UChicago UTEP Grad ‘Learns by Doing’ How Plants, and Teachers, Grow

November 26, 2012

At the University of Chicago Urban Teacher Education Program, Masters of Teaching candidates are guided by John Dewey’s philosophy of “learning by doing.” Jenny Sarna, a UChicago UTEP graduate and second-year Chicago Public Schools teacher, is the embodiment of putting this philosophy into practice.

“I’m always thinking about what kind of experiences I can create for my kids,” say Sarna, an Honor’s biology and bilingual chemistry and physics teacher at Farragut Career Academy in Chicago. “As a science teacher, I want my students to learn through inquiry, to begin to see themselves as young scientists.”

This past summer, Sarna took hands-on learning to another level through a Fund for Teachers Grant. The competitive grant award allowed Sarna to travel to various sites across Mexico to observe agricultural and conservation practices, answering questions such as: What practices enable organic farming to occur with few resources? And, which plant species are native to Mexico and could be grown in a school garden? The data she gathered is serving as the foundation of a culturally relevant course curriculum for her students (98 percent of whom are Hispanic) and is driving an ongoing project to bring a Mexican-inspired garden to life on the school grounds. Learn more about Sarna's "School Garden Adventure" on her blog.

“The data sets I collected during my travels, like nutrient levels in soils, crop surveys, and resident interviews, are serving as authentic figures for my students to analyze. Such modeling is helpful as my students learn to develop their own research projects and gather data in our heritage garden,” says Sarna.

Sarna’s students are excited.  "I always thought plants were fascinating,” says Adolfo Cazares, a junior who has been growing cilantro, lemon balm and pepper plants in Sarna’s classroom.  “I'm looking forward to seeing how our plants develop and grow over time.  I can't believe how they can start out as seeds and turn into something edible and beautiful."

Sarna adds, “We are all excited to move our plants outdoors. Our tomato plants are already a foot tall!”

As a former UChicago UTEP student, Sarna is no stranger to learning by doing. Through the program, she was exposed to a full year of teaching in the classroom: two half-year placements and two summer placements. This level of hands-on classroom experience is unusual for teacher preparation programs. Sarna believes this has made her a more confident and competent teacher.

“Through UChicago UTEP, I spent two years learning about my curriculum and working in classrooms under the guidance of master teachers.  Because of this training, I felt well-equipped on my first day of school—still nervous, but prepared,” says Sarna, who was appointed as the biology team lead during her first year at Farragut. 

Sarna also credits her confidence in the classroom to the support she receives from her UChicago UTEP Instructional Coach Joshuah Thurbee and fellow graduates. UChicago UTEP offers three years of post-graduation support including instructional coaching and peer inquiry groups.

“Through coaching, a teacher is given the time and space to reflect on their practice and really think about how they can constantly be improving their teaching and, therefore, student learning in their classroom,” said Thurbee. “Because of the cohort structure at UChicago UTEP, which we continue to use during the teacher's induction years, teachers are able to share their learning with each other and grow by building off of one another's best practices.”

Sarna added, “The coaching I receive every week from Josh is invaluable. Beyond providing me with resources for lessons, I get meaningful advice.  I can express my self-doubt and get honest feedback that helps me reflect on how to improve my practice. “

“UChicago UTEP had shown me that a big part of teaching is connecting with a professional community—cultivating solidarity with like-minded individuals and sharing your inspirations and struggles. This is how we, as teachers, grow. ”