Academic Acumen

by LaNae Poulter '74


It may be hard to imagine. It had never been done before at Ricks College. It was one of those things that had to be experienced for the first time. When it was over, it was celebrated as an experience of a lifetime.

During the first summer term of 2001, nineteen Ricks College students and their instructor drove from the familiar turf of the Rexburg campus with its arid ecosystem and wide open spaces to Vashon Island, Washington, where the moistness of Puget Sound and fertile soil have given root to lush, green vegetation beneath a forest canopy. Here the group would spend the nearly six weeks in an intense learning environment of a pilot program for the Elementary Education Department--an adventure in learning for those who aspire to become teachers. The lessons learned were far more than the curriculum designed for six credit hours in children's literature and early field experience.

The elementary education program places sophomore students in local schools to gain firsthand experience in the classroom. School placements in the past have normally been within a 15-mile radius of the Rexburg campus, and the exposure to the elementary classrooms limited to either a two-hour morning or afternoon session for three days a week.

Since hearing the announcement that Ricks College would be granting bachelor's degrees as Brigham Young University-Idaho, the director of Continuing Education, Ron Campbell, has seen many changes for those majoring in education. Students are now able to complete all requirements for teacher certification without transferring to any other university. Programs are expanding to include courses in secondary education. It is an exciting time of opportunity and challenge--with expected growing pains.

Local placements for practicums and student teacher experiences are becoming saturated. Anticipating a significant need for additional student teaching placements, Campbell feels it is time to explore opportunities outside of the immediate southeastern Idaho area.

Since 1999, Continuing Education has been operating a satellite campus on Vashon Island on a 110-acre property donated to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Morning Side Ranch has been converted to a successful educational facility complete with classrooms, dormitories, and a cafeteria. During the fall and winter semesters, the facilities are used for the Quest program, which focuses on general education requirements for incoming freshman students. In the summer, the center becomes the location for stake and ward youth conferences. But the calendaring break between Quest and the youth conferences leaves a window of opportunity and a place to explore new horizons.

School districts in the Tacoma and Seattle area were contacted to see if they would be willing to accept sophomore students from Ricks College into their classrooms for a first-hand, full-day practicum. It would be a new experience not only for the school districts, but also for the contracted classroom teacher, and the sophomore students. The Ricks College instructors and administration could see great potential in participants' exposure to the full day of a teacher's responsibilities rather than the tidbit of previous placements.

According to Campbell, the Washington educators were somewhat hesitant until he explained Ricks College was becoming BYU-Idaho. Name recognition was immediate, and acceptance of the proposal was secured as the administrators identified with the values and goals of schools within the Church Educational System.

Two months prior to the group's travel date, instructor Dr. Carol Hughes traveled to visit with school principals and teachers at Point Defiance, Chautauqua, Skyline, and Downing Elementary Schools. Along with coordinating plans for the project, they decided to have each Ricks student write a personal letter to introduce themselves to the classroom.

Teachers seized the opportunity to enhance lessons on geography and map reading skills by figuring out routes of travel between Rexburg and their classrooms. Their elementary students were excited and ready when these new teachers arrived. 

And teachers they were. Dr. Hughes feels it was an excellent opportunity for them to be involved in settings they could not experience in southeastern Idaho. For five weeks, they were responsible to play the dual roles of teacher and learner. Tasks included interacting with students, working with small reading groups, supervising recesses, correcting papers, developing specific lessons, and presenting in the classrooms to students from diverse ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds. Their classrooms were filled with eager faces and a reminder of the melting pot of society: African Americans, Native Americans, Asians, and Europeans including some who had only recently come from Russia and England. 

A distinctive cohort process developed between the students living together with their instructor 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Vashon Island's remote location brought its own challenges. They shared every experience and resource. Travel plans had to be coordinated with ferry schedules. Only four computers had Internet access, and the staff and students cooperated on timelines to complete projects all due at the same time. Even as one student later listed suggestions for improvement in the pilot program she said, "Please don't think I was not pleased. Quite on the contrary, it was superb. The things I mentioned are small inconveniences compared to the good that happened."

Hughes observed the students' continued willingness to work together. She found them especially focused and mature. "To watch the students teach each other was powerful to me. It may have been instructor initiated, but the students were a family and a learning community. They taught each other," she said. "There was a synergism that became very apparent--the working together, the cooperation."

Sue Rack, a participating teacher at Chautauqua Elementary, noticed the difference. She said, "I think the 'group' aspect of this experience must be beneficial to these students. They live, work, and travel together. Such sharing ought to pay off. Building mutual support will be essential in their chosen profession."

Other teachers and principals in the participating schools gave a united applause for students enrolled in the pilot program. Dr. Hughes received the praises. "Towards the end of the program, so many from the participating schools came to me with comments like 'Where do you find these students? They are better prepared than many senior students,'" she said. "Then they would continue by saying, 'Send us more of your students--they are incredible.'"

Renae Taylor of Chautauqua said, "[The students] handled the challenges with more maturity than I would have expected, I was impressed with the quality of the entire program."

The intensity of round-the-clock teaching and learning was interspersed with excursions to Seattle; a visit to Victoria, British Columbia; whale watching; and a trip to the Seattle Temple. "The trips were amazing! I saw the most breathtaking things! Wow! Two thumbs up!" exclaimed one of the participants.
And yet, Campbell is confident the students gained the proper prospective. He said, "If you were to ask the students, 'What did you gain?' they will not mention the field trips. What they will mention is the magic that took place in the cohort experience and the placement in the elementary classrooms. You can take everything away--the romance and the beauty of the island. What makes it magical is the instructor with a small group of students in a setting where they will get more experience and diversity than what they will get in the traditional campus experience."

The Ricks students did recognize the rewards and value of participating in the pilot program. Each was given the opportunity to anonymously submit evaluations, where they were free to complain or cheer their experience. They gave the program a solid grade A. One student said, "This program is excellent. I would highly recommend continuing it. I gained more in the practicum than I ever could have at the Ricks campus. It is rich and wholesome."

Not only did the pre-service teachers learn about becoming professional instructors, but they also discovered their own potential: "I learned so much about myself, in all three of the areas [spirituality, maturity, academics]. Opportunity for growth personally in these areas is definitely available with this program." 

Campbell's imagination of potential is alive with possibilities. He hopes to return to Vashon Island with more students. The sophomore program in the summer of 2002 will expand to seven weeks with a potential to earn eight credits of core requirements. He also envisions student teachers in their senior year prepared to follow the roadway to Vashon Island possibly by the winter semester of 2003. 

The pilot program is complete. Lessons of diversity, cohort cooperation, synergy, and maintaining goal focus have been learned. And yet the opportunities are only beginning.