Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Meet Laura Blanco

Tags: educational studies, elementary education, master of arts with certification, mitchellscarlett, teacher education

Laura Blanco

There are several things you should know about Laura.

  • Laura cares. She really cares. She wants her work in this world to make a difference.
  • Laura is from Venezuela. She moved to the United States to attend college at Columbia University, where she majored in art history.
  • We’re going to follow Laura for the next year as she works her way through the ELMAC program (ELMAC = Master of Arts in Educational Studies with Elementary Teacher Certification). Through regular updates on our website, we’ll find out what ELMAC students do, where they do it, and who they do it with. We’ll follow Laura into School of Education classrooms, the Ann Arbor Public Schools, and wherever else her story takes her.

Laura moved to Ann Arbor just two weeks ago, which was just two days before beginning her 12-month program. She moved from bustling New York City to quietly resting Ann Arbor. (Population around 113,000, of which about a third are students— and most of them are absent for the summer. Laura will experience a different Ann Arbor this fall, when about 100,000 people flow into town for football Saturdays!)

Laura, born in Venezuela’s largest city, Caracas, has never lived in such a small town before. She’s visited one, though. When she was a sophomore at Columbia, she volunteered through Cross-Cultural Solutions and traveled to a small village in Tanzania. There, she taught English and math to about 25 first-grade students. And it was her experience there that leads to her being here.

Every Ounce of Effort Yields Something

Why did 20-year-old Laura spend four weeks teaching first grade in Africa? “I’d always wanted to go to Africa,” she says. “And when I did volunteer activities in middle school and high school, I really enjoyed it and wanted to do something more extended.” So she Googled and talked with friends and researched, and found the opportunity that led her to Tanzania.

Where, as many people in their young twenties do, Laura was trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life. “I’d changed my major a bunch of times in college,” she says, “and when I was there [Tanzania], I was very aware that I was searching for what I wanted to do.

“I remember that when I was there, everyday I was conscious that I knew why I was doing what I was doing. Everyday I’d wake up and go teach and know that it was worth it, that it was meaningful for me and meaningful for the children. And that every ounce of effort I put into it would yield something.”

In this first teaching experience, Laura noticed right away that the children learned differently from one another. Repetition worked for some but not others. She found that a creative approach that engaged the children and provided different avenues for learning was more effective than rote memorization.

After her four weeks in the classroom were over, she returned to Columbia and finished her undergraduate program. She explored joining Teach for America, but found that it wasn’t an option for her because of her Venezuelan citizenship. She took a job at Sotheby’s as an administrator for regional operations in New York. She also soon began volunteering on the weekends, helping fourth- and fifth-grade students with creative writing. And Laura found that she enjoyed her weekend volunteer work more than she did her 40-hour-per-week job. “My work [at Sotheby’s] was interesting,” she says, “but not fulfilling. I didn’t feel like I was helping anyone.”

She started looking into teacher education programs.

Laura Visits Ann Arbor, the School of Education, Meets Faculty, and Sees Our Students in Action. And Likes What She Sees

Laura applied to a number of schools and, in her mind, the University of Michigan wasn’t clearly the front-runner. But when she got a call from us, and an offer of a scholarship, she flew out in late March to visit.

Associate Professor Cathy Reischl took Laura to visit Mitchell Elementary and Scarlett Middle Schools, part of Ann Arbor Public Schools and the site of our innovative partnership, the Mitchell Scarlett Teaching & Learning Collaborative. “We observed three different classrooms,” says Laura. “There were interns from the ELMAC program teaching. Cathy talked with me about the approach to observation and explained what the interns were doing with language and some other things. I really, really liked it. And I loved the feel of Ann Arbor.”

Now, with two weeks of classes under her belt, Laura is getting into it. She’s part of the 28-person ELMAC cohort, the students of which will work together until they graduate together next June (although some, like Laura, plan to stay an additional month to earn English as a Second Language endorsements).

“I like that our classes are discussion based and we’re going deep into each topic that we’re learning about,” she says. “We’ve been talking about the use of language, as a teacher, and how important it is. Things like the difference between giving instructions to the children in the form of questions, compared with giving them instructions that are clearly just that—instructions.

“And we’ve been talking a lot about being conscious that different students have different learning styles,” she says, echoing her initial teaching perceptions from the Tanzanian classroom.

Next, after Three Weeks as a Student in a Classroom, Laura Takes Her Place at the Blackboard

Beginning next Monday, July 9, Laura and the other ELMAC students will be with the Ann Arbor Summer Learning Institute (SLI) at Ann Arbor Open School. There, the ELMAC students will observe teachers and be teachers to first- and third-grade children. Laura is eager to get to it: “Our classes are great, but it’s all on the theory side. I’m looking forward to putting together theory and practice and being in the classroom.”

She’s also a little apprehensive. The Summer Learning Institute is the first time in the ELMAC program in which the students will give lessons to children. And those lessons will be video recorded and analyzed. “I think we’re all a little nervous about watching ourselves and analyzing our performance,” she says.

Visit the School of Education homepage during the week of July 9 to read about Laura’s first experiences at SLI. Later in the month, we’ll check in with her to see what’s new, what’s changed, and what’s improved, as she nears the end of her four weeks at SLI.

July 11, 2012 UPDATE: Read about Laura's first day at the Summer Learning Institute.

August 3, 2012 UPDATE: After four weeks of teaching experiences, read about Laura's victories and challenges at the Summer Learning Institute!

September 1, 2012 UPDATE: Laura will be student teaching at Mitchell Elementary. With three days before school starts, read about how Laura and her mentor teacher prepare.

Laura Blanco is one of four students we plan to follow through the 2012-2013 academic year in “A Year in the Life: Student Stories from the University of Michigan School of Education.” Other students that we're following are Kimberly Graham, a student in our Master of Arts in Educational Studies program; Ryan McBride, from our Master of Arts in in Higher Education program; and Zachary Frorenza, from our undergraduate Secondary Teacher Certification program.

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