A far-away country, a language unlike your own, a culture that you’ve never known–if “study abroad” was mentioned to you, is this where your thoughts would travel? At Miami University’s College of Education, Health and Society, teacher education students encountered their own version of study abroad right here in Ohio during a workshop called the Cleveland Winter Immersion Program offered through the Urban Teaching Cohort (UTC) program. The students who participated in this urban residential experience combined seminars, classroom service-learning, and community volunteer work to help them develop an integrated view of teaching. “I’ve always wanted to work in an inner-city school,” said Courtney Kuhl, an Adolescent and Young Adult English Education major. “And I knew this experience would help me towards that goal.”
For their teacher education service-learning component, Miami students volunteered in partnering urban schools. On weekday mornings, Courtney walked to a kindergarten classroom in Cleveland’s Urban Community School where she assisted with activities. Through her visits, she noticed a teaching style she rarely saw in action: her supervising teacher engaged the kindergarteners through learning stations and smaller groups for the majority of the day. As Courtney worked with students in the classroom, this exposure to new techniques helped Courtney open her world-view to fresh new teaching possibilities.
In addition to helping in the classroom, Courtney also worked to plan and implement a community-based curricular project. After some prompting from their supervising teacher, Courtney and her Miami classmate worked as a team to create a website filled with audio book reviews for the books in the school’s the Little Free Library. This branch of the Little Free Library, started by the kindergarteners themselves, offers free books to the community and is used every day as a classroom learning tool. The kids’ reactions to the books were recorded and linked to webpages using QR codes. Now when someone on the street selects a Little Free Library book outside the school, they can scan the code and hear a primary school student describe the story. “It was a lot of fun hearing what the kids had to say and it totally helped them with their core curriculum,” Courtney said about the project.
Each Saturday morning after the week drew to a close, Courtney and her classmates attended a discussion seminar with one of their workshop instructors and UTC facilitator, Tracy Reese. During this time, everyone got the chance to reflect on their experiences and hear about other schools. “It was a time to share with others what was going on,” Courtney recounted. These sessions gave Courtney a chance to study and compare techniques being used across the area, since every school had its own unique approach. And because of the compressed time-frame, the discussions ensured that everyone was being exposed to as many different ideas as possible.
In addition to spending time in classrooms, Miami students deepened their urban knowledge by volunteering in community-based agencies. Courtney spent her weekday afternoons in the May Dugan Center, a partner non-profit and social services organization that provides comprehensive health and human service programs to individuals and families of the area. There she answered phones and gave out information to residents who dropped in. “We also sorted donated clothes for distribution,” Courtney added. While she worked, she interacted with people in the community. Courtney noted that in many cases the individuals who dropped by needed food, clothes, and shelter. “I can never truly understand what these people are going through, but this experience has allowed me to open up to a different culture–to be more empathetic,” she said.
On Sundays, everyone participated in community dinners, bringing together Miami University students and instructors with partner teachers and community members. “It was a time to connect,” Courtney described the social atmosphere. They enjoyed food, played games, and took the opportunity to ask questions. Through conversations with local families and political figures, Courtney absorbed information about the role local government plays in shaping the community, relevant political issues facing the residents, and obstacles in the living environment, like access to food. “I realized that I come from a privileged lifestyle where I can easily drive to the grocery store to get food, but not everybody can do that,” Courtney said.
Through the Cleveland Winter Immersion Program, students observed urban classrooms and strengthened community ties, but they were also able to take it a step further by participating in a series of mini-seminars about the city environment. Saturday afternoons were spent touring downtown Cleveland with instructor Jeff Kruth, an Urban and Regional Planning alumnus of Miami University. Jeff deepened the students’ knowledge about the larger historical, social, political, and economic forces that shaped Cleveland. “I didn’t realize that Cleveland has the second lowest poverty rate in the country, for example,” Courtney reflected. During their walks around town, they talked about Cleveland’s architecture and community planning, the low downtown urban population, and ways to boost city morale. The tours enabled the students to add additional perspective to their growing awareness of urban life.
If one of the goals of a study abroad is to open students to a whole new cultural worldview, the Cleveland Winter Immersion Experience has succeeded without even traveling outside the country. “Community fully effects the classroom–without a doubt,” Courtney said emphatically. “The students won’t be engaged if you can’t relate what you’re teaching directly to their lives.” Living in an urban environment and gaining knowledge about inner-city education and community, Courtney came away with exposure to ideas that she will be able to draw upon in her future career. “I would absolutely recommend this experience for any major,” Courtney complimented, “And, of course, especially teacher education students.”
For more information about Miami University’s Urban Teaching Cohort program please visit: http://miamioh.edu/ehs/academics/departments/edt/academics/urban-teaching-cohort/index.html