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Reflections on Improving a Course-Embedded Field Experience

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Sorcha Hyland
Lara Mann
Deb Griswold
Elizabeth Kozleski

By Heather Haynes Smith

I always look forward to the weeks leading up to the start of a new semester with excitement and anticipation. I get excited about the revision of a syllabus based on new learning objectives, student feedback, student performance on assessment measures and new research. I look forward to meeting my new students and facilitating their learning about special education and disability.

I am starting my second year at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX and I find myself giving much attention to the 15 hour field experience component of my Understanding Exceptional Learners in School and Society course. In general, this is a survey course on special education. However, it is more than a survey course, giving attention to issues of social justice and disability studies. The course is popular with students in all majors because it meets requirements that are part of our liberal arts curriculum and it is also part of a Minor in Teaching offered at the undergraduate level. It is also important to note that this field experience is not student teaching and teacher certification is only offered through our one year, post-baccalaureate Master of Arts in Teaching program.

I first began to consider revisions to the field experience following the grading of the reflective paper assignment at the end of the semester last fall. Overall, the writing was good and most students detailed meaningful experiences with the utmost respect and sensitivity about the individuals they met and worked with across the city. For some though I got the feeling the experience was lacking. I didn’t see the same positive, emphatic declarations of understanding I had seen in so many. As such, I felt as though I could have done a better job in making course connections more clear and the experiences more meaningful. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

In considering the field experience and how it might be enhanced I have asked myself a number of questions: How can I ensure the experiences are meaningful? How can I use the field experience to introduce the idea of civic professionalism? Is there a better way to connect students with educational and community groups supporting students with disabilities? How can the field experience reflect a service learning focus?

In the paragraphs that follow I describe some more background information and considerations in revising the field experience, providing details on the steps I am taking to enhance the experience this fall.

This course is not taught as a ‘disability of the week’ type course, but rather focuses on essential understandings with an integrated focus on characteristics, instruction, and supports. We begin the semester with a 3 week unit on disability studies and social justice, followed by 2 weeks on the legal and theoretical foundations, and then into the essential understandings (instruction, systems, universal design, family involvement and dynamics, life span issues, and technology). With the expectations and format of the course in mind, it is important the field experience involve much practice and application of overarching concepts of inclusion, advocacy, social justice, rights and responsibilities, equality and civic professionalism. I am not content with students selecting experiences that provide volunteer type opportunities which allow for little interaction with the students or adults with disabilities. To be meaningful, and achieve the learning outcomes, the field experience might benefit from being structured as a service learning opportunity.

My university, and maybe yours as well, is placing more emphasis on experiential learning opportunities. For those of us in education, this is not something new. We have long realized the importance of practice and learning while doing. With this growing emphasis campus-wide, I thought it was a good time to also reflect on the key tenets of experiential education and how that understanding might also enhance the field experience component of this course.

Having only been back in San Antonio for a year, I am fortunate to have someone at my university who actively engages with community groups, businesses, and non-profit agencies for the purpose of coordinating student service learning and internships. This has been immensely helpful in identifying possible partnerships and being introduced to the contacts in these groups. In many cases, our university already has a collaborative relationship there and we have students from multiple departments doing service learning, internships, shadowing professionals, or volunteering. For this course we worked together last year and it went very well. However, knowing my desire to enhance the field experience, we are collaborating even more this year to explore some new community connections and visit them together.

One of the first things we are doing is hosting a pilot Ability Awareness Fair, much like the one KUPD used to host, in the hopes of creating an ongoing event to match students and educational and community partners for this and other courses. Additionally, we are visiting sites together to talk to partners about what they are looking for from us and our students, to talk about service learning, and learning about events they host throughout the year we can possibly support.

In the course itself, I am making some changes to the course calendar, guiding questions, and the final, reflective paper assignment that covers the field experience. I will be giving more attention to the community groups in the early weeks. I will meet with my students to make sure we have a good match for community group and their strengths. I have revised the assignment rubric to reflect the expectation of developing civic professionalism more explicitly.

