Widener Prepares Student Teachers to Thrive in a Digital Classroom

By Emma Irving '18
Teacher sits at desk in elementary school classroom
Alumna Skyler Fortescue '20 teaches second and third grade special education remotely from her classroom.

Skyler Fortescue’s passion has always been to work in a special education classroom – and Widener’s Center for Education was giving her the training and field placement needed to follow her dream.

She was pursuing her bachelor’s degree and certification in elementary education: the early years and special education and was six weeks into student teaching at Stetser Elementary School, when she finally began her special education placement last spring.

But the experience was short-lived.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of the school, making Fortescue one of 15 Widener student teachers whose brick-and-mortar school placements were in jeopardy.

But changing through uncertain times is something Widener’s powerhouse programs excel at, and Dr. Patricia Newman, director of teacher education and certification, was committed to ensuring the student teaching experience could continue, albeit in a different form.

Newman quickly got in contact with Agora Cyber Charter School, based in King of Prussia, and by mid-semester all student teachers had pivoted to finish their experience virtually at Agora.

Before the pandemic we never really placed student teachers in cyber schools, but now we see how this online experience broadens students’ teaching abilities. It’s also changed students’ perspectives about what community and home means. — Patricia Newman

Field experience for undergraduate education majors begins the first semester of freshman year and is critical to developing community-engaged teachers who can serve students across diverse urban settings with cultural proficiency. Though Agora services students from across the state and not from one district, the diversity of students at Agora gives Widener’s student teachers a unique way to build community in a culturally-competent manner.

Ready for Anything

Fortescue was transferred to a fifth-grade special education classroom at Agora and said that while she was initially unsure of how the transition would be, she was supported by quick and individualized attention from her professors to make the transition smooth.

“Because my program is small, everyone is really close, so we were able to talk through this together and share ideas for teaching online. I realized how amazing it was that my professors were able to turn this whole thing around and get us placements at Agora,” Fortescue said. “Many of my friends at other universities had to go back to school this fall to finish their student teaching in person, so I’m really grateful I’m not in that position.”

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After graduating in the spring, Fortescue moved to Warrenton, Virginia to teach second and third grade special education. She credits her time at Agora with giving her the confidence to accelerate her new career in an uncertain time.

“I’m teaching online until November but because I have all this experience of working online already, that’s made all this easier,” Fortescue said.

Established Experience
Graduate student waves in front of laptop
Graduate student Melissa Mangano

This fall, approximately 90% of Widener’s student teachers were placed at Agora, including Melissa Mangano, who is pursuing her graduate degree in elementary education: the early years (pre-k-4). She’s teaching third-grade English language arts and says her experience at Agora has opened her eyes to the benefits of online education.

“My thoughts have definitely changed on online teaching. You can do just as much online as you can in-person. I’ve been planning lessons and there hasn’t been one thing I can’t adapt to online, and that’s something I didn’t think would be able to happen in the beginning,” Mangano said.

On the individual level, Mangano notes that learning online from their own homes has empowered some shy and struggling students to participate more freely. She says watching students build their confidence has been inspiring.

She credits her Widener professors for staying the course during a difficult time and opening her up to this new experience of online teaching, and the team at Agora for “being constantly willing to help me.”

“Agora is established and they already know how online education goes, so they don’t have any issues on their end like a brick-and-mortar school just transitioning to online now might,” Mangano said.

An Expanding Partnership

Whether the future of education is digital or in-person, the partnership between Widener and Agora will endure.

“The feedback from students has been very positive,” Newman said. “Many students said they never considered online teaching before but now love it. We’re happy to be building and expanding our partnership with Agora.”

Dr. Anne Butler, chief academic officer at Agora, agreed.

“Both Widener and Agora have a vision for collaboration. Widener students are gaining valuable teaching experience and growing professional skills, and Agora students are learning about Widener as a pathway to college,” she said. She is currently connecting with Widener’s undergraduate admissions team to ensure Agora high school seniors know all about the dynamic programs Widener has to offer.

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