Teacher Education and LEAP:
Engaging Students in Leadership

A visit to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater (UW-W) brought me back to an idea from my first LEAP blog post: LEAP frameworks can support connections between school and college.  Now, as we all know, it’s one thing to say this, another to make it real. We know the potential, and we know how hard it is to achieve.  But just imagine: we could build connections for students and for educators, using the consensus language of LEAP to define learning outcomes and assessment across the divide between high school and college.  LEAP could, for example, be used to set outcomes for senior projects that prepare students for college.  High-effort work in grade 12 could engage students and reclaim some of the “lost” senior year.  Who knows?  We might even use the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes (ELOs) specifically to guide learning within teacher education itself.

Having searched for years to see where in our AAC&U membership such ideas have taken root, I was delighted to discover a group of education students at UW-W who, with the support of their education professor, had created a project called “Next Teach.”

The idea began in the required Foundations of Education class, a course frequently included in teacher-education programs.  Mark Jonas, who was then teaching the class, had organized it around liberal education and LEAP.  (The students confessed to me that at first, they thought LEAP was a formally defined field within the history and philosophy of education.) Jonas promoted active and engaged learning and teamwork, addressing big questions related to teaching and learning. Peer mentors who had completed the course helped current students with assignments designed to connect philosophy to active pedagogy.  The class aimed high, presenting students with some of the most difficult primary material—not textbook summaries—they had seen. It pushed students to explore intellectual and practical skills and build confidence in doing so.  They spent a full week, for example, struggling with Rousseau’s idea that humans are born free but everywhere live in chains.

The assigned “Jonas papers,” as the class affectionately called them, had to fit on a 5”x 8” notecard.  Jenna Feely, a student in the class, recalls the papers this way: “With all the challenging material we had been reading, this seemed to be an impossible feat.  How were we supposed to express all of our ideas about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave—as an allegory for liberal education—and fit it on a tiny notecard?  The idea was to be concise; to get rid of all the fluff that so many papers seem to have in college just to fill up space.  Writing in this way, even seeing the little notecard before us, got us into the mindset of being concise.  We only said what we thought needed to be said and generated quality ideas that we could later discuss with our peers and revise to make them stronger.  This critical and creative way of thinking embodies the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes.”

But the class didn’t end with the note cards or with the semester.  The students were so inspired by their learning that they developed a project for submission to the campus-wide UW-W LEAP competition. Over the past three years, UW-W has supported annual cohorts of faculty, staff, and students who carry out a variety of projects related to LEAP goals—including a work-study program at the University Center that integrates the ELOs into employee training.  The projects may be proposed by teams hailing from anywhere in the institution.  Jenna and fellow students Amanda Gerros, Sara Reque, and Kayla Helgeson decided that LEAP should be an approach to education that could empower all students for life.  They thought that LEAP could help students to make sense of general education and connect it to their majors.  So they formed the only LEAP team composed entirely of students.  They wanted to take what they had learned about LEAP not just into their careers as teachers but out to the entire student body.  UW-W also sent them to the AAC&U Student Success Network conference in Miami, FL, April 4-6, 2013.

Working with William Cronon’s “Only Connect”, one of their readings from Foundations, the students have set out to nurture a movement on campus.  They intend to work with student organizations and they are happy to have strong support from campus administrators, including the provost.  They were quick to grab information from the latest survey of employers commissioned by AAC&U as part of its LEAP initiative. “It does take more than a major,” they observed to me. “We feel like we’ve become experts, teaching the ELOs as a way of reading your courses and your life.  It helps to spell out what your experiences mean to your education and what you can do with your career.”

What do the students plan for the 2013-2014 academic year?  They intend to contact at least ten more local secondary schools to introduce LEAP principles to the guidance staff or teachers.  They hope to add to the curriculum already in place to ensure students use time in high school to expand their knowledge to include LEAP principles. On campus, they are organizing “SLEAP”—for Students LEAP (students, they reminded me, love to “sleap”)—as an ambassador program to involve more students in getting the word out to secondary schools through presentations and dialogue with high school students. They also wish to spread the message “it takes more than a major,” and stress to students who are choosing classes the benefits of general education courses and the value of variety in their path to learning through college.

As we wrapped up the interview, the students challenged me:  “Think back to when you started college.  How did you learn to choose your courses?  Having the knowledge of what LEAP encompasses broadens horizons.  You can take oceanography.  You can study yoga.  You can expand your thinking.  When will we ever be able to do this with so much freedom again?”

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