UHCL: Educator couple works together to improve student learning
April 4, 2012
Classrooms figure prominently in the life of University of Houston-Clear Lake Assistant Professor Kent Divoll and his wife, Angelica Ribeiro, an English as a Second Language elementary school teacher in the Pasadena Independent School District. The two educators met in a classroom, were married in a classroom and now both spend much of their days working in classrooms.
Divoll, assistant professor of teacher education, supervises interns and teaches classroom management for UH-Clear Lake’s College of Education. Ribeiro, originally from Fortaleza, Brazil, teaches fifth- and sixth-grade language arts to English language learners at Melillo Middle School.
The pair met while enrolled in the same class at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He was a doctoral student and she, a master’s student. Two years later, shortly before relocating to Houston, the couple exchanged vows in the same classroom where they met. They would later marry in a formal ceremony before family and friends in Massachusetts, and yet again in Brazil, bringing the total number of anniversaries to three.
“We do an average,” jokes Ribeiro, though her husband confesses they celebrate all three.
Today, they each have a classroom of their own, and they often pull from each other’s experience and background to enhance their students’ learning experiences. For instance, when Divoll visited his wife’s family in Brazil, he felt the frustration of trying to communicate in Portuguese, a language he hasn’t yet mastered. It helped him realize that many of his interns don’t know what it is really like for ELL students to be in a class being taught in a language other than their own. He solicited his wife’s assistance to help create that experience for his students.
“We talk about English language learners, but until they (teachers) experience what it’s like, they don’t know, and they don’t have that same perspective,” he explains.
For the session, Ribeiro teaches two mini-lessons both in Portuguese. In the first session she teaches the class without utilizing learning strategies, or techniques such as pictures and gestures, that help language learners understand lesson content even though they may not understand the language. In the second session she teaches the exact same class, but this time employing the strategies.
“The point is for the students to realize how important the strategies are, and how they allow students to actually learn the content,” she explains.
Divoll adds that the experience creates a sense of empathy and understanding. The demonstration has been so popular among the students that Ribeiro has been asked by several other UH-Clear Lake College of Education professors to present it in their classrooms as well. In fact, one student who missed her regularly scheduled class made a point of coming back to the campus and sitting in just for the experience.
The couple enjoys bouncing ideas off each other especially where improving student performance is concerned. When Ribeiro was perplexed by the poor TAKS performance of two of her students who she knew were capable of doing better, her husband suggested a different approach.
He advised that she should pretend to be a student taking a test, thinking out loud and rushing through the exam. As the young students watched and listened to Ribeiro role play, she purposely made careless mistakes. In this way the students were able to recognize their own errors.
The students also tracked their scores, recording the initial grade made when they carelessly rushed through the test, and then the follow-up grade they could have made had they taken their time and carefully read and answered the questions correctly.
The idea is to increase motivation and self-confidence, Divoll explains. The approach helps students focus on analyzing their mistakes and improving.
“I have used it with 12 students,” says Ribeiro of the strategy she now calls “Goal Graph Reflect.”
“I’ve had some of the students more than once. If we look at their grades in the second year, the grades are better than the ones from the first year. Several of the students didn’t pass the TAKS initially, but when they came to me and they used this strategy, they did pass.”
Ribeiro continues to utilize the Goal Graph Reflect strategy with her students, and she has presented the results at four teacher conferences, including the Texas Association for Bilingual Education and the American Association Teaching Curriculum. She and Divoll plan continued research on the approach.
“We care about education a lot and want the students to do well,” says Divoll. “Angelica came to the United States as an exchange student so she understands what it’s like to be an English language learner. For my students – I want to make sure we are producing teachers that understand the issues and how to serve that population.”