massachusetts, but also in Texas, and for two years in Copenhagen,
Denmark. On this day, her face beams as brightly as all the other faces in the
room. Even the warm air generated by the flurry of frenetic energy fails to slow
any of the participants. And those youngest faces already have sat through an
entire day of school.
The only minor dent in Hruska’s elation comes with the
realization that more books and less play are ahead, and might take their
“These little ones don’t know it yet,” she says softly amid the din of
happy activity, “but we’re not going to just do puzzles for 18 weeks. We started
with more of the fun stuff on the first day to help get them involved, but as
the semester goes on, we’ll be doing less and less of the puzzles and games, and
more of the serious stuff.”
But on this sunny September day, the De Soto media center is awash in
concept-based activities emitting stunning colors: a giant felt map of the
United States on the floor (a regular fixture in the center), Picture Link and
other match-the-words-to-the-images games, Sight-Word Bingo, sets based on
matching words to number concepts, such as a game that asks a child to park an
appropriate number of plastic cars in a numeral-labeled miniature parking
Books are encouraging young literacy and adding more color to the already
visually vibrant room: Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? and other Dr. Seuss books,
Clifford Takes a Trip and Ten Little Ladybugs. Flashcards pull double duty as
teaching aids and assessment tools.
Interactive writing is a big focus: The child writes the part that he or she
can; the adult provides the rest, on the same piece of paper, and with the same
pencil freely shifting ownership as needed, smiles and giggles accompanying most
But no matter the activity, it’s the faces, gestures, body language, eyes,
smiles, laughter, the shear contentedness even in the predictable early
childhood squirming and fidgeting that collaborate to illustrate a roomful of
miraculous harmony, flashing it in universal code for “learning and loving
Driven by Need
Florida now requires ESOL training for elementary or secondary teacher
certification. Part of the requirement is a field experience, Hruska says, and
the present internship setup is unable to guarantee experience with ESOL
“Our practica come late in our program, and our students weren’t having any
hands-on teaching experience early in the program. They were having some field
observation, but no time actually working with students, so we really wanted to
“And the third thing is that we’ve had this—even before I came—this
long-standing relationship with De Soto Elementary, but hadn’t really done
anything about it. We said we were partnering with them as the University to an
elementary school, but basically, it involved just sort of going once a year and
doing a book fair or meeting in literature circles. So, we really wanted to do
something that would have a significant impact on the community there.”
But the primary motivation, she says, was need.
“We needed a population of ESOL students, and rather than run around and try
to find 20 places, it makes more sense to me to go to one place where there was
a need and we could really be of use.
“Teachers sometimes assume that, when they assign homework, there’s somebody
at home to give a practice spelling test or help them do the math, and in these
families it’s not always there, because sometimes parents don’t speak English,
sometimes they don’t have the educational background; sometimes they’re simply
not home because they’re working such long hours. I was originally trying to
create that kind of support environment.
“What the school said is, ‘We’ve got our upper-grade kids in all sorts of
after-school test-prep programs that the state provides. We have nothing for our
“Now, every day at the door, I have a parent standing there with children,
saying, ‘Please, can my child be in the program?’ And we’re full.”
the usual organizational preparations, Hruska got approval from the state to
make the ESOL service learning component part of the official program. The only
difficulty with that, she says, was getting credits added to the program.
While she is yet to
succeed in convincing the University to provide transportation for her students,
she concedes that that, too, may be providing valuable lessons for them.
“They’re all having to supply their own cars, which is hard,” she says. “So
the other thing they’re learning is how to be personally responsible and get
there on time.”
Hruska applied the small Excellence in Teaching and Learning Innovation grant
she received last year as seed money for the project, but still wound up
spending some of her own money on supplies, as virtually all service learning
instructors do in one form or another.
“I found out that it’s the principal who is personally buying the snack out
of his own pocket. So,” she says, “I’m now on the hunt for some ongoing funding
to re-supply the consumable items and the snack, because he shouldn’t have to do
But while funds may be on the short side, the educational benefits have been
anything but, Hruska says.
“It’s been extraordinarily motivating for my students, the fact that they’re
first-semester juniors, they’re at the beginning of a two-year program, and
they’re in with children already. They’re having the experience, instead of
having to wait a year or two to be with kids. I think it’s very motivating to
have that up front, and then to have that as a foundation from which to build
the methods courses that will come later.”
Hruska pauses again to survey the
room, and all is well. She jokes that it seems difficult to believe that it’s
all going as well as it is.
“It’s like when you see a scene in an old western, and a guy rides up,
notices that the town is quiet, and says, ‘Yeah—too quiet.’
“I mean, they’re focused. Nobody’s out of control; nobody’s whapping anybody.
It’s quite amazing to me. And what we’ll see is if we sustain that. My guess is
we will, because every kid has the full attention of an adult, right there, that
whole time, and I think it’s very motivating and engaging to have that.
“It’s the first semester, so we’ll see how it goes,” she concludes
thoughtfully. “We’re hoping that we’ll be able to continue, and that it will