The penpal project: One teacher candidate’s journey

Lindsay Hollingsworth,
Lindsy York,
Karen Utley,

The fourth grade students file into the classroom with a happy buzz of anticipation and delight. The students are excited; it is Friday, which means that new letters await them in their penpal binders. The students are writing back and forth with a teacher candidate, Ms. York, to develop their literacy skills through a meaningful activity. In this post, we’ll describe Ms. York’s work with one specific student, James.

James, a student in the class, has not yet had successful experiences reading and writing. He often engages in avoidance tactics when asked to engage in literacy activities. Ms.York gained his trust immediately during their first interaction and he blossomed through one-on-one interactions with her.

The penpal project really sparked James’ interest. He appeared eager to engage in a back and forth dialogue with a student teacher. In the beginning, he read Ms. York’s letters and responded with drawings. James first ‘letter’ was a pop out picture of a person riding a bicycle. The only words on the page were “to you.”

Ms. York responded to his drawings by offering him positive praise and asking him probing questions about himself. She also offered gentle nudges to James to expand and elaborate on his ideas by conveying them through written expression. Over time, James’ letters evolved. In his third letter, James drew a picture of himself and Ms. York on a trampoline. James used labels to identify the sun, the trampoline, and the people in the picture, demonstrating a growth in his use of words in his writing. James growth reflects Marie Clay’s findings that penpal exchanges result in a gradual increase in writing by children (1998).

During the semester, Ms. York offered encouragement for James to follow the guidelines to craft a friendly letter to her. She helped him to set a goal of writing a letter to her before break in December. James submitted his formal letter to her on November 9, well before the goal date. The letter was on a blank white page, and he formatted it using all of the standard conventions for a friendly letter.  In the letter, James described his Halloween experience to Ms. York. By engaging in the penpal project, James gained comfort and confidence with written expression. He expanded his writing from pictures, to labels, to a letter in a few short weeks.

As for Ms. York, she notes several important takeaways that she’ll carry with her into the profession. Through this experience, she developed a rapport with her students and gained their trust. She has also gained experience with portfolio assessment by collecting baseline data, helping students to set goals, and monitoring their progress. Through the penpal project, Ms. York learned the importance of providing positive support to students. She shares, “This project taught me to differentiate since the students’ abilities were different. I had to learn where they were at and how to respond in a way that they would understand.” 

The authors acknowledge individuals from Westview Elementary in Platteville, Wisconsin, who made this project possible through their support and participation: Karen Utley, media specialist and ReNah Reuter, principal.


Clay, M. (1998). By different paths to common outcomes. York, ME: Stenhouse.

Using Videos to Strengthen Mentor Teacher Coaching


Video 1 Video 2 Video 3 Video 4
Sarah works alongside her preservice teacher to model good teaching strategies. After watching the videos, Sarah learned that co-teaching with the preservice teacher, using a specific instructional technique, provided support and modeling. In this lesson, Sarah modeled various ways to keep students engaged in the phonics lesson. By watching videos of herself coaching, Sarah focused on questioning techniques for the next lesson and modeled them for the preservice teacher.


Lori Rakes, Florida Southern College,
Rebecca L. Powell, Florida Southern College,
Ms. Sarah Anderson, Roberts Academy 2nd grade teacher,
Bethany Blevins, Florida Southern College Teacher Candidate,

Teacher educators know that video recording developing teachers for the purpose of teaching them to self-reflect and target areas for improvement of practice is a strong tool in their growth (Calandra, Gurvitch, & Lund, 2008). In addition, coaching from the mentor teacher creates “in the moment” learning environments for developing teachers. Video recordings, primarily used to support the growth of the developing teachers, may also be used to support the growth of mentor teachers as instructional coaches. Ms. Sarah Anderson, a mentor teacher, alongside Dr. Rebecca L. Powell and Dr. Lori Rakes, found that video recordings of herself, as the mentor teacher, helped improve her “in the moment” coaching techniques.

As part of coursework connected to clinical experience, developing teachers were required to video record themselves teaching a lesson and use a reflection template to record comments. The two faculty members teaching this course also viewed the videos to provide feedback to the developing teachers. While watching Susan’s (pseudonym) video, the course instructors noticed the feedback mentor teacher, Ms. Anderson, gave to Susan during the lesson (“in the moment” coaching). Although the feedback was accurate, it lacked clear focus, but instead, included many areas where Susan might improve. For example, in the lesson segment, Ms. Anderson coached Susan in the areas of explicit directions, student engagement, better defined phonics rules, and the readiness level of students. Through watching the video, it was apparent that Susan was overwhelmed by the barrage of feedback that encompassed so many different areas. She later explained, “There was so much feedback during the lesson that I could not target the area I needed to work on first.”

