May 24, 2017 | By Chuck Carlson
At the Whitehouse Nature Center, on a warm May afternoon, education was taking the form of pizza.
Students from the Marshall High School cognitive impairment program were creating their own masterpieces in mozzarella and pepperoni and onion and mushroom, and coordinating it all were budding teachers Elliot Brinker, ’18, and Mike Whittaker, ’17, members of Albion College's Boundary Crossings experience, commonly called Maymester.
“This has been a huge eye-opener, but in a positive way,” said Brinker, a Livonia native who is majoring in French and Spanish with a concentration in secondary education. “This experience has been far more extensive than just working with grades. You get close to students and mentor-teachers.”
The Maymester program is in its 11th year under the guidance of education associate professor Suellyn Henke, Elementary Boundary Crossings teacher Dr. Betty Okwako Riekkola and Karen Hoaglin, liaison for the Fritz Shurmur Center for Teacher Development. This year it features 18 juniors and seniors who want to pursue a career in education.
Each of the College students are under the auspices of mentor-teachers from Marshall High School, Marshall Opportunity School and Marshall Middle School, as well as Gordon, Walters and Hughes Elementary in Marshall and Harrington Elementary in Albion.
Each student teaches a three-week unit, often in subjects in which they are not familiar. It represents their first hands-on opportunity to teach. After the three weeks, students make and give a presentation at the Maymester Showcase of Learning. This year's Showcase, open to the public, will be held May 25, from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., in the College's Science Complex atrium.
For Whittaker and Brinker, pizza may be the result but the goal is learning math (under Brinker) and English (under Whittaker). They are teaching their youngsters how to create their own pizza with the right measurements and with recipes of their creation. Afterward, the plan is to create a pizza cookbook with the number measurements written in Spanish.
The two mentor-teachers from Marshall High School, Annette Burnett and Cheryl Quinn, are there to answer any questions and keep the program on track.
“It’s a challenge for them,” said Quinn, who has been part of Maymester since 2014. “Because they have to break down how they teach and learn how to work with challenged kids. I think it gives them more of an opportunity to teach in different ways, because chances are they’re going to have special-needs kids when they teach.”
Whittaker, a Muskegon native who graduated from Albion in May with a degree in social studies with a concentration in education, will get his first classroom opportunity this fall as a student teacher/assistant football coach at Grass Lake High.
“I’ve already learned you can’t assume anything with students,” he said. “If you think you’ve said enough, say it again. But it’s been a great chance to learn.”
Victoria Della Pia, ’16, smiled when she heard about the pizza project because, as she learned when she was part of the Maymester program last year, teaching runs much deeper than classroom work.
“You don’t learn how to be a teacher from a book,” she said. “You learn from teaching.”
And she is learning the best way possible—as a fifth-grade teacher just down the road from the College at Harrington Elementary.
She admits to the challenges and uncertainties as a first-time teacher and knows it’s not all “flowers and daisies.” But she also said, as someone who has wanted to be teacher since she was 4, that she can’t imagine anything better.
“I’ve never gone home and thought I picked the wrong career,” said Della Pia, a native of Ajax, Ontario, Canada, who majored in integrated science with a concentration in education. “I thought it was a challenge and I’ve learned a lot about myself.”
She started teaching at Harrington in February and she credits her Maymester for helping her prepare for her new assignment.
“It gives you a lot of field experience,” she said. “It gives you a lot of practical experience.”
Then she laughed.
“And I’ve learned a lot of self-control.”
Henke, a professor at Albion since 2000, is seeing evidence that Maymester is working as it was intended.
Maymester graduates who have gone on to pursue careers in teaching have found that teaching outside their comfort zone is paying off, as a number have been asked in job interviews if they had flexibility to teach special-needs students or different courses.
“It was the boundary crossing of Maymester that allowed them to be more flexible,” Henke said. “They say, ‘It helped me get my job.’ That’s good to hear.”