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Connecting, Listening, and Learning to Teach


Robin Griffith and Guili Zhang are assistant professors and Nancy Zeller is a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at East Carolina University. Robin teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in reading, while Nancy and Guili teach graduate courses in research.

“Morgan’s struggles are what motivate me to take this semester of reading courses very seriously. I want to help Morgan and others like her.” Comments, like this one from Lakesha, capture the sense of responsibility and investment in student learning gained by 26 preservice teachers who were involved in service learning at East Carolina University (ECU). Each preservice teacher participated in the semester-long Learning to Teach, Learning to Serve (LTLS) tutoring project at a local elementary school.

East CarolinaThe Learning to Teach, Learning to Serve Project
An effective service-learning program starts with identifying community needs. Considering the goals of service learning—to address a need in the community while allowing for learning opportunities for the volunteers—the LTLS team collaborated both with the university’s volunteer and service learning center and also with a

Lakesha with her student representative from a local school district to identify an elementary school whose students might benefit from the tutoring services. During the spring semester of 2008, 26 preservice teachers taking a course in Diagnostic/Prescriptive Teaching of Reading at ECU engaged in a semester-long tutoring project with 26 primary grade level students (in either kindergarten, first, or second grade) who were considered at-risk in reading and writing. Each week the preservice teachers planned reading and writing lessons based upon assessment data gathered during the initial tutoring sessions. These primary grade students often engaged in word sorts, writing activities, and reading books on their instructional levels. The tutoring sessions were tailored to the individual strengths and needs of the learners. Not surprisingly, the children’s eyes lit up when their preservice teachers from ECU walked into the room each week. As these primary grade students walked down the hallway to the library with their heads held high and with smiles on their faces, it was evident that they valued this one-on-one time with their ECU friends. Even more noteworthy was the change in the preservice teachers themselves.

Benefits to the Preservice Teachers
As these preservice teachers met with their struggling readers each week, their observational skills were refined as they practiced what Owocki and Goodman (2002) call “kidwatching.” They began to notice the cognitive moves their readers made when they were trying to solve an unknown word in print and the subtle cues they used when piecing the elements of the story together into a meaningful sequence of events. In their course assignments and in class discussions, the preservice teachers began to use the language of excellent reading teachers as they discussed their student’s strengths and needs related to fluency, comprehension, and decoding. They grew as teachers of reading.

East CarolinaAs they were growing in their understanding of the content of the reading course, the preservice teachers were also experiencing emotional changes. Knowing that they were working with at-risk readers and writers, each preservice teacher felt it important to establish a positive relationship with the student—one in which the child felt comfortable taking risks as a learner. Linda noted,

"I made it a point to make sure that Adam felt comfortable with me before beginning the informal assessments. When I told Adam about my struggles with reading as a little girl, he said, ’Well everybody has trouble every now and then.’ Instantly, we made a connection."

The preservice teachers were also very interested in getting to know their students as individuals. Linda further noted that the little boy she worked with, Adam, “didn’t have any books” and “had never been to a bookstore.” She said, “He basically watches the dogs and horror movies with his dad,” and added “I think that we have a lot in common [because we both struggled with reading]!”

Emma described the interest survey she administered to her struggling reader:

“His hobbies are collecting cans with his dad. He said that after every football game, they go out and collect cans out of trashcans. By that I could tell that we are different in SES.”

Sasha’s experience was the reverse of Emma’s. “When I was growing up, I was poor.” So Sasha concluded that teachers think struggling readers are “from a poor background.” But Sasha’s child was from a middle class background where his “parents read to him a lot, and he has books everywhere. And he told me he “loves to read” and participates in summer reading programs. Mystified, Sasha said, “so I was like, ‘why is he in a program like this?’” But then Sasha discovered that this child struggled both with fluency and comprehension and understood that “first impressions” can be wrong.


As the preservice teachers learned more about their students’ interests, they remembered that motivation and engagement play an important role in helping reluctant and struggling readers find success. Phoebe went above and beyond her required work with Eric. In her weekly reflection log, she wrote,

"Eric loves to read and talk about football.... I learned that there are football books in the school library but they are all too difficult for him. So I brought him some football books from the public library."

Phoebe and Eric formed such a strong bond that Phoebe continued to tutor Eric over the summer and into the next school year. She was committed to his success.

East Carolina As a result of forming strong bonds with their students, the preservice teachers were motivated to take the course seriously. Their relationships with the students were binding. Preservice teacher Meredith noted, “After meeting Darius and finding out exactly what he struggled with, I felt responsible and accountable for his learning. Therefore, I had to really remain focused and sincere in my job as his coach.”

Emma initially worried about relating to her student because each differed from the other in race, gender, and age. She admitted,

"At first I was kind of nervous…But I think after work[ing with him] that day we were similar; we both liked to read stuff. So it was really good to see our differences, but we also had interests [in common]."

Emma eventually appreciated their differences:

“He could learn things from me, and I could learn things from him.” At first, Kristen found it hard to adapt to working with a child who could not speak English. She wondered, “How do you teach a student that can’t understand what you are saying to him?” After her experience working with her student and developing a relationship with him, Kristen appreciated the small strides that her student made and concluded, “I can see him improving. Last week he only knew two letters in his name and this week he knows all but two.”

East CarolinaAlso noteworthy was the preservice teachers’ increasing confidence that they possessed knowledge of reading as a process and knowledge of case study students’ strengths and needs and could therefore make informed “in-the-moment” teaching decisions. For example, Kristen noted:

"After my first visit with Manuel, I quickly learned that I would not be able to use the lesson plan sheets we received in class. I realized that I would have to come up with other ways to help Manuel."

Linda similarly described her learning arc as a future teacher:

"Through this service learning project, I was given the opportunity to apply the skills and strategies that I learned in class to assess real life problems that my student was experiencing. I evaluated Adam’s reading and writing behaviors and determined what course of action would best help improve his reading and writing skills. I gained a deeper understanding of my role as a future teacher and of myself as a former struggling reader."

Reflecting on the Service Learning Experience:
East CarolinaReflection logs are an essential link between community experience and academic learning. The preservice teachers logged an entry after each tutoring session; and at the end of the project, they were asked to reflect on the overall service learning experience. Some preservice teachers like Allison learned how to meet the individual needs of children. She wrote, “I learned how important it is to individualize and how many things go into teaching a child to read.” Other preservice teachers began to take on the identity of a teacher. Beth wrote, “I think the most rewarding part was getting to know myself as a teacher and how I can help struggling students.”

When asked if they would participate in a service learning project again, the students responded, “The more experience we get as preservice teachers the better we will be later on, so I would definitely do it again”; and “I would be involved in service learning again because it benefited me as a future teacher, and I think it also benefited my students.” Meredith’s comment, however, captures the essence of the impact of the service learning project on these preservice teachers. “I would definitely be involved in service learning again if given the opportunity. I think service learning is what teaching is all about. We are a service to our students, and in turn we are constantly learning from them as well.”

In conclusion, even though our project was titled Learning to Teach, Learning to Serve, we found that the process actually occurred the other way around: in learning to serve, our pre service teachers found their vocations as educators.

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