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Student teacher: 'So much to learn'


It was a failed lesson on Leap Year Day that made a reading teacher of Alison Howell.

She was Alison Harkins then, a 23-year-old senior at Towson University planning a wedding and a career in teaching.

That Feb. 29, 2000, Howell taught her first lesson solo at Jessup Elementary School. Twenty second-graders and two unsmiling adults looked on. Howell had been up all night fretting over her lesson plan, and she was nervous.

It had been a long journey to this ground-floor classroom in Anne Arundel County. Toward the end of their training as teachers, Towson's education students go through a process of gradual immersion in "professional development schools," mixing classwork and internships and culminating in a semester of student teaching.

One day a week during that winter of 2000, Howell had observed second-grade teacher Lorraine Harmon, and now it was time to fly on her own with Harmon's diverse class of 20 kids.

Howell didn't get to this place in Harmon's classroom directly; neither did she harbor romantic notions about teaching. She had unpleasant memories of elementary school in Harford County, and she arrived at Towson in 1995 with plans to become a doctor.

A year and a half in, "I realized I hated it." She switched to education, figuring that if she eventually concentrated on children with disabilities, "I could work with kids and still be involved in medicine."

She discovered that teaching children to read is as difficult as any medical procedure, but the two required reading courses were a small part of the whole at Towson - only six of the 80 credits required of education majors.

G. Patricia Wilson taught one of Howell's two reading instruction classes in a teachers' lounge at the Jessup school, as part of Towson's professional development program. Wilson and another Towson instructor, Patricia Waters, tried to cram into those two courses last year what - under the state's 3-year-old reading initiative - now must be covered in four.

"There's so much to learn," Howell said one day. "I wish we had more time."

She learned how to group children for small-group reading, how to build a word wall and a reading center, how to read to and with children, how to involve their families in literary activities, how to meld reading with writing, how to assess reading skills, how to choose age-appropriate storybooks, how to manage a class, how to dress and talk.

How to teach phonics, as now ordered by the state?

Yes, a little of that, too, but not nearly enough to satisfy those - now in the ascendancy in education - who believe all children need systematic phonics, instruction in the relationship between letters and the sounds they represent.

Waters and Wilson both gave phonics brief overviews, but the sense of reading Howell got was that it is almost a natural process, beginning at birth - a tenet of the competing method of beginning reading instruction, the whole-language approach, which relies on exposing children to a variety of literary experiences.

"The sense of a word is the sum of all the psychological events aroused in our consciousness," Howell read in Wilson's class. A textbook, titled "Mosaic of Thought," summed up the professors' philosophy: Reading isn't a linear exercise; it's a web, a mosaic, and it grows as children grow, spreading wings like a butterfly.

The two professors taught their classes the way they expected the newly minted teachers to teach their children. They acted more as guides than formal instructors, calling students by their first names.

As her course wound down just before Christmas 1999, Waters seemed close to tears. "You may think you're grown up, but you're my children, too," she said. "I get the same feeling when you do well as you'll get when your 4- and 5-year-olds do well."

Beginning her first solo lesson at Jessup, Howell passed out "sentence strips" - long, narrow pieces of blank cardboard - and asked the children to write complete sentences expressing either fact or opinion. Then the kids read each other's sentences and discussed, with Howell's guidance, in which category each belonged.

So far, so good. But then Howell made a rookie mistake. She divided the class and pitted the two sides in a game of tick-tack-toe, one side representing facts, the other opinions.

The kids had had enough. Suddenly, discipline broke down. A troublemaker flipped a pencil at a neighbor, who responded in kind. Howell's "One, two, three, eyes on me" went for naught. Harmon, the class' regular teacher, had to come to the rescue, quickly restoring order.

"I didn't cry then, but I sure felt overwhelmed," Howell said later. "I just tried to do too much. I learned so much about classroom management that day. I also learned I could perform with so many people watching. When I got over what happened, I was proud of myself."

After that, it was much easier.

Howell returned to Harmon's class for student teaching last fall, and when Principal Rosemary Thompson suddenly found herself with a third-grade vacancy last spring, Howell was Thompson's choice.

"She knew the system, she knew our school, she knew me," said Thompson, "and I knew someday she'd make a great teacher."

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