Because of the partnership work and relationship the instructors had with Ms. Anderson they asked to meet with her about feedback. Without giving specific instructions on what to look for, they watched the video together. Almost immediately, Ms. Anderson commented that her feedback seemed too quick and scattered. “I’m not sure that Susan even knows what to do to improve on this lesson”. After that conversation and reflection, Dr. Powell, Dr. Rakes and Ms. Anderson created a plan to support Susan and narrow Ms. Anderson’s instructional feedback to one focus area for the next lesson. Ms. Anderson met with Susan and together they decided to target her methods of engagement.

Through the use of video analysis and reflection, Ms. Anderson discovered that although she provided feedback, the lack of structure appeared to inhibit rather than enhance Susan’s growth as a teacher. This collaborative video analysis with Ms. Anderson strengthened the “in the moment” coaching for Susan and all developing teachers Ms. Anderson has mentored since. “By watching myself during Susan’s lesson, I now provide feedback that is focused and actionable.”

There is strong evidence that the use of video analysis impacts developing teachers’ practice. Based on this experience, we believe the use of video analysis to improve mentor teachers’ coaching techniques warrants further exploration.


Calandra, B., Gurvitch, R., & Lund, J. (2008). An exploratory study of digital video editing as a tool for teacher preparation. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 16(2), 137-153

Side-by-Side Teaching: Learning to Teach Elementary Science in Authentic Classroom Settings

Stephen Thompson, Professor, University of South Carolina,
Stacey Franklin, Principal, Killian Elementary School,
Nancy Diggs, Clinical Adjunct, Killian Elementary School,

A small group of elementary students discussed how condensation formed on a bottle of sports drink. “It must have rained on the bottle,” declared one 3rd grader.

Another responded, “It can’t be rain. It didn’t rain before we found the water on the bottle.”

A third chimed in, “I think it’s like sweat. The water came out of the bottle when it got hot.”

As the group of Killian Elementary School (Killian) students discussed their ideas about the mystery water a University of South Carolina (USC) science methods student (teacher candidate) asked probing questions to clarify student thinking and make all ideas public. Similar small group interactions led by USC teacher candidates were occurring around the classroom. As the small group conversations occurred, the classroom teacher and university methods instructor (professor) observed, engaged in coaching, and made notes for a whole group discussion between teacher candidates, the classroom teacher, and the professor that would follow.

This vignette portrays typical interactions that occur during USC elementary science methods coursework held at Killian. The methods course is a key component of our collaborative professional development efforts centered on four science-teaching practices (Windschitl, Thompson, & Braaten, 2018):

– Planning for engagement with important science ideas,
– Eliciting students’ ideas,
– Supporting on-going changes in student thinking, and
– Pressing students for evidence-based solutions.

To support enactment of these practices the professor meets regularly with Killian teachers to collaboratively plan science curricula. The groups explore and discuss professional resources, observe and critique lesson enactments, co-teach, and engage in content building experiences. This work has resulted in the development of multiple instructional units that utilize local resources to support science instruction. Examples include opportunities for 3rd graders to conduct water quality monitoring with Park Rangers from the National Park Service and collaborations with the Richland County Soil and Water Conservation District Agents centered on watershed education.

During collaborative planning the professor negotiates opportunities for teacher candidates to experience aspects of targeted science teaching practices with elementary students. This allows teacher candidates to assume various roles and practice strategies they learn in the science methods course with elementary children in classroom settings. The practice serves as an important form of “rehearsal”/scaffold for the teacher candidates. In addition, the methods course enactments provide support for science instruction at Killian by modeling how to engage elementary students with important science ideas. Teachers develop new knowledge and strategies they are able to share with other Killian teachers.

The outcomes have been positive. For example, standardized science test results reveal that Killian students’ acheivement in science is trending upwards and in 2017-2018 students’ performance in science exceeded expectations and goals established by the school and district. Other positive outcomes of this work include enhanced participation by school-based faculty in professional organizations. For example, enhanced numbers of Killian teachers, interns, and administrators have taken part in recent presentations at National Association of Professional Development School conferences centered on this work.


