Dr. Susanna Benko Receives Excellence in Teaching Award

Three English Department faculty members won Outstanding Faculty Awards in 2013. These awards were announced at the annual Fall Convocation in August.  Dr. Matt Mullins received the Creative Endeavor Award. Dr. Susanna Benko and Dr. Darolyn Jones each received Excellence in Teaching Awards.

The Creative Endeavor Award recognizes a faculty member for their involvement in the university’s creative arts programs. Students nominate professors for the Excellence in Teaching Award, and the faculty members with the most votes are invited to submit course enhancement proposals. A committee composed of faculty and students selects the winners.

Learn more about Dr. Benko’s award below by reading the interview conducted by English department intern Daniel Brount. Look forward to posts on Dr. Mullins and Dr. Jones in the near future.

1) Can you tell me a little bit about your career as a professor, such as where you’ve worked before and how long you’ve been working here?

This year is my second year at Ball State.  Before I came here, I completed my doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh.  Before that, I taught middle and high school English in Pennsylvania and Indiana.  At BSU, I specialize in English education, and teach courses for our Teaching English Language Arts majors (like ENG 150 and ENG 350), and I also teach courses on young adult literature (like ENG 414).

2) What were your ideas for the Enhanced Course proposals for the award? Can you describe those ideas?

For my course enhancement proposal, I choose to focus on ENG 350:  Teaching Writing in Secondary Schools.  I selected this course because it was an opportunity to try out some activities I had wanted to try that felt too challenging to do without support.  One thing that really puzzled me in my first year of teaching 350 was to figure out how I could help my students – students studying to be English teachers – really think about what it looks like to teach writing.  Often, students would read our core texts (describing writing instruction) and wondered what it actually looked like in the classroom, in practice, with real teachers and real kids.  I knew that my students would really benefit from spending more time in a wide range of writing classrooms, but there are so many tricky things about sending BSU kids out for observations.  One difficult thing is simply time – BSU students are busy, and it’s hard to build in more hours of observation to our already-packed course and their already-packed lives. Another challenge is that everyone often has different experiences in observations – people go to different schools, different grade levels, different teachers, and the different experiences can make it hard to have coherent class discussion about teaching.  So, I thought… “If I can’t get my students to the classroom, maybe I can get the classroom to my students.”

For my project, I decided to use resources available through the Teleplex at BSU to bring camera crews to various middle and high schools to record teachers’ writing instruction. I partnered with three excellent teachers from across central Indiana (specifically, Anderson, Alexandria, Kokomo), all of whom have been involved with the Indiana Writing Project, which is housed here at BSU.  These teachers were so very kind to open up their classrooms and let us film their teaching for one of their classes.

Before any filming could begin, I visited all the schools on multiple occasions to work out securing all the necessary permissions and talk to teachers about what to expect.  Then, we brought the crews to record instruction – the camera crews stayed for the entire length of the class.  After recording the instruction, I watched each of the videos several times each to get a sense of how I wanted to direct my BSU students’ attention during viewing.  Observing instruction can be really challenging without a focus or a lens – two people can watch the same lesson and track on different things.  I wanted to help my students really focus their attention on certain instructional practices in the videos like ways that teachers encourage students to share their writing or noticing types of questions teachers asked students.  Then, I worked with Rob Fulz at the Teleplex to edit the videos so that I could direct student attention towards a) certain teacher moves (e.g., questioning strategies) and b) implicit parts of instruction  (e.g., “Based on Jeri’s introduction, what would you say her learning goals for this lesson are?”).

For the final production, a question would scroll on the screen, and then BSU students would watch a short section of the video and take notes.  We produced two videos (we ran into an end-of-semester time crunch, so we couldn’t use all three tapes) – each video was about 25 minutes long.  My students watched the videos, took notes, and wrote interview questions for the teachers.  Two of the teachers came to Ball State and discussed their teaching with my class.  Finally, my students wrote reflections in which they described what they learned from watching the instruction and talking to the teachers.

