CHADRON – A desire to do “something completely different” after completing a PhD in 18th Century British literature from Brandeis University brought Elisabeth Ellington to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Following five years of teaching at Red Cloud High School, Ellington, now a faculty member of the English and Humanities department at Chadron State College, decided to look for another line of work.
“I honestly wasn’t expecting to stay in teaching at that point,” said Ellington, who explained that years of advanced academic work hadn’t prepared her for the challenges of classroom teaching. I went into teaching as I was taught, as though I had a whole class of English majors. I quickly realized that was not the case,” she said.
Instead of leaving teaching completely, Ellington decided to accept a one-year position as a writing instructor in the CSC English department and the following year she seized the opportunity to join the department on a more permanent basis as a teacher of students who are learning to be English teachers themselves.
“I thought it would be my ideal job to work with pre-service teachers and help them be able to have more longevity than I was able to,” Ellington said.
Since joining the CSC faculty, Ellington has been using insights gained from her own high school teaching experience, as well as resources shared by other teachers on blogs and social media sites, in her effort to find ways for newly minted elementary and secondary education teachers to engage students.
Ellington said she has learned things from secondary school teachers that carry over well to college courses, and not only for education majors.
“A lot of my classroom practices are things I have learned from elementary teachers,” she said. “I think the most exciting and innovative things in education are actually happening in K-6 (classes) now.”
Social media, such as Twitter and blogs, are among the tools many elementary and secondary school teachers are using successfully, according to Ellington.
“They will have a classroom Twitter account. Students will tweet about what they are learning and share what they are doing,” she said.
Following the students’ posts is a way of finding out how they are reacting to, and learning from, the instructional materials, Ellington added.
Many teachers are active on social media, where they share classroom experiences as well as links to articles on teaching.
“They are constantly sharing resources. They are basically curating the Internet,” Ellington said. “They are sending pieces of research to me via Twitter.”
Social media plays a big role in many of Ellington’s classes. For instance, students may be required to post on Twitter and write a blog about their reading assignments.
Students may also be required to follow, and interact with, classmates on social media, which makes learning a collaborative experience, she said.
“What I find happens is when students are excited about what they are reading, they are wanting to tell everybody ‘You have to read it too,’” Ellington said. “The students are the ones who are inspiring each other.”
Students in education classes are also required to find other education-related websites or educators to follow on social media, a practice Ellington uses herself to keep abreast of developments in the field.
“One of the primary ways I keep up with my field is Twitter and blogs and social media,” she said. “You reach out to other people as way to build your personal learning network, so (students) have not only those in the class, but it’s bigger.”
Ellington said her teaching strategy has changed in the time she has been at CSC.
“The biggest way my teaching has shifted over eight years is from a requirement to an invitation,” she said.
As an example she cited an adolescent literature course for education majors which has no required reading list.
“There is a time requirement. You are required to spend four hours a week reading the adolescent literature of your choice,” Ellington said. “I’m constantly sharing things I think they should read, but it’s an invitation.”
A similar philosophy carries over to Essential Studies courses, which now make up about half of Ellington’s work load.
“What I’m trying to do in all my classes is have students discovering. I don’t want to be in control of what they are going to learn. I want them to be surprised and I want to be surprised too,” she said.
That attitude works particularly well for Capstone courses, which Ellington said she views as an overall journey in learning for the semester. In those classes, Ellington has adopted an idea gleaned from a seventh grade teacher and blogger, and has students create a short Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) Talk instead of taking a final exam.
“The Capstone course is a creative mind course, so they share an idea they have discovered and how they did that,” she said.
Not all students welcome the heavy use of social media in class, especially at first, Ellington admitted.
“At the beginning of the semester the response ranges from enthusiasm to hostility,” she said. “I have to do a lot of cheerleading at the beginning of the class, but after a few weeks it’s completely shifted. Once students see how much there is to learn from these platforms, they are much more open to it.”
And Ellington said she has seen her methods carry over into the work lives of students who have become teachers.
“I’ve noticed that several students who have graduated are continuing to blog,” she said. “That becomes a resource I can use in my courses for pre-service teachers.”
Ellington primarily uses Twitter and blogs in classes now, but said that she could include other services, such as Instagram and Snapchat in the future, if it seems appropriate.
“I’m an inveterate tinkerer with my classes. I don’t ever like to teach a class the same way twice. I’m not learning if I do,” she said.
But whatever developments take place in social media use, Ellington has an ultimate goal for all of her classes-providing students with the means and desire to keep learning throughout their lives.
“It’s about creating certain environments that will lead to wonder and curiosity and play and exploration,” she said.