Windschitl, M., Thompson, J., and Braaten, M., (2018). Ambitious Science Teaching, Harvard Educational Press, Cambridge, MA.


Buzzy’s Book Club


Beth White, University of South Carolina, Elementary Education,

Buffy Murphy, Irmo Elementary School Reading Coach,

How can we best support a vision of building community for growing empathetic readers, writers and human beings? As a PDS team at Irmo Elementary School, we knew that a shared text could engage students and teachers and afford time for dialogic talk.

With the recommendation of a colleague, we implemented a Book-of-the-Month structure and named it Buzzy’s Book Club after the IES mascot. Fariña and Kotch (2014) remind us “…that books were (are) a vehicle for conveying important messages through rich and beautiful language, strong moral themes, and a rhythm and timbre that bonded the community.” This journey began with a thoughtful selection of texts. The first was A Bike Like Sergio’s by Maribeth Boelts.

Each teacher received a wrapped package with the book and an envelope that contained a letter. Teachers were charged to open the letter and package with their classes. The response was overwhelming.

An excerpt from the letter:

Dear Class,

The book we have selected to kick off Buzzy’s Book Club is one that was new to us, but packs a powerful message. Ruben learns an important lesson in this book: doing the right thing is not always easy. We hope you will enjoy reading A Bike Like Sergio’s together as a class and discussing the story. We know your classroom community will interpret this book in your own way, and we look forward to hearing some of those conversations and the insights you gain through this experience.

PS- … At a time when our plates and hands are full, we hope this fills your heart “fuller”… These books were selected very intentionally and with a purpose for our community. Please find a moment to slow down the pace just a little to enjoy a read aloud and have sincere discussion with your students. May this bring you together even more…may it unite our school community in a way that we, too, feel led to go out and do the right thing, even when it is hard.

At the NAPDS conference in Florida, the IES team was inspired by a presentation on schoolwide seminars. Using a seminar format, Buzzy’s Book Club continued with lyrics  from Michael Jackson’s song “Heal the World”. Students identified ways to “make a little space, make it a better place” as they named their own commitment to heal the world.

The school year concluded with What Do You Do with a Chance? by Kobi Yamada, a text that teaches the main character that amazing things can happen when one takes chances.

Teachers named book club and seminar as “critical incidents” that shaped their own learning. This exceeded the expectations of our intended goal. Shared texts shifted classroom instruction and engagement across content areas.

This schoolwide book club initiative provided a springboard for common language, deep synthesis and analysis, relevant and authentic discussion, and empowered citizens, tall and small, across our school community. Buzzy’s Book Club is here to stay, as it truly has created a buzz all throughout our Irmo Elementary hive!


Fariña, C. & Kotch, L. (2014). A School Leader’s Guide to Excellence: Collaborating our way to better schools. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

The Secrets of Moore’s Branch


Connie Hodge, Eastern Kentucky University-Corbin Campus,

Mary Lamar, Eastern Kentucky University-Corbin Campus,

Using the elements of nature to inspire children to learn creates an interest that is difficult to duplicate in the classroom.  Nature provides a real life laboratory for learning.  That was the educational opportunity created as a result of the Moore’s Branch that flows beside Corbin Middle School in Corbin, Kentucky.  Real life, hands-on activities stimulated seventh grade students in Mrs. TeNeal Rice, Mrs. Coreen Rougeux, and Mrs. Latisha Bryant’s science classrooms at Corbin Middle School to inquire, investigate, initiate higher order thinking, and be engaged in the scientific study of a wide array of water related experiments.

Under the direction of Mrs. Sharon Ball, Mrs. Judy Smith, Mrs. Mary Lamar, and Dr. Connie Hodge, instructors at Eastern Kentucky University (EKU), pre-service teachers worked with the middle school students in order to use hands-on, environmental learning and be exposed to experiences in order to learn about the local environment. The pre-service teachers are part of the Clinical Apprenticeship for Preparing Teachers (CAPT) program, a clinical model grant from the Council of Postsecondary Education (CPE).  This program places pre-service teachers in the middle school for an entire year of clinical placement.