The videos and interviews were really rich learning opportunities for my students – it gave us the opportunity to apply much of what we had learned from the semester.  In their written reflections, students tracked on important concepts for writing instruction, like better understanding how a mentor text can be used to study many different aspects of craft or understanding how to set up a workshop environment that enables students to be comfortable sharing written work with peers.  I was proud of my students for applying some of their work in our course on assignment design to critique some of the writing assignments that they saw students doing, offering practical suggestions for improvement.  Additionally, BSU students were interested to learn other interesting things less related to writing instruction, such as how English teachers and special education teachers can work together in a co-teaching environment.

When this was going on last semester, it felt overwhelmingly busy – I was trying to spend time in these three schools, coordinate many schedules, edit videos and create instructional materials to accompany them, all whilst keeping up with the “normal” parts of professional life (teaching my other classes, writing, etc).  The entire process was very complicated – and absolutely rewarding, too – but I think, in the end, it was a great learning opportunity for everyone involved.

3) How did you feel when you heard you had been selected to receive the award? 

Last April, I received an email from the Office of Educational Excellence that explained the nomination process and selection process and mentioned that I had to submit the proposal for improving a course.  I hadn’t heard of the award before (bear in mind, it was the end of my first year here!), and the email made me wonder if the award was a facade for trying to improve teaching of first year faculty.  I emailed Gary Pavlechko and asked if this was a real award or if they were just trying to nicely tell me to work harder and get better.  Gary assured me that the nomination was for a real award (which was a relief!).

Truly, it was an honor to be nominated for the Excellence in Teaching award.  My first year had been great –it was a whirlwind of hard work and learning (for my students and me), and I was thankful that students felt like something good came of it!  It is really meaningful that this is a student-nominated award.  My students are who are with me in the classroom day-in and day-out, so I’m thankful that they felt like something is going right in our work together.  When I worked on my proposal, I wasn’t even worried about being “granted” the award by the committee – being nominated by my students felt like a win in and of itself.

4) Is there anything else you’d like to tell me about the award or your career?

Yes – I am deeply thankful to everyone who helped me in this project.  First, I’m so thankful for the classroom teachers– Mary King and Rob Becker at Maple Crest Middle School in Kokomo, Barb Miller at Alexandria, and Jeri Tarvin at Liberty Christian – who generously gave their time and talents to this project.  I’m also really grateful for the work of everyone at the Teleplex at BSU – Rob Fulz was my project director and worked tirelessly to coordinate my project and edit the films.  He also helped coordinate great crews of people like Heather Hunt, Keith Huffman, and Richard Collins to help with all of the filming.  Finally, I’m thankful to Gary Pavlechko and Kathy Jacobi in the Office of Educational Excellence.  They really do wonderful work to support great teaching at BSU.   And of course, I’m thankful for all the BSU students who nominated me for this award in the first place – I hope they read this so that they know!

I’m really interested in continuing to think about how this kind of work can be used in teacher education.  I’d like to use these videos again in coming years, and would like to continue to work to build a larger library of videos for use in teacher education.  There are some large video databases available like the Carnegie Foundations’ Gallery of Teaching and Learning or videos from the Teaching Channel, but in my mind, this project is different because it affords students the opportunity to interact with teachers after watching the videos.  I’d like to continue to grow a wider network of local teachers who would be interested in giving some of their time and talent to continue to support the learning of our English Education students at BSU.

I’ll also put a little plug out there – I’m giving at talk at BSU later this semester about my EXIT award, describing the project in more detail, showing some examples of the videos, and sharing some of my students’ reflections.  I’ll share about my project, but I’d also like it to be an opportunity for dialogue for all of us interested in teacher preparation to think about the role of video cases in teacher education classes.  I’ll list details below for anyone interested!

Title:  “Zooming in:  Using video cases of teaching to support preservice teachers’ learning about writing instruction”

Date:  March 31, 2014

Time:  3:00 – 3:50 PM

Location:  TC 412

 

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