York U Education professors awarded $73,844 to further public school research

Three  professors with York U's Faculty of Education have been awarded Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Partnership Engage grants (PEG)—collectively totaling $73,844.

Jennifer Jenson will receive $24,978 for her research Up Skilling Teachers for the 21st Century: Teaching with Digital Games. Sandra Schecter will receive $24,666 for her project My mother parachuted me over Thornhill. Tina Rapke will receive $24,200 for her study Students engaging with one another’s written work: Research with and for teachers.

“These grants are recognition of the very important research that our faculty members are doing to inform and positively impact teaching and learning in elementary classrooms,” says Lyndon Martin, Dean of the Faculty of Education. “Congratulations to Jennifer, Sandra and Tina on this stellar accomplishment. We wish them every success with their projects.”

SSHRC PEGs enable partnered research projects to inform decision-making at single partner organizations from public, private or not-for-profit sectors. In tackling organization-specific needs, PEG-funded studies respond to immediate needs and time constraints facing organizations in non-academic sectors.

Jennifer Jenson

In collaborating with the Institute for Research on Digital Learning’s postdoctoral researcher Cristyne Hebért, a PhD student with the Faculty of Education, Patrick McQuade and a fellow professor, Dr. Kurt Thumlert, Professor Jenson has partnered with the Peel District School Board (PDSB) to explore what—and to what effect—teachers are currently achieving when they employ various technologies in their classrooms to support 21st-century competencies.

“We are very much looking for teachers using digital games in their classrooms that support learning and we’re learning how they’re doing that," said Jenson. “We’re looking at how, and for who, we can best help through a professional development session examining their pedagogy, taking what they’ve done around games and game-based learning, and then implementing that in the classroom.”

In conducting their qualitative study, Jenson and her collaborators are studying how grade four to six teachers use digital games in classrooms, and are then inviting them to York University for a series of  game-based learning professional development sessions. Teachers will also serve as co-researchers in the study, documenting their own practices and taking note of changes that work ‘on the ground’ in their own classrooms to support all learners.

Because all school districts have some model for funding professional development, Jenson notes “we are really trying to ask the question: do these sessions make a difference? If so, how are they having a positive effect on learning?”

One output helpful for the PDSB that Jenson hopes to send back to the Ministry is the messaging around what teachers need to implement in a pedagogically-sound way—primarily around games in the classroom.

“And not just implement it, but understand it, so it has a positive impact on learners.”

Sandra Schecter

Professor Schecter aims to explore a new demographic emerging within the Greater Toronto area over the past five years—one she believes does not receive sufficient attention from equity and social justice departments of major school boards: early study abroad (ESA) students.

“They’re youth adolescents whose parents—generally their mothers—send them over here to obtain their Ontario high school leaving certification,” Schecter says. Having worked with similar youth demographics in the past, she says for many students, their living circumstances and lack of preparation for such an abrupt transition become a source of personal adversity and negatively affect their learning.

“I was informed of circumstances such as unplanned pregnancies, self-mutilation, and terrible homesickness,” she recalls. “One student got an infected tattoo and the school could not reach his parents for a week.”

In response to the harmful and often overlooked effects of such life situations, Schecter will be working with a group cohort of minority adolescents at Thornlea Public School (York Region) to see how they are performing. In conducting literature reviews, surveys, and interviews with students and teachers, Schecter aims to better understand stakeholders’ perspectives on what the students and teachers of Thornlea believe are the major challenges for such at-risk youth in terms of language, socialization, school engagement and social and cultural issues.

Schecter is presently designing a portfolio of academic and social activities for these international visa students that will help them with school and societal integration. Activities include: initiating a social club where students can watch movies, discuss television/video series, exchange recipes; and go on field trips to familiarize students with their local and provincial environments and to build a sense of community belongingness.

“I’d like to get a sense of the students and also their caregivers and their parents’ motivation in uprooting adolescent kids from their cultures and countries of origin and enrolling them in ESA programs in Ontario,” Schecter. “It is a crucial stage in their identity formation and they can’t just be left out to pasture ignored.”

Tina Rapke

Partnering with a principal and two teachers from the Toronto District School Board elementary school, Rapke and a doctoral student aim to explore and develop the classroom factors that improve students’ written communication skills in mathematics and communicate this with parents. Rapke notes the EQAO problems that children have most difficulty with today are ones asking them to explain and justify (communicate mathematical ideas in written forms)—raising parental concerns about how their children are learning mathematics and doing on tests.

The solution, however, does not lie in “back to the basics,” said Rapke. “You hear things like drill and kill and rote repetition and lots of busywork… to us, that’s not what math is about.” Instead, she urges it is essential to research math learning as a collective, together, in the classroom and focus on students’ ideas and communication.

As part of the research process, teachers share curriculum expectation with Rapke’s team to collaboratively formulate into lesson plans, which are then co-taught alongside the principal and teachers. Math tasks are posed to the class, orchestrating discussion, and student participation is encouraged to collectively discover solutions the class builds on. Students, teachers and researchers create documents that provide feedback to one another and address misconceptions through the communication of their written mathematical ideas.

The objective is to find what improves grades, enriches mathematics learning and starts conversations with parents. Rapke’s team will be reporting test results and creating videos that intend to give parents a sense of the ‘new math’ and its multiple benefits.

“We’re hoping the Ministry will see that these partnerships are really important. We need to be working collaboratively in classrooms together to address the state of mathematics education and increase public confidence,” said Rapke. “We hope the Ministry will even put some funding towards teachers and principals who want to partner with researchers. This is a complex problem and requires educational experts and parents to come together.”