The Alumni College focused on the subject of elementary education at Reunions ’16. 
The Alumni College focused on the subject of elementary education at Reunions ’16. 

Alumni Talk Elementary Education

By Gabrielle Wolcott ’17 | August 31, 2016

“In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer,” said Albert Camus.

For many alumni, Reunions week is a time to rediscover that invincibility as they gather to reminisce, recall their comrades in the quest, and take part in stimulating programs and activities.

Jim Kahan ’64 has long organized the Alumni College, which focuses on one topic in depth during the course of the reunion. This year’s focus was elementary education, attracting an array of professors, teachers, students, and parents.

Because education is an attractive path for the ever-inquisitive Reedie, many go on to be educators in some form, regardless of their majors. But surprisingly the current course catalog offers few classes dealing with the topic of elementary education. Jim’s presentation examined the college’s history with education. In its early years, the college had a well-staffed education department, and nearly one-third of early graduates went on to become elementary and high school teachers. Portland public schools routinely hired Reedies as teachers, and as the requirements for an Oregon secondary teaching certification increased and a bachelor’s degree was no longer sufficient, Reed introduced a Master of Education and then a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program. Between 1964 and 1971, on average 42 people received MAT degrees annually, demonstrating the popularity of this program. State requirements became more arbitrary and intense, and by 1980 the MAT program had ended.

One way to encourage and support Reedies in becoming teachers is educating them on the psychology behind learning. Prof. Jennifer Corpus [psychology 2001–] conducts motivational research, and her address at the Alumni College explained the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. Students brought up to have a growth mindset believe intelligence is malleable and that goals can be achieved with effort. By contrast, students with fixed mindsets believe intelligence is fixed, and that academic outcomes are preordained. Clearly the later mindset is less adaptive, and sets students up for a lack of improvement and stagnation. Prof. Corpus displayed a chart that revealed children’s motivation systematically declines as they age. They go from optimistic and engaged second graders to apathetic or pessimistic 7th graders. Why does this happen? Institutional factors tend to encourage one mindset or the other. When teachers and schools are evaluated on test scores, the classroom becomes a pressured, performance-based environment. While this is but a snapshot of Corpus’ research, it sounded a note that resonated at the Alumni College event: How do we structure classrooms so that students succeed?

Don Berg ’12 recently completed his thesis with Corpus, and continued this discussion by addressing an “epidemic of disengagement.” In order for students to be engaged, primary needs such as food and shelter must first be met. But Don proposed that primary needs must also include autonomy, relatedness, and competence. These terms come directly out of self-determination theory, which suggests that in order for students to be successful they must have control over their education, feel connected to their peers and environment, and be in a classroom that makes them feel capable.

While Don discussed the topic mostly from a theoretical standpoint, Washington State Teacher of the Year in 2015, Lyon Terry ’93, solidified the idea by explaining how he applies this knowledge to a 4th grade classroom. He described his specific teaching method, and how his award led to meetings with such people as President Obama and Bill Gates. It is important, Lyon said, that there be a comfortable and connected classroom climate where children feel that teachers genuinely care for them. He began his talk the way he begins every day in the classroom, with a guitar and a sing-along of This Land is Your Land, the American classic by Woody Guthrie.

Lyon also discussed “the learning line,” a graph that reminds students how they grow as learners. Posted in Lyon’s classroom, the graph illustrates the direct application of theory behind the growth mindset. His method is clearly working; on average his students achieve two grades of growth on standardized tests and frequently reach out to him with touching gratitude.

Greg MacNaughton ’89 approached early education from a less traditional standpoint. The education outreach and calligraphy initiative coordinator for the Cooley Gallery, Greg invites Portland school kids to come to Reed and experience art in a hands-on way. He believes students learn invaluable and necessary skills through art. “One of the best ways to learn how to look is to learn how to draw,” he said. Unfortunately, the reality today is that children receive little art education—a situation he attempts to remedy by reaching out to the community.

Community was another topic of the event, including talks by three representatives from Students for Education, Empowerment, and Direct Services (SEEDS). Program Director Meredith Dickenson presented various ways that Reedies can get involved in the community. Shelly Skolfield ’14 and Kristy Gonyer ’10 discussed the science outreach program. For several Portland elementary schools, the weekly one-hour lessons delivered by Reedies are the only science instruction students get. Clearly the early elementary school system in the United States has some pressing issues.

Following lectures, alumni attendees brainstormed in small conference settings. Next year, the Every Student Succeeds Act takes effect, replacing the No Child Left Behind Act. In addition to being tested in reading and math, primary school students will have the opportunity to be tested on a third subject chosen at the state level. Several of the presenters offered hope for turning educational institutions into more nurturing environments, including Bob Slavin ’72 and Nancy Madden ’73, founders of the highly successful Success for All elementary education program, local community advocate Johanna Colgrove ’92, and Leslie Stevens-Phillips MAT ’80, a retired assessment science and social science specialist for the Oregon Department of Education. At the end of three days of discussion, an air of hopefulness seemed to settle over the proceedings. But for change to happen, people must come together as a community and critically assess both the current state of affairs and plans for action—just as Alumni College did.

Tags: Alumni