The Mason Spirit

Teachers Become Students to Improve Excellence in the Classroom

By Patty Snellings

Dedication, innovation, and professionalism are the common threads that weave the exemplary teaching careers of Mel Almarode, Karen Cordray-Van de Castle, Michael Hanrahan, and Susan Rossell. The four have been team-teaching sixth graders at Lightfoot Elementary School in Orange, Va., for 15 years. All four earned their master's degrees together at George Mason, graduating in 2000 with degrees in New Professional Studies: Teaching.

"These excellent teachers are completely committed to continuous improvement of their teaching," says Harriet Morgan, an assistant professor in Initiatives in Educational Transformation (IET) in the university's Graduate School of Education and advisor to the Lightfoot teachers.

IET began offering a school-based master's program for practicing teachers in 1992. Teachers are recruited in teams from school systems throughout Virginia and follow a nontraditional program of study that includes semester courses, summer sessions, school-based research and theory, and team projects.

The Lightfoot teachers combined their experience and ingenuity with the opportunities offered through the IET program to advance the teaching excellence in their school while broadening their individual academic backgrounds and professionalism. Along the way, they perfected an innovative assessment program that prepares their students to move ahead to middle school.

Six years ago, the team implemented an assessment program for their sixth graders that uses a portfolio exhibition process and is modeled after similar high school programs around the country. Throughout the year, students work on content areas in language arts, science, math, and social studies. With the help of their teachers and parents, they prepare portfolios of their work that demonstrate their talents and skills. At the end of the school year, the students participate in one-on-one interviews with a volunteersuch as a school administrator, parent, Virginia legislator, or a business or community leaderto share their portfolios, discuss what they've learned, and prove they are prepared to advance to middle school.

"The portfolio exhibition process is extremely valuable because students have to be reflective of their learning," says IET director Leo Rigsby. "They have to think at a higher level than what is required of them by multiple choice tests."

In 1997, Cordray-Van de Castle, who also completed her undergraduate degree at Mason in 1975, Hanrahan, and Rossell attended an information session about the IET master's program. They approached the meeting skeptically, not convinced that they wanted to undertake this commitment at this stage in their careers. After many lunchtime discussions, healthy arguing, and mutual respect for each other's opinions, the teachers decided to become a team of students and pursue their master's degrees. When it came time to choose the required school-based research project, it seemed only natural to expose their portfolio exhibition process to additional research and scrutiny in an attempt to produce an even more effective assessment tool.

Although Lightfoot students directly reap the benefits of their teachers' efforts, others have noticed their efforts, too. In 1998, the Virginia General Assembly commended the team for its portfolio exhibition program, recognizing it as an "innovative student evaluation tool." IET awarded the teachers individual fellowships in 1999 in recognition of their outstanding work. This spring, Virginia Educational Leadership, a journal of the Virginia Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, published an article written by the team that discusses their portfolio assessment process.

And in spring 2000, the four were invited to present their program before the National School Boards Association's Education Excellence Fair in Orlando, Fla. They also were invited by Skylight Professional Development to participate in a video project, and the Orange County School Board formally commended the team for "exemplary teaching practices."

Almarode, Cordray-Van de Castle, Hanrahan, and Rossell are reluctant to accept accolades for their achievements as teachers and students, preferring instead to give credit to their colleagues and professors for their support and inspiration. Almarode feels their experiences have served as a self-evaluation, a way to grow.