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New challenges for Blugold student teaching social studies during pandemic, political unrest

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: Student teachers faced a variety of challenges this fall because of the ongoing pandemic. Their UW-Eau Claire education and support from faculty mentors helped them succeed.

Given the increasingly divisive tone of political discourse in the country, Cade Lambrecht was worried when he began student teaching in fall 2020 about how he could engage his middle and high school social studies students in respectful discussions about current events.

Cade Lambrecht taught social studies to middle and high school students this fall for his semester of student teaching. The COVID-19 pandemic and political unrest around the presidential election provided unexpected challenges.

Cade Lambrecht taught social studies to middle and high school students this fall for his semester of student teaching. The COVID-19 pandemic and political unrest around the presidential election provided unexpected challenges.

After all, Lambrecht knows teens often see adults behaving badly when it comes to civil — or, more accurately, uncivil — discourse relating to political and social issues.

It turns out his students could give many adults lessons in how to respectfully discuss critical issues, says Lambrecht, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in December 2020 and is finishing his final weeks of student teaching at Boyceville Middle/High School.

“I was worried about how to bring divisive political topics into the classroom,” says Lambrecht, a native of Kimberly who earned a degree in broadfield social studies education with an emphasis in history and political science. “I worried it might be difficult to create an environment in which students can share their opinions and ask questions without falling into partisan disputes. I learned very quickly that it was not as difficult as I imagined it to be.

“I found that students are often better than adults at discussing controversial events and maintaining a respectful environment.”

He also is impressed by the interest his students show in current events, Lambrecht says, noting that they often ask questions before classes even begin about things they heard on social media or in the news.

In the weeks before the presidential election, his students had so many questions that he paused their planned coursework so they could discuss the process of electing a president, the history of the Electoral College and different aspects of campaigning.

“Although students brought passionate thoughts about the candidates, the conversation never became disrespectful and students left with a broader understanding of the electoral process,” Lambrecht says.

The experience has reinforced his belief that teachers should bring controversial topics into their classrooms, Lambrecht says.

“We sometimes forget that productive political discourse and democratic thinking are not inherent traits but learned skills,” says Lambrecht. “If we avoid controversial topics, we perpetuate this cycle of division by not giving students the tools to participate in our democracy. Teachers have a responsibility to be  neutral facilitators in these discussions but also to provide students the tools to be civically engaged and to make meaningful change in their communities.”

Teaching during a global pandemic

Lambrecht also has the challenge of student teaching as a global pandemic continues to upend most education norms.

This semester, the Boyceville schools have switched learning modes several times, going from fully in person, to hybrid, to fully virtual and back to hybrid again. With each change, Lambrecht had to alter class plans, and find new ways to make the content engaging and to build connections with students.

The experience has left him more committed to and passionate about teaching than ever.

“Even though it has been stressful and at times difficult, teaching during a pandemic has prepared me well for my own classroom,” Lambrecht says. “The one thing I know I can take from this semester is if I can handle teaching in a pandemic, I can handle just about anything that will come my way.”

Among the greatest lessons he’s learned is the power of empathy, Lambrecht says.

“I learned quickly that for how difficult the pandemic has been on myself, it has been even more difficult on students,” Lambrecht says. “Whether it’s months of isolation, not seeing their friends or having their favorite activities canceled, many students are struggling. I implemented greater flexibility into my classroom and tried my best to empathize with the difficult situations that students have been through.”

Coming into the school year, Lambrecht says he had planned to teach using engaging projects, small group discussions and activities that would get students moving around the room. He had to scrap many of those plans because of COVID-19.

In his school, some students are in the physical classroom and others join virtually during the same class period, he says. Even those who attend in-person classes have to be physically distanced.

“I initially felt completely overwhelmed and felt like I had no idea how I was going to teach given these restrictions,” Lambrecht says. “Over time, I found new, creative ways to engage students. I began to implement more digital resources that give students the space to discuss and interact in a virtual format. I also found ways to implement socially distanced group work.

“Now, after developing these different ways to teach and engage students, I feel more excited than ever for my future as an educator.”

While this is an especially challenging semester for student teachers, she knew that Lambrecht would rise to the challenge, says Dr. Jill Prushiek, associate dean of the College of Education and Human Sciences, who worked closely with Lambrecht during his years on campus.

“Cade is a born teacher,” says Prushiek, who co-taught a freshman experience course with Lambrecht. “He focuses on how his teaching methods will meet the learning styles of his students. He knows how to design lessons that engage students and easily adapts lessons so that students get the most out of the learning experience. He is a gifted communicator who values the relationships he creates with his students and their families.”

He also motivates students to be the best they can be, Prushiek says of Lambrecht.

