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Future teachers get real-life perspective on urban education

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Smyth teacher Adrienne Wangler talks to UIC education students

Adrienne Wangler, eighth-grade math and science teacher at Smyth Elementary Magnet School, shares her experiences with UIC education students who meet weekly at Smyth.

Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin

A group of education students is heading back to elementary school each week – not to teach, but to learn.

Students in Adrian Capehart’s ED 351 class are learning by immersion at Smyth Elementary Magnet School, 1059 W. 13th St., on the Near West Side.

“The course is designed to expose them to the reality of teaching in different urban settings,” said Capehart, clinical assistant professor of education.

“Our prospective elementary education teachers need to make a real connection to the world of teaching and learning.”

Capehart teaches his 27 students just as if they were on the UIC campus. During each four-hour Monday session, they discuss textbook readings, written assignments and field work in the Chicago Public Schools system.

But the school setting sets the tone for the topics education students are talking and reading about, Capehart said.

“We have regular access to children in various grade levels, principals, counselors, teachers, that you wouldn’t normally be able to take advantage of if the class was being taught on campus in the education building," he said.

Aspiring teachers also learn what it’s like to work with children in an urban environment, Capehart said. Smyth serves African-American children in pre-kindergarten through eighth grades.

“In order to connect with these students, it’s critical to learn about their school, community and culture, and the struggling that these young people go through,” Capehart said.

“They learn attitudes that an educator has to take for working with children in general, but particularly that they must have when they are working with underserved and neglected inner-city communities.”

After the schoolchildren leave for the day, UIC students fill teachers’ classrooms to hear their perspectives. The teachers talk candidly about why they went into teaching, how they found a job and what their experience has been like.

Education student Kathleen Famera said the weekly teacher talks are her favorite part of class.

“You can only learn so much in a classroom,” Famera said. “When you talk to teachers who are actually doing it, you learn so much more.”

Smyth principal Ronald Whitmore said UIC students can assess their own potential teaching abilities through their visits to his school.

“Beginning teachers really need to understand what the lay of the land is,” he said. “It engages them and helps them look at what their strengths and weaknesses might be or even think about whether they’re in the best field.”

The course did change Janelle Ladalski’s career plans.

Ladalski didn’t think she wanted to teach in the Chicago Public Schools system, but now she feels differently.

“It gave me a much better perspective,” Ladalski said. “I was a little bit nervous at first because I didn’t know what to expect. Once I learned about the community, there was more understanding.”

And UIC students can influence the schoolchildren’s perspectives too, Whitmore said.

“The kids can see college students and professors, and they can see that going to college really is tangible,” he said.

UIC education professor Adrian Capehart (below, left) holds weekly class in a Near West Side public elementary school classroom to give his students a realistic idea of the challenges and rewards of teaching in an urban setting.

UIC education student Kathleen Famera (below, right): “When you talk to teachers who are actually doing it, you learn so much more.”

Photos: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin

Adrian Capehart to students in his course. Student Kathleen Famera likes talking with teachers.

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