Chapter 4: Project Teach: Using Reality Shows as a Framework for Teaching Methods Courses

Article excerpt

When I heard curriculum theorist Madeleine Grumet confess at the 2006 AATC conference that she had not been reading lately because she had been watching the latest season of Project Runway, I immediately perked up, as I was an ardent fan of the first three seasons. Grumet proposed that curriculum theory courses should be taught in a manner similar to the show: students would be presented with a real problem and then be asked to provide solutions to that problem.

I am not sure if she thought anyone in the audience would take her comment seriously (although fans of the show readily voiced our agreement), but I spent quite a bit of time pondering her suggestion. Aware of the criticism surrounding the use of popular television shows, like Survivor and Jeopardy, as models for delivering content in the classroom (Gustavson & Appelbaum, 2006), I know that "gimmicks" do not necessarily translate into successful learning experiences. A "reality" course might tap into the interests of my students (as well as my own) but not prepare them for the realities of teaching. Grumet's suggestion is somewhat related to problem-based learning (PBL), and I could see how this television-inspired approach might enrich students' engagement with education courses' texts and topics. Because of the opportunities to apply theoretical readings to practical applications, to encourage creative, autonomous approaches to actual classroom issues, and to challenge the traditional roles of teachers and students, Project Runway provides a useful, alternative model for teaching education courses.


There seem to be a few assignments that many colleges and universities typically include in their teacher education courses: the teaching philosophy essay; the field experiences journal; and the teaching unit. In the Methods of Teaching English/Language Arts (one of the courses that I teach), we write lesson plans. Smagorinsky and Whiting's (1995) research of the syllabi used in English methods courses showed that 69% of those instructors required their students to write lesson plans and engage in teaching demonstrations as part of their coursework. Only four out of the 79 syllabi they examined, however, actually required students to teach the lessons they created in their cooperating teachers' classrooms. (1) This finding is understandable considering that many field experience students might find themselves having to use their cooperating teachers' lesson plans for the convenience of their schedules, continuity of the classes' schedules, and consistency in level of expectations. In order to address this limitation, some instructors incorporated into their courses presentations on lesson planning by master teachers or studies of " 'cases' of problematic teaching situations" (p. 16) as a means for exploring writing lessons for different contexts (Smagorinsky & Whiting, 1995). They also found that instructors adopted a "workshop approach," which required students to work in groups on lesson plans in a series of steps, culminating with the presentation and/or teaching of those lessons to their classmates. The limitations with these approaches are similar to the other limitations tied to writing lesson plans in methods courses: unless students are in the field working with a teacher who is able to make space for them to teach those lessons, they are unable to try out their ideas in "real" teaching situations.

Eleven years later, Dickson, Smagorinsky, and a number of leaders in the field of English education (Dickson et al., 2006) presented components of successful English/Language Arts methods courses. Those components included teaching "purposeful observation," holding conversations with the various parties responsible for teacher education programs, and fostering mentor teacher relationships (p. 325). In order to create "exemplary programs," Dickson et al. (2006) proposed that teacher educators--along with their students--should "engage in more provocative research that can help us and our students articulate the ways our work has import, and to use that knowledge to help us continue to improve our programs" (p. …