“He instills confidence in his students to think critically, ask questions and challenge themselves,” Prushiek says.

Finding his passion for teaching

For as long as he can remember, Lambrecht has been interested in history, government and geography. In high school, he took as many social studies classes as possible, knowing that he would pursue a career related to those fields, he says.

He already was a Blugold when he discovered he also has a passion for teaching.

As a student in the University Honors Program, Lambrecht responded to a request for volunteers to participate in the Eau Claire County Poverty Summit, an initiative that brought together community partners and advocates to identify solutions to various issues relating to poverty.

Through the initiative, he was placed on the “education access team,” where he worked alongside local teachers, administrators and parents.

“As part of this committee, I realized just how vital teaching and education is to the Eau Claire area,” Lambrecht says. “I switched my major to education within a few weeks of participating in the discussions. Now, one of my favorite parts about teaching social studies is bringing civic engagement and community advocacy into the curriculum.”

When his student teaching semester ends this month, Lambrecht plans to substitute teach as he looks for a permanent teaching position. He hopes to find a job teaching middle or high school social studies, specifically U.S. history and government.

“One of the reasons I want to teach at the secondary level is to teach with current events and to make the curriculum applicable to local, national and international events,” Lambrecht says. “I am passionate about making curriculum as relevant and as meaningful as possible, and I know teaching at the secondary levels is the best way for me to do that.”

Lambrecht says student teaching in a small school district gave him opportunities to teach a variety of subjects in several grades at the middle and high school levels. He was able to use different instructional practices and assess how students learned from them, he says.

He also learned how to connect with students, even in these unusual times, Lambrecht says.

“I made it a priority to take a few minutes each day to talk to students, learn more about their interests and motivations, and to use that information to inform my instruction,” Lambrecht says. “I used topics I knew students were interested in, like a recent TikTok trend or a sporting event, to start meaningful conversations with them.”

Finding wisdom, inspiration in UW-Eau Claire classrooms

One of his biggest challenges as a student teacher was ensuring that he was using different strategies in his teaching to reach students of varying needs, abilities and learning styles, Lambrecht says.

While he learned in his UW-Eau Claire courses why and how to plan instruction to meet the needs of all students, actually doing it in a real classroom was challenging, he says.

“I struggled at first to put that theory into practice,” Lambrecht says. “It was challenging to develop lessons that had different modes of representation and assessments. This is something that I am still working on but I learned a lot during my months student teaching.”

Lambrecht says a University Honors class, “Cultivating Creativity,” was especially helpful to him as he considered strategies for varying his teaching methods to better reach students with different needs.

“The class gave me space to think about the discipline of teaching and to find unique ways to engage students and make curriculum relevant,” Lambrecht says. “The creative processes we explored in the class gave me the tools to take a difficult situation and find strategies to overcome these difficulties.”

He had plenty of opportunities to implement some of those strategies during his semester of student teaching, Lambrecht says.

For example, before the fall presidential election, he had students in his American history class play an online game that allowed them to “run for president” using issues that were important to them. The game took students through the primary election and general election process, helping them learn concepts such as campaign fundraising and the role of debates, he says.

Students were so taken with the game that many told him they continued to play it at home.

“Some students said it was so fun that they played it instead of their normal video games,” Lambrecht says. “This moment was special to me because it gave me a greater understanding of how an engaging curriculum can develop a passion for a topic.”

Outside the classroom experiences

Lambrecht says UW-Eau Claire's many outside-of-the-classroom learning opportunities were among the reasons he came to the university.

“I was interested in studying abroad, completing student-faculty research and pursuing leadership roles,” Lambrecht says. “I chose UW-Eau Claire because of the broad ranging and accessible opportunities that were offered.”

As a Blugold, he found all those opportunities and more, he says.

For example, in the Aspiring Educators student organization, he served as treasurer and then co-president of the campus chapter. His senior year, he was elected the organization’s state president, overseeing more than 15 chapters at private and public universities across the state of Wisconsin.

The experience further developed his passion for public education advocacy, while also helping build leadership, communication and other skills that will help him be a successful educator, Lambrecht says.

“Through these leadership roles, I had the opportunity to travel to workshops and conferences across the U.S. to develop myself professionally and to advocate for teachers and students in Wisconsin,” Lambrecht says. “Because of these experiences, I will continue to make advocacy a core component of my professional goals.”

Student-faculty research also was a valuable part of his college experience, Lambrecht says. He participated in two research projects through the history department, one of which took him to Budapest, Hungary.

“In Budapest, the research team and I analyzed diaries of a doctor who lived there during the Second World War,” Lambrecht says. “This project culminated in a donation of our finished transcription of journals to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.”

Through a Central European Travel Seminar immersion program, he also traveled to Germany, Austria, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.