New classroom

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Elementary students from the STAR School learn from university students.

Kayla Besler looks on as the elementary school student peers intently through the microscope at the test plate. Besler, a junior majoring in elementary education, helps the student adjust the lenses, and the pond water sample—complete with microorganisms too small for the eye to see—comes into focus.

For a moment, the child is captivated; but then, like most of the other first through eighth grade students, she finds herself distracted by the next station over, where another group of kids are digging for worms. Besler and her Northern Arizona University peers observe as these 40 students from the STAR (Service to All Relations) school spend the day on campus learning from future teachers.

In teaching the students, the education majors in the ECI 306 class are learning, too.

“We’re trying to think like kids,” Besler says. “Their thinking process is so much more broad then ours, so it’s our goal to try to connect with them on that level.”

Shining bright

The students Besler worked with came to visit the College of Education from the STAR School. Twenty-five miles east of Flagstaff, this school is located on the southwestern corner of the Navajo Nation, and primarily serves Native American students from preschool through eighth grade. The curriculum is innovative in its approach, combining traditional Navajo values and a community-based outlook with sustainability – for example, the school is run entirely on solar-powered energy.  

This single-day event is only one component of an ongoing partnership between the university and the STAR School. Many education majors go to STAR for their student teaching experience, and STAR students benefit from a variety of activities offered on campus. 

On this day, STAR students were engaging in inquiry-based activities, which involved having them take an active role in their education. Jeffrey Bloom, a professor in the College of Education who helped organize the trip, noted that for many of the STAR students, the university visit itself was educational.

“It plants a seed,” Bloom says. “There’s an opportunity for them, post-high school. These kids get to see the possibilities for themselves.”

Bloom and a fellow instructor, James Manley, tried to teach the Northern Arizona University education majors that great learning requires a guiding hand, not an authoritative one.

“If you really want to engage kids and see the magic of their brilliance as a teacher, you have got to let them go, and let them have the experiences,” Bloom explains.

Fun in learning

These experiences, like digging for worms and using the microscope to examine microorganisms, were designed to be both fun and engaging. For example, Tayla Swaw, a junior majoring in special and elementary education, took her group of students outside to participate in an activity that might have drawn a harsh glare from a teacher in a traditional classroom setting: the folding—and flying—of paper airplanes.

“Students make them all the time, so when they hear about paper airplanes, they get really excited and just want to go and play with them,” Swaw explains. “Sometimes the classroom management is difficult, but it teaches you that you have to do hands-on work for them to learn this stuff.”

Other activities were seemingly less straightforward. One area of the classroom had been set aside for several mind puzzles and building constructs for students to work with. With very little prompting from their older mentors sitting amongst them, the STAR students took initiative, teaming up and working together to solve the puzzles – one of which involved adjusting weighted objects to get a piece of cardboard to balance on a tennis ball.

“The children are really thinking and trying to figure things out for themselves,” Bloom says.

Brianna Tomko, a junior elementary and special education major, worked with the students. She explains the activities with the STAR School students mimic new teaching techniques being administered in the classroom.

“In my opinion, and in the opinion of a lot of other teachers, the U.S. is going toward a very conformative way of teaching, where all students learn in a very traditional, guided manner,” Tomko says. “But, if you were to walk into a classroom that was inquiry-based, there would be students all over. It will look like chaos, but there’s control in there.”

In other words, Tomko says, elementary students can learn the same way that many students at Northern Arizona University are taught.

“It teaches them a lot of responsibility by having to learn on their own,” Tomko explains. “It's amazing to see them get motivated and start talking to their peers.”