Learning full circle

Wheaton and the Norton schools form strong ties around education.

It’s 10:45 on a Friday morning, and third-grade teacher Sarah Alves is trying on shoes. No, she’s not out shopping. She’s teaching language arts.

Sitting in a circle around her, the children giggle as she tries on a men’s hiking shoe, a baby’s cowboy boot and then a ballet slipper. With each one, Alves asks, “Is this shoe a good fit?” And each time the kids call out, “Noooo!” Then she tries on a well-worn bedroom slipper, and they all agree it’s just right.

The exercise is part of a lesson designed to teach kids how to choose a book that fits their interests and comprehension level. It’s a lot like choosing the right shoe, Alves tells them.

“Boys and girls, if I have a shoe on that doesn’t fit me, that’s too tight or too big, I’m going to be very uncomfortable—and if you pick up a book that’s too hard or too easy for you, it’s not going to be a ‘good-fit’ book. When you’re reading a story that you picked, that you like, that is the best way to be a better reader.”

When the activity ends, Alves announces, “The library is open for choosing!” and the children rush to the bookshelves in the corner.

Wheaton Students at Norton Middle School
Wheaton students who went to Tanzania present their experiences in a slide show at Norton Middle School as part of the college’s partnership with the local schools.

It’s only the second week of school at the J.C. Solmonese Elementary School in Norton, but the rapport that Alves already shares with her students bespeaks her skill as a teacher. Her training began at Wheaton, where she majored in psychology and minored in elementary education, graduating summa cum laude in 2004. She completed her student teaching in the Norton school system that year, and she’s been there ever since. Last year, for the first time, she supervised a student teacher of her own—Wheaton student Olivia Ahmadi ’12.

“It was very interesting to be on the ‘other side’ of things,” Alves says, “and it was wonderful to stay connected to Wheaton and see how the Education Department has grown and changed since my graduation. Wheaton is certainly on top of the new trends in education, because Olivia was prepared for the changing classroom and schools.”

This “full-circle” success story illustrates one of the many connections that Wheaton shares with the Norton schools—mutually beneficial partnerships that enrich Wheaton students’ experience while expanding opportunities for Norton’s youngsters. Wheaton students offer tutoring, arts performances, science lessons and more, serving as powerful role models for the younger students. Norton educators open their classrooms to Wheaton students, teach education courses at the college and model current best practices. The two institutions have even collaborated on grant writing and joint program development.

The roots of the relationship reach back to 1981, when Grace Baron joined Wheaton’s Psychology Department. Baron, who lived in Norton, wanted to help bring college and community together. She got a chance to do so when she was named director of the college’s Elisabeth Amen Nursery School, a lab school affiliated with the Psychology Department.

“As head of the nursery school, I was responsible for preparing preschoolers to go to kindergarten—in Norton—so I needed functional relationships with the local educators,” she says. “I needed to know what the local schools thought 3- to 5-year-olds needed when they entered kindergarten.”

Kenneth Fernandes, then-principal of the Solmonese School, and Mary Brown, the assistant principal, welcomed the chance to get a dialogue started. These conversations opened the way for another opportunity.

“There were five computers on campus then—count them: five,” Baron remembers. “And Fred Kollett gave me one of them for the lab school.” (Kollett was a professor of mathematics and Wheaton’s first director of academic computing.)

Baron started thinking about the computer’s potential in learning. “We just wanted to explore and see what 5-year-olds could do with a computer. None of them had computers at home at that point.”

Baron and Allysa McCabe, then–assistant professor of psychology, surveyed the research on how to introduce computers to children, and found Logo, a simple drawing program. “We taught the lab school’s 4-year-olds two skills on the computer: drawing a line and drawing a right angle,” Baron recalls. “And then they took off, giving us remarkable images and accompanying stories.”

This pilot research project paved the way for two psychology majors, Elizabeth Glotzer Lebo ’86 and Lisa Stormont ’86, to conduct honors thesis research in the Norton kindergartens. The upshot: they introduced all 200 Norton kindergartners to computers for the first time.

“We never could have done it without the help of the principal, the assistant principal and all the kindergarten teachers,” Baron says. “For me, being able to work together like that cemented our functional relationship.”

When Vicki Bartolini joined Wheaton’s Education Department in the early 1990s, she worked to strengthen the school-college relationship. Prior to her arrival, many education minors had done their practicum in communities other than Norton. But as coordinator of the early childhood/elementary education minor, Bartolini started placing more student teachers in Norton. She also reached out to forge substantive partnerships with Norton educators.

First, Bartolini collaborated with Dick Zusman, then the math and science curriculum coordinator in Norton, to develop a system-wide mentoring program for beginning teachers in Norton. They secured foundation grants totaling $50,000 to fund the project, which proved mutually beneficial.

Wheaton Students at Norton Middle School
Shane Nichols ’13 coaches Norton sixth graders on writing letters to their counterparts in Tanzania.

“New teachers were mentored, and experienced teachers received professional development—they learned how to mentor,” says Bartolini. “A wonderful teacher doesn’t necessarily translate into an effective mentor. They have to understand what it is they do so well and how to foster that in a student teacher.”

From then on, the education minors who student-taught in Norton got an added benefit: learning from teachers with strong mentoring skills. The model for this innovative program was presented at a number of national conferences.

Today, the Norton schools host most of Wheaton’s student teachers. “In 2010–2011, we had ten early childhood and elementary student teachers,” Bartolini says. “All completed their student teaching in Norton. All got education-related jobs.”

