2017 News Stories

‘Learning is an Adventure’

USF student teachers gain hands-on experience teaching students with special needs at the Pepin Summer Institute

A window in Pepin Academies decorated by USF Student teachers

A sign hangs outside the window of a USF student teaching team's classroom during the Pepin Summer Institute, a four-week summer program offered to students at Pepin Academies in Tampa.

(Tampa, Fla. July 24, 2017) — While many schools take a break for summer vacation, it's business as usual for many students at Pepin Academies.

The exception to this is who students find standing at the front of the classroom — the fresh face of a student teacher from the USF College of Education.

During the Pepin Summer Institute, a four-week program created through a partnership between Pepin Academies and the USF College of Education, USF students in the Exceptional Student Education program get to put their teaching skills to the test.

The summer institute program allows USF students the opportunity to develop and implement, with the guidance of their professors, an academic summer school curriculum. The program is unique because it provides USF student teachers the opportunity to plan, set-up and run their own classrooms from scratch. Students also create their own lesson plans and classroom schedules.

While feedback and guidance is provided by the USF students' instructors and the doctoral students supervising the program, everything else is done by the USF students themselves. This is an opportunity for USF students to experience what it will be like working in the teaching field after graduation, and also gives future teachers a sandbox for developing a strong sense of confidence in their teaching ability.

"Under the guidance and close mentorship of USF faculty and doctoral students, our teacher candidates have their first opportunity to experience all the roles, functions and responsibilities of teaching in their own classrooms," said Daphne Thomas, PhD, a faculty member in the Exceptional Student Education program. "As a result of the summer institute, we have seen our teacher candidates take ownership of their own learning to make deeper connections between theory and practice and develop proficiency in the skills of teaching."

Pepin Academies is a tuition-free public charter school that serves elementary through high school students who have identified learning and learning related disabilities. Many of the students who attend Pepin had negative experiences at other schools, and chose to enroll at the school to experience a learning environment more tailored to their needs. Numerous teachers at Pepin Academies are graduates of USF's College of Education.

The program is voluntary for Pepin Academies' students, but many students and their parents choose to participate in the summer learning experience — and have done so for numerous years.

"Through this program, Pepin Academies students engage in a fun, safe and relaxed environment," said Michael Riley, PhD, an adjunct professor at USF who assisted with coordinating this summer's program. "(The students) take what they've learned over the summer back to school in the fall, (and this helps) them achieve success in their coursework."

Each year a theme is picked for the program, and this year's was "learning is an adventure." USF student teachers group together into co-teaching teams and work together to incorporate the theme into their classroom decorations and curriculum.

Pepin Academies Student Presents Poster on Brazil

Pepin Academies student Sharrod Davis shares his poster presentation on the country of Brazil.

Each co-teaching team is assigned to instruct groups of approximately six to eight Pepin Academies students. The small class size allows the USF student teachers to tailor the curriculum to meet the specific needs of their students. While in the classroom, USF student teachers cover a variety of subject areas, such as math, science and art.

In one classroom, USF student teachers had students complete research online about another country to learn more about different cultures. The students then designed posters highlighting what they learned, and shared their findings with other students in the class.

After a conversation with students in the classroom about taking care of their bodies, another classroom completed a lesson plan created to teach students how to take care of their own plants. This lesson allowed for the USF teacher to illustrate the similarities between taking care of a plant and our own bodies, and how both require certain necessities to stay healthy.

Madelynn Dempsey, an Exceptional Student Education major who participated in the Pepin Summer Institute as a student teacher, said she was a bit overwhelmed at the start of her teaching courses last fall. It took time for her to understand what it truly meant to be a teacher to students with special needs.

But as time passed, Dempsey said she's learned that the person comes first, and the Pepin Summer Institute has helped her grow as an educator.

"It is one thing to sit in the classroom and have open discussions about a topic or that chapter you just read about teaching phonological awareness, but it is another to apply the knowledge and become the practitioner," Dempsey said. "Students are told that the only way to learn a new skill is to get your hands dirty and struggle with the material — except, we were that student in a teaching position. All we had were reading and math scores from the previous year and a grade level for our students. Intentionally, this forced us to really apply all that we have learned in our new teaching position."

USF Student Teacher works with a student in her classroom

A College of Education student teacher works with a student in her classroom as they study the different layers of the Earth in science class.

With this data and knowledge of best practices in hand, the USF student teachers worked to develop lesson plans and assessments for their classrooms. The goal of the lesson plans was to target skills that should be heightened to prepare students for the next school year — an activity that Dempsey said was a challenging but rewarding part of her experience this summer.

"Because I have been challenged to do just that, I have grown as a teacher and I believe I am stronger," Dempsey said. "I can interpret data and make instructional decisions based on that data and correlate grade standards to create an evidence based lesson plan for students." 

For the first time since the program began, VSA Florida, a nonprofit organization located on the USF campus that works to provide, support and champion arts education and cultural experiences for and by people with disabilities, brought artists to the summer institute to work with students on creative activities such as painting, dance and playing instruments on iPads.

At the end of the summer institute, the students later had the opportunity to present their art during a showcase presentation for program participants and their families. At the program's showcase presentation, Pepin Academies Executive Director Craig Butz, PhD, thanked USF students, professors, and the parents of students participating for their continued involvement and support of the summer institute.

USF Student Teacher with Pepin Academies Student in Art Class

A College of Education student teacher assists a student in her class with a painting project during art class. The paintings were students' answers to the question "where would you like to go?," which was asked in line with the theme for this year's program.

"We really enjoy this partnership," Butz said. "We think it's a great opportunity for our students to learn over the summer from fresh faces that are excited about being here every day. We know that it's a great way for students at USF to get their feet wet and dive in head first — in a lot of cases — with getting experiences they wouldn't get if they were in somebody else's classroom."

After the experiences at the summer institute, the USF student teachers will return to the university in the fall ready to take on future field experiences with confidence. This, College of Education faculty member Elizabeth Doone said, is a win-win for Pepin Academies, the university and the students.

"Teaching the students during their first semester and second semesters on campus, I have seen the academic growth as they increased their knowledge of students with exceptionalities and their understanding of the importance of lesson plans that not only connect to the standards but to their students learning needs..." Doone said. "Our USF students have really blossomed, and the experience has solidified their desire to teach, their love of their students and has increased their confidence in their own abilities."

USF Pepin Summer Institute Students and Teachers pose for a group photo

USF student teachers, faculty and Pepin Academies student participants join together for a group photo at the Pepin Summer Institute's showcase presentation.

About the USF College of Education:
The USF College of Education is accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (formerly NCATE), and is fully approved by the Florida Department of Education. The USF College of Education is ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of the top 100 programs in the nation, as well as in the top 30 for online graduate education programs. The USF College of Education has more than 51,000 alumni who are making a difference in the lives of children each day.