Each year, students in Concordia University Chicago's master's program in reading education travel to Australia to gain international perspectives on reading and literacy education.
As part of a master's program in reading education, Concordia University Chicago grad students trekked to Australia in July 2012 to gain international perspectives on reading and literacy education.
Through the course EDU 6291, Roles, Relationships and Ethics of the Reading Specialist, Dara Soljaga, PhD, an associate professor of curriculum, language and literacy at Concordia-Chicago, led eight students 9000 miles to Australia, where they spent ten days working with students and teachers in Australian K12 classrooms. Throughout the trip they attended seminars, met with literacy experts, and debated current theories and topics in their field. Each day, students held reflective discussions and completed assignments tailored to their school visits, all to deepen their understanding of literacy and reading education.
This study abroad experience is an optional part of the curriculum for Concordia-Chicago's master of arts in reading education. However, students in related disciplines may request to join the class and participate in this opportunity.
"Through this international exchange, our graduate students are exposed to different paradigms and philosophies of teaching," says Dr. Soljaga, "Work such as this adds depth and texture through a global perspective to their education as reading specialists."
Tourist opportunities abounded in both Brisbane and Sydney, with students visiting museums, historic neighborhoods, and cultural sites. And of course, each day was a new adventure in Australian cuisine.
The trip was organized in cooperation with Lutheran Education Australia (LEA) and Lutheran Education Queensland (LEQ). Meg Noack, EdD, executive officer of curriculum at LEQ, and Dominique Jacqueline, MRE, national Christian studies officer and education officer of curriculum at LEA and education officer for LEQ, helped Dr. Soljaga arrange the school visits and traveled with the group during part of the trip. Amanda Mulcahy, PhD, director of academic research and chair of the Institutional Review Board at Concordia-Chicago, also helped lead the group of CUC students.
Grad students spent three days embedded in classrooms of three Australian schools, working with both teachers and students on reading and literacy programs while they learned about and reflected on another country's experiences and teaching methods. These schools were the following:
At these schools students observed the teaching methods of a foreign country, experienced the benefits of small group instruction, and saw Australian teachers make use of the outdoors as part of their classroom, as well as integrate several subject matter areas into a single lesson.
"This is the reason I came to Australia!" said Maria Schnaufer, MA in reading education, '12, after her first day experiencing a foreign classroom and witnessing student-teacher rapport in a foreign environment. By the end of her first day at St. Peter's Lutheran College, she was filled with ideas and activities she could take back to her own classroom in Chicago.
CUC grad students experienced a host of teaching methods related to literacy and reading education during their immersion in the Australian classroom.
They took part in literacy coaching, partnering with their Australian counterparts at Grace Lutheran. They held preconference meetings, and then CUC grad students observed Australian teachers engaging in literacy instruction in the Australian classroom. Afterward, CUC grad students debriefed Australian teachers, providing them with feedback and perspectives based on their growing knowledge as reading specialists.
For many, it was their first experience acting as a literacy coach for a teacher with whom they did not already have an existing relationship. Many were surprised to find themselves growing comfortable in their role as a reading specialist, thanks to the foundation of knowledge from the CUC master of arts program in reading education.
"This was the first time I have given a fellow teacher that wasn't in my team suggestions for her literacy lessons," says Karolyn Serio, MA in reading education, '12.
Mary Jo Pippenger, MA in reading education, '13, called the coaching sessions "meaningful" and something that had "raised the performance bar" for her. Through the experience she "learned firsthand about the 'fluidity' of a coaching session."
Through the many Australian-authored picture books that teachers chose, CUC grad students saw Australia's national characteristics and prevailing national themes reflected in their literature.
"Only a little Australian children's literature trickles into the U.S.," says Dr. Soljaga, "so it is interesting to be in their country and see Australians reflected more thoroughly through their literature."
Through a student research assignment on notable world leaders, one Australian teacher applied integrated study techniques, incorporating Gardner's Multiple Intelligence Theory and Bloom's Taxonomy Grid.
According to Eileen Flanagan, MA in reading education, '12, "I plan to incorporate this fascinating, interdisciplinary plan into my writing curriculum." She wants to use the theory/taxonomy grid in her classroom as well.
In other instances, CUC grad students observed unique and effective methods for note-taking, portfolio forms of assessment, student self-evaluation, writer's workshops for students, guided reading lessons, literature circles, student-lead learning, book rooms, multimodals for learning, and literacy lessons for a variety of age groups.
Throughout the trip, grad students and their Australian counterparts shared and discussed their views on pedagogy, the importance of differentiation, the role of the principal, classroom organization, teacher evaluations, professional growth, teacher wellness programs, and even school architecture.
Overall, the classroom experience was affirming to Tiziana DiBenedetto, MA in reading education, '12, who found she felt the "satisfaction that I am going in the right direction and that I do have activities I can share."
In many Australian classrooms, Concordia-Chicago graduate students were able to experience small group instruction, something they are much less likely to see in U.S. schools.
"In the US, we're still focused on whole group instruction," says Dr. Soljaga. "We talk about small group instruction in the abstract, but through our observation of Australian classrooms we see the concept become real."
Small group instruction is used as a main mode of delivery in many Australian classrooms. When class begins, teachers address the whole group for a few minutes, and then students break out into small groups for much of the rest of the class. Some groups are teacher-assigned, while others are self-selected.
To accommodate this approach, Australian classrooms are arranged with tables and pods, rather than individual desks.
Specific examples were on view at St. Paul's Lutheran College, in which CUC grad students observed small group instruction in kindergarten, where the teacher performed several tasks and covered several areas with her small groups, from parts of speech to reading strategies.
CUC grad students saw a teacher at St. Peter's College turn the outdoors into a classroom through a creative small-group science activity. Students were led on a nature hike and then assigned a 3' x 3' space in the rain forest just beyond the campus of the school. Students then worked together to divide the space into a grid and record everything they found. They marked the location of each object they found on the grid and then measured and weighed the objects. If litter was found, students were asked to reflect upon its social ramifications. This activity also brought together several subject matter areas into a single exercise.
CUC grad students found that the teacher gave clear instructions to the students, but that the effort was designed to be student-driven. Successful groups were focused, pragmatic and collaborative—perhaps the larger lesson to be learned from the assignment.
CUC grad students had the honor of spending a day with Geoff Bull and Michèle Anstey, world-renowned authors of multiliteracy texts and specialists in literacy and children's literature. Over a lunch at an Australian café, the authors lead a discussion on literacy education with CUC grad students and then spent the day walking and talking with them as they toured historic Toowoomba.
On the culture and tourism front, students toured museums, the Sydney Opera House, botanical gardens, Darling Harbour, the Rocks, and Harbour Bridge, adding the flair of down under to this unique educational experience.