A Year in Cal Teach

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A lot can happen in a year. For students in the Cal Teach Berkeley program, a year can encompass coursework, field placements in middle and high school classrooms, and research in a campus lab. Most of all, it incorporates a lot of learning. Yet the Cal Teach experience is as individual as the students who pursue the program, as these snapshots from the most recent academic year clearly illustrate.

Yasmine Bensidi-Slimane: Her Best Class of All

Tutoring freshmen during her senior year of high school sparked Yasmine Bensidi-Slimane’s interest in teaching. But the final Cal Teach course she took as a UC Berkeley senior—Project-Based Instruction—affirmed her career choice.

“It reignited my passion to do my teaching credential. I believe it’s the best Cal Teach course of all, “says Yasmine, who has now earned her degree in psychology and neurobiology and plans to start the Cal Teach credential program next spring.

Yasmine attributes her enthusiasm to both the teaching of Mark Spencer and the opportunity to apply what she learned in the course during her field placements. She says, “One important thing I learned in class was how to use an authoritative voice as a teacher—for example, when you make an announcement—versus an approachable voice, which helps students feel they can ask questions and challenge what they’re learning. This is something simple that I applied constantly in my field placements.”

Yet what stands out most for Yasmine about the year—and her entire time in Cal Teach—is the community she’s built through the program. She says, “You gravitate toward people who are very motivated to be teachers. I’ve developed some really strong bonds and educational and professional connections. The community and support of students and professors is amazing.”

Kayla Turney: Putting Science into Action

To talk about her year in the Cal Teach program, Kayla Turney goes back to summer 2014. That’s when she took part in the Cal Teach Summer Research Institute, working to develop more efficient welding methods for use in a variety of nuclear engineering research projects.

“During that time, I wrote a lesson plan that I was able to use later in the classroom. I taught it to 4th grade students at Washington Elementary School in Berkeley and brought in materials to do an engineering problem-solving activity,” says Kayla, a physics major who hopes to complete her teaching credential before graduating next spring. “It was a good way for me to get into research and apply what I learned through research in the classroom. It gave me a better idea of what science looks like in action so I can convey it to my students.”

Kayla followed her summer research with two Cal Teach courses during the academic year. She says of the Knowing and Learning in Math and Science course, “It completely revolutionized what I was thinking about teaching. I realize now that it’s not how you explain things but how you help students think for themselves.”

She put this idea to the test in field placements in biology classes at Oakland High School and Berkeley High School and a math class at Oakland’s BayTech middle school. Those experiences continued to alter her thinking.

“Getting to work in so many different kinds of classrooms has changed my way of looking at teachers. Now I understand what goes through teachers’ heads,” Kayla explains. “Also, I didn’t think I’d like working with high school students, but I found I did. I feel like I’m going to have a lot of options when I graduate.”

This summer, Kayla is working with students of a wide age range as a Lawrence Hall of Science summer camp assistant. But she’s already looking ahead to the fall and her next Cal Teach courses.

“I’m really looking forward to the next semester because I get to take two Cal Teach courses, Research Methods and Project-Based Instruction,” Kayla says. “I want to continue meeting more people, develop my network, and involve myself to the max.”

Rob Thomas: A Full First Year

Rob Thomas has come a long way from what he calls his “troubled youth,” a time when he says didn’t participate in school and often frustrated his teachers. Now in his 30s and a UC Berkeley math major after attending three California community colleges, he’s en route to becoming a teacher himself.

“My teachers said I was smart but didn’t know what to do about me. In classrooms now, I can see myself in other kids,” says Rob, who completed four Cal Teach courses during the past academic year, his first in the program.

An aptitude for math and a positive experience teaching tae kwon do led Rob to his decision to become a math teacher. But the Cal Teach program has already shown him there’s more to teaching than he’d realized.

“I used to think teachers stood in front of the classroom and told students what they needed to know. The most important thing I’ve taken from the program is a fundamental shift in what I think teaching is and how to do it well,” Rob says. “I’ve learned that teaching is a dynamic, demanding profession that requires flexibility and responsiveness to students’ needs. Every day in the classroom is filled with opportunities and challenges.”

Among Rob’s best experiences of the year was his placement in a math classroom at the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley. He explains, “It really solidified my decision to become a teacher. I connected with the students and was able to teach classes. We had so much fun, and I got so much experience.”

Rob expects to complete his degree in December and then go on to the Cal Teach teaching credential. But first he’s undertaking another new experience: The Cal Teach Summer Research Institute. Like Kayla, who encouraged him to pursue the opportunity, Rob will work with researchers in the Department of Nuclear Engineering.