So, in short, I am going to try a few new things and see if the student learning and experiences detailed in the reflective paper assignment are better aligned with the student learning outcomes and my (big) expectations for the 15 hours outside of class. Here are brief answers the questions I posed early on outlining what I have decided to do.

How can I ensure the experiences are meaningful? Placing more emphasis on learning about educational and community groups providing supports and services for individuals with disabilities and then providing weekly guiding questions to prompt connections to the course and text. Hearing from the community groups and researching other opportunities of interest

How can I use the field experience to introduce the idea of civic professionalism? Focusing on learning about the educational and community groups, course reading, on-going communication with the educational and community groups about their needs with the students playing a role during their visits and reflecting on their role as a civic professional.

Is there a better way to connect students with educational and community groups supporting students with disabilities? Holding individual student meetings in the second and third weeks of class to help identify field experience placements and individualize the experiences based on a conversation about experiences and knowledge of individuals with disabilities.

How can the field experience reflect a service learning focus? Collaborating with the university coordinator and onsite visits from myself and the university coordinator to determine a range of needs for matching with student interests, aptitudes, and learning needs. Communication with educational and community partners about selecting service learning experiences versus volunteering.

For others considering changes to their field experiences these are some of the things I have found helpful as I have worked through the field experience revision the last few months:

  1. Start with student learning outcomes. [I use the KU Strategic Instruction Model (SIM) Course Organizer to ensure alignment of goals, content, and assessment.]
  2. Identify key partners at your university with connections to the community. [Have a meeting (or a few) with this person and see what ideas and opportunities are out there.]
  3. Provide an overview of selected groups to students. [Set aside class time just to introduce some of the options and have students do independent research following the overview.]
  4. Hold individual conferences with students to discuss their strengths, interest, and the research they have just conducted on educational and community groups. [This way you can differentiate learning for individuals (especially non-education majors in my specific course) and provide explicit next steps, allowing them to take responsibility from this point on.]
  5. Select educational and community partners to collaborate with who provide support to diverse groups [I consider age level(s) supported, have a mix of school and community based partners, and make sure that the options provided support individuals with a variety of exceptionalities (eg. Autism, Intellectual Disabilities, Learning Disabilities, Hearing Impairments, etc.]
  6. Take a more active role in integrating the field experiences into course meetings and providing guidance during the semester. [This semester I am going to provide weekly guiding questions that align with course content (essential understandings) and the assessment of the field experience for periodic progress monitoring and communication with students.]
  7. Visit the sites before placing students there (when possible) and during the semester (when possible). [This is important for keeping up communication with the community groups. It will be beneficial in identifying any problems early on and for envisioning future placements.]
  8. Enhance the reflective paper assignment rubric. [I am adding a piece on evidence of civic professionalism.]

As a teacher and teacher educator I know I will continue to tweak and tinker with courses. I’ll keep you posted on the enhanced field experience. If you have suggestions or advice, please share it. I would appreciate learning more about how others are structuring their field experiences to form collaborative partnerships with educational and community groups, focus on service learning, and encourage deeper student growth in thinking about persons with disabilities and their civic professionalism.


Heather Haynes Smith, Ph.D., completed her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. She then taught in inclusive, self-contained elementary grade classrooms in several Texas cities. As a result of experiences and interest in supporting struggling readers and students with learning disabilities she then worked as a reading coach, supporting K-3 general educators and K-12 special educators in implementing RTI, reading intervention and assessment. This lead to work as a state level Reading Technical Assistance Specialist supporting district reading coaches and then as a Project Coordinator for the Higher Education Collaborative at the University of Texas coordinating professional development, support and study of implementation of scientifically-based reading research in Texas teacher education programs. Heather entered the doctoral program at the University of Kansas, as part of a fellowship studying implementation of RTI under the advisement of Dr. Wayne Sailor. Following completion of her doctorate she was as an assistant professor at Texas Woman’s University. Heather is now an assistant professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas teaching undergraduate courses in special education and urban education with an emphasis on inclusion, social justice, advocacy, and disability studies. Her research continues to focus on struggling readers, students with learning disabilities and behavior disorders, implementation of multi-tiered systems of supports, and the preparation of effective inclusive, educators. Follow her on Twitter @DrHaynesSmith

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