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From left, Brie Parent, Bridget O'Brien and Kirstin Alfonso in the Lowell High School library, where they would debrief after each day of teaching.
August 9, 2017

Master's students help high school seniors graduate

  • Lowell
UMass Lowell students inspire a brighter future

Close to the end of the school year, 12 Lowell High School seniors struggling with their English classes were at risk of not graduating. 

Some of the high school students were in advanced classes but had fallen behind, some were English as a Second Language students trying to master a new language and others were a few credits shy of graduation requirements. 

Enter three graduate students from the College of Education: Bridget O’Brien, Brie Parent and Kirstin Alfonso. The education master’s degree candidates taught a three-week English course in early June for the Lowell High School students. For the graduate students, the teaching – which, as a UML Curriculum and Teaching English class itself, served as their master’s curriculum – was as much of a learning experience as it was for the Lowell High students. 

In their roles as teachers, they quickly learned how to adjust their teaching methods for each academic level, instill confidence in their students and spark interest in the classwork. With a lot of hard work on both sides, all 12 Lowell High School students passed the course and graduated in June. 

“This experience was stressful, rewarding and fulfilling,” says O’Brien, who expects to earn a master's in secondary education with a concentration in English in 2018. “This was a course with real consequences for people’s lives. These students needed us to develop lessons, activities and assessments to prove that they had earned missing credits. Knowing that we helped them get their diplomas was a truly wonderful experience.” 

“My students were rock stars,” says Clinical Assoc. Prof. of Education John Brown, who taught the Curriculum and Teaching English course and mentored the graduate students. “They worked so hard and were so brave, mature and professional. They improved the skill level of their students in three short weeks.” 

The UML students wrote the curriculum, researched the teaching materials, taught the classes and designed and scored all the assessments. Brown helped the students prepare throughout the process. He held curriculum planning sessions, instructed the students how to teach and met them every day at Lowell High School prior to each class and again afterward. 

“It was a controlled environment with plenty of support from the university, so I never felt that I was out of my league,” says O’Brien. “Dr. Brown talked to us not only about what we were learning, but how the students were doing. Learning to read students and recognize when they were struggling was a skill that I could only learn by being in this course and having in-depth meetings after class.” 

Brie Parent learned that developing a rapport with students was the key to opening their minds to the material. 

“One of the most valuable pieces of advice Professor Brown gave us was that it’s critical that we show our students that we care,” says Parent. 

They met with the students individually, letting each one know that they believed he or she had the ability to succeed. 

“Expressing concern and care proved to these students that we wanted them to succeed, and that we believed that they could,” says Parent. “Students began staying after class to make up assignments and earn points back. They began participating in class, they asked questions, and they wrote thoughtful, analytical writing responses, especially compared to the ones we received during the first week of class.” 

The high school students not only received their diplomas, but they also saw a brighter future. 

Brown says, “One student told us that he now liked poetry when he never did before. Another student said she wanted to be an English teacher, which she’d never thought of in the past. A third student said that he saw himself as a writer now, because of Ms. O’Brien, Ms. Alfonso and Ms. Parent. A fourth student explained that he is now going to apply to college. He didn’t think college was an option, but now he has a vision to go to Middlesex Community College and then transfer to UML.” 

Parent says that the experience took her out of her comfort zone. That’s a good thing, according to Brown, because that’s where both groups of students – whether working on graduate degrees or earning high school diplomas – learn best. 

“By the end of the three-week course, I had learned more about teaching and myself than would have ever been possible had this course taken place in an ordinary classroom setting,” says Parent.

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