Preparing Community Teachers
A “Community Teacher” is a conceptual framework for preparing exemplary urban teachers (Murrell, 2000) and highlights the “multicultural competence” teachers need to have. A significant part of this work entails teachers’ reflections on their own identities with the aim of centering the students’ culture and practices in teaching and learning. We began with these questions: How do pre-service STEM teachers enact project-based learning pedagogy that aligns with authentic community engagement and deep learning? How can teachers use students’ lived experiences, their community, and familial and cultural assets in mathematics and science classrooms? Guided by the work of Bartolomé, 1994 (humanizing pedagogy), Ladson-Billings, 2009 (culturally relevant pedagogy), Ferlazzo, 2016 (culturally sustaining pedagogy), and Darling-Hammond et al., 2019 (deep learning), we developed C-STEM-PBL (Community-focused STEM project-based learning).
In our model, teachers practice humanizing pedagogy by interacting with their students with care and fostering independence, resilience, and persistence. They see, hear, and integrate student voice into their classroom community (Bartolomé, 1994) and use culturally relevant pedagogy grounded in 1) supporting student learning through pedagogy, 2) cultural competence, and 3) socio-political consciousness that has potential for critical reflection and action (Ladson-Billings, 2009). Further, pre-service STEM teachers create opportunities where K-12 students connect STEM to their personal experiences, and push against the injustices that affect the community. This model provides an access point to a third space of teacher development, one with the potential to integrate community and engage pre-service teachers and their students in deep learning.
This study is situated within a teacher education program rooted in social justice. It exclusively places student teachers in socioeconomically challenged areas and engages and learns with community through targeted assignments, reflection, and pedagogy focused on learning and action in and with the community. Developing asset-based community-focused STEM teachers embodies the values of the teacher education program, specifically, equity, and culturally relevant, responsive, and humanizing pedagogy. Pre-service math and science teachers engage in this work concurrently as a STEM cohort.
The teacher preparation program is 24 months. Pre-service teachers attain their credential in the first year and complete a Master’s in Education during the second year. The study occurs within the context of a first-year seminar course focused on the intersection of theory and practice in relation to families and community. The implementation of C-STEM-PBL predominantly occurs in a large urban school district (Los Angeles Unified School District) with a majority minority population and a district wide Title I population of 75.7%, where more than 25% of the students are second language learners. This study articulates pre-service teachers’ initial design and implementation of C-STEM-PBL and what they learned from the process.
Participants, Reflections, and Coursework
Thirty-one pre-service math and science teachers have participated in at least seven courses as a STEM cohort with two faculty advisors. During the program, the pre-service teachers create asset maps of their school community and learn about the challenges and hardships of their students and their families. Rather than blaming the community with deficit thinking, the pre-service teachers have opportunities to engage in critical dialogue around privilege in light of structural inequities that exist.
Furthermore, the pre-service teachers use Yosso’s (2009) framework to understand other forms of capital that students and their families build for themselves despite their challenging circumstances. During their field visits, the university field supervisors use a classroom observation rubric that focuses on four dimensions of classroom practice – content rigor, student discourse, equitable student access to content, and classroom ecology – and that includes examples of potential instructional strategies in each category. We developed these rubrics – one in mathematics and one in science – to capture and provide feedback around equity and humanizing pedagogy values key to our teacher education program. The observational tool went through a generalizability study and is featured in an article titled, Measuring Teaching Quality of Secondary Mathematics and Science Residents: A Classroom Observation Framework (Nava et al., 2018).
In the third quarter of the program, the pre-service teachers developed and implemented the Community-focused STEM-PBL (C-STEM-PBL) which presents a culmination of work where pre-service teachers previously engaged in a Community Inquiry Project that integrated ethnographic conversations and community action. The curriculum began with the project-based learning (PBL) framework from the Buck Institute for Education, presentations by guest speakers, and examinations of sample work. Additionally, students engaged in a critical examination of race, class, gender identity, and privilege through a signature work on positionality. Enacting C-STEM-PBL was less feasible for two pre-service teachers due to field placements and curriculum pressures, but feasible for most.
Within the C-STEM-PBL assignment, students constructed a PBL lesson plan, a graphic organizer depicting C-STEM-PBL, a final reflection, and K-12 student artifacts (a project welcome letter, C-STEM-PBL planning templates and rubrics, and video clips and images of student presentations). Both the C-STEM-PBL reflections and the graphic organizers were coded for themes. Categories of information were developed from the text (open coding) and then connected (axial coding) into generative themes (Corbin & Strauss, 2014). We share our exploratory case studies and present two of our STEM candidates and their students’ PBL projects here.