The middle grades and pre-service teachers introduced the project by explaining that Moore’s Branch flows beside of the school and feeds into the Lynn Camp Creek that flows into the Laurel River and eventually into the Cumberland River.  They provided students with a history of the area and the ever-changing part that Moore’s Branch provided to the community.  Through the use of a series of questions, the teachers asked the students to brainstorm and identify “secrets” that could be found in this body of water.  In their cooperative learning groups, students identified different topics (i.e. effects of erosion, pH of water, water temperature variance, insects (life cycle), agricultural effects wildlife, etc.).

The NGSS science standard-MS-LS2-1 Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence for the effects of resource availability on organisms and populations of organisms in an ecosystem was targeted and the middle school and university pre-service teachers utilized the 5E Learning Cycle during the course of the project.  The 5E model provided an inquiry-based process so that students could construct their knowledge through a sequence of learning experiences (National Institute of Health, n.d.).  The components of the model lead students through this constructivist approach by using the five E’s (Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate).

The students collected water samples, both upstream and downstream, in order to test the water to evaluate water quality.  These samples were tested for pH, temperature, conductivity, oxygen level, and bacteria.  Students visually inspected the stream bank for erosion, water clarity, and aquatic life.  The students then used their experiences to develop projects about water systems, plant and animal life, and a history of the area.

With the assistance of the classroom and university pre-service teachers, the middle grades students researched and documented their findings in a poster display.  Parents and members of the local community were invited to observe the “Mysteries of Moore’s Branch.”  This event provided the students an opportunity to discuss their research.


How does the 5E instructional model promote active, collaborate, inquiry-based learning? National Institute of Health (NIH): Doing science:  The process of scientific inquiry.  Retrieved October 26, 2017, from

National Research Council. (2012). A framework for K-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts and core ideas. Washington DC: The National Academies Press.

NGSS Lead States, 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Mutual Benefits: A Service-Learning Project for Authentic PDS Partnerships


Christina Kaniu, Worcester State University, or

Hunter Hoobler, Worcester State University,

Erin Dobson, Tatnuck Magnet School, Worcester Public Schools,

The Professional Development Schools (PDS) partnerships between Worcester State University (WSU) and the Worcester Public School District create a community where reciprocal benefits are tangible. One example is evident within the elementary education introductory course at WSU. Enrolled students work with Tatnuck Magnet School, a PDS, to develop service-learning projects that not only benefit the school community but also provide WSU students with a chance to apply what they learn in a hands-on setting. These mutual benefits of service-learning are well known. An effective service-learning project is “an organized service activity that meets identified community needs and reflects on the service activity in such a way as to gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility” (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996, p.222).

Tatnuck Magnet School plays a pivotal part in the training of WSU’s elementary education teacher candidates. Through the service-learning project, teacher candidates learn about issues that can arise in an urban school and explore potential solutions through critical thinking and problem solving. After considerable initial research on Tatnuck’s demographics, current initiatives, mission, and other relevant elements of the surrounding community, the class visits the school where Dr. Erin Dobson, its principal, provides an overview of Tatnuck, discusses particular needs and issues, and answers any remaining questions. In small groups, the WSU students use what they learn to develop proposals that outline an existing problem, their project idea or solution, potential outcomes, necessary resources, a timeline, etc. After the proposals are reviewed and approved, the WSU groups use the remainder of the semester to implement their projects at Tatnuck. A variety of projects have been completed. In spring of 2016, a group individually packaged 300 children’s books for Tatnuck students to take home. Each package included a note to parents about the importance of reading at home and promoted Tatnuck’s motto, “The most important 20 minutes of your day … Read with your child!” Other projects have included painting murals to help beautify the over 100-year-old building, redesigning its playground, writing books with first graders, and discussing career and school choices with sixth grade students.

The benefits of this project are truly mutual. As Dr. Erin Dobson suggests, “Tatnuck is so fortunate to participate in this service-learning experience with WSU students each semester. The college students sometimes create projects that benefit our urban school students in ways that we might not have otherwise thought about.” WSU teacher candidates see the learning benefits as well. One student said, “I liked going to Tatnuck because it was a real-life experience that could be connected to what we were learning in class.” Another student noted, “The kids were so happy to see us and being able to teach them new things and be a role model was amazing. I also now have first hand experience with the issues that face schools.” The PDS partnership projects have presented extraordinary opportunities for all involved.


Bringle, R. G., & Hatcher, J. A. (1996). Implementing service learning in higher education. The Journal of Higher Education, 67(2). Retrieved from