“I’m nervous but excited,” Rob says. “I’ve never had any lab experience before, but I think it will be great to see what scientists do and to be able to confidently tell a student thinking about a career in science what it’s really like. I want to be a resource for my future students.”

Lupita Gonzales: A Start in Teaching

With one semester as a Cal Teach student, Lupita Gonzales is just getting started in the program. Yet it’s already had an impact on her life at UC Berkeley.

Now that she’s on a path to becoming a teacher, Lupita enjoys her integrative biology major more than before. She has also been able to turn to the Cal Teach staff and peer advisors for help with her efforts as co-founder of Vayuna, a campus club.

“This is outside Cal Teach, but they were so willing to share their knowledge. It showed me how much they care,” says Lupita, who is working with other Vayuna members to create portable, eco-friendly math kits to enrich the education of young students around the world.

Going forward, Lupita anticipates other connections between her Cal Teach education and her work with Vayuna. She explains, “Through Vayuna, I’ll be able to apply the work I’m doing in the classroom to create activities and make students realize that they can do science and math.”

In the meantime, Lupita has gained early exposure to teaching through a field placement in a 5th grade math class during her introductory Cal Teach course. She’s also looking forward to her next Cal Teach course in the fall, when she starts her fourth year at Berkeley.

As a latecomer to Cal Teach, Lupita will use a fifth year to complete the program. She hopes to pursue the teaching credential in her final semester and then teach science to bilingual students.

“I think I found Cal Teach at a really good time in my education,” Lupita says. “I have enough time to finish my minor and make connections with people who inspire me.”

Kyle Li: New Perspectives

In his first Cal Teach course, Kyle Li came to a new realization about teachers. He explains, “In high school, you see only one side of the picture: You see teachers who are prepared. Through Cal Teach, I realized how much work goes into every lesson. I appreciate my high school teachers more now.”

Through his recent Cal Teach course focused on equity in urban schools, Kyle also developed a greater understanding of students. He says of this class, “We got into heated debates about inequity and inequality. These are issues you don’t get to talk about in everyday social life. As a child of immigrants, this class was very personal for me. I struggled in math in middle school but had the support of my teachers and my family. I want to help other students through this when I become a teacher, to guide them and keep them engaged and empower them to feel success for themselves.”

Kyle subsequently completed a field placement in a math class where all nine of the students were African American or Latino. He says, “I’m very glad I was placed there. I was able to see the issues we discussed in class in action.”

Now Kyle is thinking about the Cal Teach course he’ll take in the fall, Project-Based Instruction. He says, “I want to learn about designing a curriculum that’s project oriented. I also hope to gain more ways to start classes and get students engaged. In the future, I’d like to help my students use a math mindset to think critically about situations in their lives. Math is more about a way of thinking than about how to do calculations. I’m hoping this course will give me the tools to help students start thinking about math this way.”

Sergio Quinones: Developing as a Math Teacher

For Sergio Quinones, the desire to teach math was formed in high school. That’s when he participated in an Upward Bound program, taking a pre-calculus course one summer and tutoring other students the following year. His interest in math teaching even drove his decision to major in sociology at UC Berkeley: Sergio saw it as a way to strengthen his understanding of the issues his future students might face.

This year, he completed that sociology degree, along with the remaining four courses in the Cal Teach minor he began as a junior. Sergio says, “I really enjoyed being part of the Cal Teach program, and it prepared me to pursue my teaching interest. The courses allow prospective teachers to understand how students think about and approach assignments. They help us put ourselves in the position of our students so we can better support them.”

That perspective has changed Sergio’s view of teaching. He explains, “I came to realize that teaching involves being more of a facilitator than giving students a method to approach a problem. I also discovered that covering a lot of content is important, but not as important as ensuring students understand and can apply what they learn in their everyday lives.”

The insights he gained through his Cal Teach courses and field placements at the Aspire California College Preparatory Academy in Berkeley will serve him well in the future. Sergio has now begun a fellowship at the Breakthrough Collaborative in San Jose, where he’s teaching math and college readiness classes. Afterward, Sergio will enter a two-year AmeriCorps program, spending the first year as a tutor of individual students at San Jose’s Summit Rainier High School and the second working toward his teaching credential.

“Every experience I’ve had in education has affirmed to me more and more that I want to pursue a teaching career,” Sergio says. “I think this is what I’m best suited for and where I can potentially make a difference.”