Rider graduate education students help eighth graders find their voices

Writing workshop creates lasting bonds among students
Rachel Stengel '14

For three months each fall, Dr. Kathleen Pierce, a professor in Department of Graduate Education, Leadership, and Counseling, facilitates a unique mentoring opportunity that transcends the classroom for her students in the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program.

Pierce's students conducted a writing workshop with eighth graders from Helen Fort Middle School in Pemberton, N.J. From September to November, the middle school students were challenged to write a story, poem and opinion essay about resiliency. The students conversed with Rider MAT students using Google Drive during three rounds of feedback, editing and proofreading for each piece before a final version was completed.

The program is an engaged learning opportunity that aims to expose the Rider students — all of whom are post-baccalaureate candidates working toward New Jersey teacher certification — to real-world teaching scenarios.

"My beginning teachers learn to stop worrying about being right and precise about content," Pierce says. "It really gives my students a sense of what being a teacher will be like. You have to be smart as a teacher, but you also have to be receptive as a human being. That’s something we can’t really teach. You have to experience it."

MAT student Cary Halliburton says the experience helped her understand how to better facilitate students' learning while allowing them to fully express their creativity.

"There were several instances in which I would offer a student some feedback and the student would take that feedback and go in a completely different direction with it, improving upon his or her writing in a way that I could not have imagined or predicted," Halliburton says. "I realized that while it is important for me as a teacher to offer students structure and guidance, students need to be given the opportunity to write, create and learn in their own ways."

One of the most unexpected aspects of the program, according to Pierce, was the depth of trust the middle school students formed with their mentors through their frequent online interactions.

"It was really touching to see what the students bring out in my beginning teachers and the trust these eighth-grade students have with their mentors," she says. "A nicely formed piece of writing comes out, but more importantly, my students see that they can help not only with students' work but also with their emotional well being. Intelligence thrives when students feel emotionally secure and that somebody wants to hear what they say."

According to Pierce, the students in the school district tend to have vastly different life experiences, despite all being in the same grade. The writing partnership allowed the Rider students to understand the middle school students on a deeper level.

"The stories that my students read speak directly to what some of the kids were experiencing," she says. "There’s everything from seeing a brother overdosed on heroin to scoring the winning touchdown and everything in between."

A celebratory pizza party was held on Rider's Lawrenceville campus in early December so the students, their teacher Amanda Schott '13, and their mentors could finally meet face to face. Each student chose one piece of writing to showcase in a printed book and representatives from each of the three eighth-grade classes read their pieces aloud. All the final works were posted around the Mercer Room in Daly Dining Hall so students could read their classmates' work and provide positive comments.

MAT student Stephen Hodge said meeting his mentees face to face only strengthened the bond they formed during the semester.

"It can be difficult at times to 'go in cold' so to speak because I didn't know these kids' backgrounds, their interests, motivations, aspirations — any of that; all I had were words on a page," Hodge says. "While sitting and discussing writing, school and their hobbies, I was able to gain more insight into their interests and have a deeper understanding of the motivations that guided the resilience that they wrote about."