Results of the C-STEM-PBL Assignment
Learning that is Community Centered and Authentic
According to Ziechner, Payne & Brayko (2015), who conceptualize a third space in teacher development, learning must be authentic and community centered. While our pre-service teacher cohort provided many examples of learning that was contextualized, there were fewer examples of tasks tied to community in authentic meaningful ways. 41% of candidates (Figure 1a) constructed driving questions that were tied to community such as the following:
- How does where you live affect how you live?
- How can we reduce our carbon footprint?
- How do GMO’s affect our food, our community, and our environment?
- How can we use Geometry to help solve the needs of our community?
- How can statistical inference help understand issues in our community we care about?
The predominant form (57%) of community engagement, however, consisted of presenting to families/community. More authentically, 22% of these accessed family/community feedback and only 8% tied their project to a form of advocacy (Figure 1c). These projects involved connections to issues in their own communities
Deep learning involves learning that is contextualized. Pre-service candidates were more clear and able to implement contextualized learning at 87% (Figure 1a). In science, connections to human impact on climate change and biodiversity were more prominent and in math, connections to functions and their visibility or application in real life were evident.
Deep learning by pre-service teachers and community teachers involves reflection on self, identity, and ties to social justice. 70% of candidates or more saw implementing the C-STEM PBL as a worthwhile experience that benefited their students and themselves. One candidate, for example, noted that this pedagogical approach renewed the purpose and vision in teaching. It served as a reminder of why the student got into teaching and what they hoped teaching would be like.
Preservice teachers felt that it was possible to connect content to social justice issues and that it is possible to create a C- STEM PBL tied to student interests. Over 80% of participants plan to implement this pedagogy as first-year teachers.
Part of PBL is making public presentations (Larmer et al., 2015). Figure 1b depicts that 67% of students presented to the community, families, including at school functions. Similar to Demirel and Dağyar (2016), pre-service teachers learned that students enjoyed and were engaged by this approach, as evidenced by comments such as the following:
“I was so surprised by how much my students enjoyed doing the PBL! They wanted to do more and take on the biggest challenges.”
“What surprised me about implementing my PBL was how excited students were to actually do the assignment once they began.”
Additionally, pre-service teachers noted that their K-12 students learned both content and skills such as collaboration and were more comfortable with greater autonomy.
Developing greater autonomy among students aligns with tenants of deep learning and PBL. Learning to be more autonomous and to self-manage are life skills. Further, although planning was a challenge in terms of time and implementing the project in a guiding teacher’s classroom, some pre-service teachers noted that the checkpoints inherent in the PBL structure were great opportunities for feedback and formative assessments. Planning these pieces ahead of time relieved some stress and provided greater direction in the course of implementing PBL; thus, pre-service teachers engaged in backwards planning within a PBL structure.
The enactment of C-STEM-PBL offers an emerging pedagogical path that aligns to characteristics of a community teacher who focuses on deep learning in a culturally responsive and humanistic manner.
- Teacher Educators – Our initial findings show educational theories applied to classroom practices. Furthermore, the project planning materials and student presentations and products showed ways in which STEM content could be more authentically connected to students’ lives and their communities. Greater connections to specific pedagogical tools that represent theory and frameworks are necessary to better bridge to practice. The logistics of implementation proved the most challenging for pre-service teachers. The logistics of implementing the C-STEM-PBL in someone else’s classroom with a specific pacing plan was challenging (when, how long, the process to be used, and so on). While these situations are difficult, we ameliorated some of the challenges by engaging in the planning, sharing, and reflection of the C-STEM-PBL task and student work artifacts in Seminar. The seminar became a space for professional reflection and learning among peers, aligning with another aspect of deeper learning where it is applied and transferred in a productive space.
- Teacher Education Programs – Lastly, we learned that the teacher candidates used many of the instructional practices outlined in our UCLA Teacher Education Program Classroom Observation Rubrics and that C-STEM-PBL supports teachers to engage in student-centered practices, demonstrating that programs can develop and test assessments matching their goals. As a program, we can support the development of more effective formative assessments during the PBL process, introduce the C-STEM-PBL approach sooner, and push toward more critical engagement with the community for transformative change.
Further research should be aimed at focusing on assessing the degree to which candidates engage in desired behaviors in practice, and how teacher preparation theory and experiences may be optimally designed to facilitate future development of effective community teachers.