Bartolini and Zusman also won a federal Eisenhower grant to create a Wheaton course called “Ponds to Particles,” a hands-on science course primarily for education minors. Professor of Psychology Kathleen Morgan contributed to the course development, as did Norton teachers.

“The course has a field-based component, so we had the teachers involved to help shape it,” Bartolini says. “And to this day, our ‘Ponds to Particles’ students are in the Norton schools working on science education.”

Sarah Alves is among the teachers who have hosted “Ponds to Particles” fieldwork.

“The Wheaton students did some great solar energy experiments with my class,” Alves says. “They made solar cars and solar cookers for s’mores. They also made ‘rockets’ with film canisters and Alka-Seltzer tablets. My third graders loved that!”

Wheaton students also share their artistic talents with the schools. Through Norton Youth Theatre, Wheaton musical theatre students instruct middle school kids in acting, singing and dancing throughout the year. In the spring, the troupe stages a full-scale musical production at NMS.

Julie Searles, instructor of music and director of world dance at Wheaton, has coordinated a number of performances and workshops by Wheaton’s student ensembles, including the Wheatones, the Gentlemen Callers, the Wheaton Dance Company, the SOLE step team, and TRYBE, a student-run hip-hop and multicultural dance troupe.

Wheaton Leadership Training
In April 2012, Norton Middle School students joined Wheaton students on campus for a leadership summit that included team building activities.

In 2007, Searles expanded the campus residency of visiting artists the Orchid Ensemble, arranging for the group to perform at back-to-back assemblies at NMS.

“A total of six hundred students were introduced to a variety of Asian music traditions,” Searles says.

When sixth-grade social studies teachers Barbara Nado and Kimberly Spence (Wheaton ’04) were teaching a unit on sub-Saharan Africa, they wanted to bring the material to life. An Internet search led them to an article about Wheaton-in-Tanzania, a six-week summer program led by anthropology professor Donna Kerner. Six Wheaton students who had lived and worked in Tanzania shared their experiences at an assembly of more than 230 attentive sixth graders. Afterward, the Wheaton students visited the classrooms to help the students write letters to students in Tanzania.

Norton teachers also give generously to Wheaton students—not only by mentoring student teachers but also by opening their classrooms for fieldwork and sharing their expertise.

Pagna Donlevy ’13, who aspires to teach math, won a Davis Projects for Peace award last spring to support a summer project in her native Cambodia. Donlevy’s goal was to set up math classes for middle school children and train teachers in current methods of instruction. Having a limited materials budget, she sought the help of NMS math teacher Eric Beard.

“I offered Pagna some advice,” Beard says. “I also gave her, on a digital flash drive, every single homework, test, quiz, assessment, game, project and Smart Board file I’ve created since starting at NMS in 2004. There were hundreds of files, and she could not have been more appreciative.”

In another singular collaboration, Wheaton Teaching Associate in Mathematics Harrison Straley made a 12-minute videotape based on the math classes of second-grade teacher Judy LaConte. The video, produced with Wheaton faculty liaison Gary Ahrendts, was intended to demonstrate best practices in elementary mathematics instruction. Straley, who has a keen interest in international education, used the video as part of a presentation he made in Shihoro, Japan, in June.

LaConte, a supervisor of student teachers, is also an adjunct professor at Wheaton.

“I am truly fortunate to be able to teach at the elementary level during the day and teach college students in the evening,” she says. “I believe my experience is an asset to the Wheaton students—and working with them brings my own learning full circle. I love it.”

Last year, Wheaton and the middle school piloted a highly successful tutoring program. NMS principal Michael O’Rourke and Wheaton’s Vereene Parnell found a way to make this initiative work for everyone involved.

“We established the middle school as a Federal Work-Study site,” O’Rourke says, “and that has been very powerful and productive—one of the best things we’ve done. We pay a portion of the student’s stipend, and because it’s work-study, we can depend on them. I’ve come to look at the Wheaton students as an integral part of what we do.”

Parnell, Wheaton’s associate dean of Service, Spirituality and Social Responsibility, hopes to expand this model to the Yelle Elementary School, and then to the high school.

Her office is also working with O’Rourke on another project. The middle school’s “Hero Club” brings together high-achieving students and others who are considered at risk to engage in school activities that combat bullying and build leadership potential. Last April, 40 of these students came to Wheaton for a leadership “summit.” Wheaton students gave them a campus tour and then assisted NMS teachers in leading team-building activities and discussion in the Chapel Basement. It all culminated in pizza.

This event planted the seed for a collaboration that will center on peer-to-peer mentoring—based on the concept that when it comes to social behavior, peers often exert greater influence than adults do.

This year, Wheaton has a full-time AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer to work on this project and others. Maria Chang is dividing her time between Wheaton and the schools—and O’Rourke has given her a small office next to his own. The Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University is training Chang and a group of Wheaton students in anti-bullying awareness and intervention. The Wheaton students will then train high school students, who in turn will train younger students. The goal is to develop an integrated K–12 leadership training program.

“This program has been a dream of ours for some time, one that builds on programs in place in the schools and takes them to the level of nationally recognized best practices,” says Parnell.

O’Rourke shares her excitement. Looking back on the summit that capped off a year of school activities, he says, “I’m very interested in developing student leadership, and also in getting middle school students to look beyond their noses. This program opened their eyes a bit, and hopefully, their hopes and dreams as well. I want to keep it going.”

Keith Nordstrom photos