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Serving is the Best Teacher

Published: April 01, 2004

The glow is unmistakable.


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

Dr. 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 classroom interaction.


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 toll.



“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 lot.


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 handoffs.


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 it.”

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 students.

“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 change that.


“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 little ones.’


“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.”


Aside from 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 that.”


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 work.”