Making the Connections: Classroom to Community

Human Development Master’s Students Put Theory Into Practice

Growing up in the big city of Wuhan in China, Wei Yang was greatly influenced by Zhou Li, an author who documented her life in the popular autobiography Manhattan’s China Lady—a book that Yang read nearly a dozen times since she was 10 years old. Zhou, whose English name is Julia Zhou, was a doctor in China when she decided to leave her successful job behind to study in America.

“I just like her way,” says Yang as she describes the author. “She’s a woman full of passion.”

Warner graduate student playing with toddlerFollowing in Zhou’s footsteps, Yang reflects back to that pivotal moment nearly a year ago, when she decided to part ways from her senior management job of nine years with China Telecom to follow her own passion, which is to learn more about the world.

A master’s student in human development at the Warner School of Education, Yang has spent much of her time at Rochester School for the Deaf  (RSD), where she has learned more about the role school and family play in deaf students’ development and well-being as part of her graduate study.

Yang is among others in a cohort of master’s students in human development who are wrapping the theories they’ve learned in Warner classrooms around practices in the broader Rochester community. Students, who chose from either a research apprenticeship or field experience, have been placed at various community sites throughout Rochester this school year, including Mary’s Place, Young Audiences of Rochester, Freedom Market, Veteran’s Outreach Center, Rochester City Hall, RSD, University of Rochester Medical Center, and afterschool programs at the Rochester City School District.

Through their coursework at Warner, human development students come to construct their own theory about how people change and learn over the life course. They then take these evolving theories off to real-life experiences. These experiences allow students to become reflective practitioners.

“For all human development students, we talk a lot about theory,” says Assistant Professor Joyce Duckles, “but the big question is ‘how do we put theory into practice?’ These experiences provide the practical side. They are also designed to be reflective—students are thinking along the way how their coursework applies to their sites, and they get to share these experiences with one another.”

Before coming to Rochester, Yang volunteered her time at a deaf school in China, where she found significant social and emotional development delays among children. She explains, “In China, I found that deaf children were different than their peers—not with their disability, but with their social and emotional development. I witnessed them feeling anxious and depressed and often feeling like they cannot get along well with other children.”

In search for answers and roots to some of these problems, Yang set out to learn about the educational experiences of deaf children in Rochester—home to the nation’s largest deaf population per capita.

At RSD, Yang spent last fall engaging in the school’s regular K-12 practices, tracking and recording students’ language development, behavior, and emotional change and observing teaching methods. Continuing her work there this spring, she has focused her attention on preschool children and finding new ways to connect with families both inside and outside the classroom.

A short drive away, 29-year-old Ericka Simmons is fulfilling her passion of working with youth, and even incorporating her love for the arts, at Young Audiences of Rochester (formerly ArtPeace), an afterschool program that focuses on positive development of minority youth through the arts.

A former preschool teacher, Simmons has always been interested in the way humans develop and learn, but she didn’t want to pursue the traditional classroom route in education. Wearing many hats today, Simmons continues to immerse herself in all aspects of the organization. Some unique projects that she’s played a pivotal role in include The Cypher Downtown Youth Arts Initiative and the Possibility Project-Rochester, both events that are designed for youth to showcase their talents in the visual and performing arts.

Simmons’ field experience at Young Audiences of Rochester, which aligns with her master’s thesis, has allowed her to look at how the expressive arts can be used as a coping mechanism to help psychological distresses, like anxiety, stress, and depression, among younger adolescents.

“I’ve learned that there are many ways to benefit youth in a positive way that I don’t think is being justified enough in our society,” she explains, “so I am trying to figure out a way to help bring this to light as a master’s student and someone who wants to pursue a PhD someday. I feel that this research is very important to all of us—as educators, counselors, and even non-educators—because there are things out there that are beneficial to and helping youth in a positive and creative way.”

This experience, according to Simmons, has also helped her to better understand how humans develop and has challenged her to look at things from multiple theoretical lenses. “Prior to coming into this, I had an assumption of how I thought humans develop, and this has really helped me to understand that there’s more than just one way to look at things,” she says.

Archer (Xiaoxue) Wu, who grew up in Lu’an, China and later studied in Australia as an undergraduate, came to Warner with a strong interest in communities and the impact they have on development. In order to fully understand a community, she believes, one really needs to be a part of it and interact with it.

Wu has taken that philosophy to her research apprenticeship, which is part of a larger University partnership with the community in the city’s northeast section to transform and rebuild one of Rochester’s most impoverished communities—the Beechwood neighborhood. The purpose of the research team, which consists of Warner professors and students, the Northeast Area Development (NEAD), the Freedom Market, Freedom School, East High School, and the community members in the neighborhood, is to critically and holistically address the complexities with community urban transformation and its related issues through collaborative participatory action research. Wu is at the Freedom Market each week taking field notes and collecting data through interviews and surveys with customers. And, on some days, Wu can be found lending a hand with basic store operations, like stocking shelves and running the cash register. She also takes part in weekly research team meetings that include all 15 community and university researchers.

Students, like Wu, benefit from being out in the Rochester community. As an international student, this experience has brought her a whole new perspective on how other people live in the world.

“I have never been involved in American communities, so it’s been a very eye-opening, meaningful experience for me,” explains Wu, who hopes to gain a better understanding of how to foster critical consciousness as part of her research. “It also has helped me to see the strengths that people bring or the challenges they may face, and it has allowed me to think about theories outside the classroom and to question whether or not they work.”

Wu also stresses the importance of sharing these experiences and findings with others. She adds, “I think it’s great for the society as a whole to know about the world—the world is very big. We have to know how other people are suffering, struggling, and fighting. I think the hardest part is for our society to know what’s actually going on.”  She is currently working on publications with the research team and will have presented at two conferences this year.

Wu, who has established a strong personal connection with members in the community, has no plans to end her work there any time soon.  “It’s not like I go there, do the research, and leave,” adds Wu. “I never bring the assumption that I’m going to collect data today and then go. I am establishing strong relationships with people in this community, and I feel genuinely cared for by everyone.”  

Throughout their human development research apprenticeships and field experiences, students receive ongoing support. In the beginning, students identify a site mentor whom they work closely with to define and work toward a goal. They also receive support from their peers and Warner faculty by engaging in classroom discussions about ethics, participating in reflective group meetings, and keeping journals that they submit bi-weekly.  

Warner student and toddler raising armsIn addition to providing the practical side, these experiences help direct a way toward a career goal. “My experience at RSD has helped me to acclimate in this country,” says Yang. “I know what I want to do now—I want to be a part of research or work related to the mental health of preschool children with special needs.”

And, Simmons, who has a job lined up at Young Audiences of Rochester following graduation, looks forward to beginning her new career.

“Every day that I’ve been at Young Audiences of Rochester has been an experience because I’ve learned something I didn’t know or I made a connection with an adolescent, teaching artist, administrator, or a supporter of the organization,” she says. "It’s been quite a ride—nothing like I’ve ever experienced before."

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Media Contact: Theresa Danylak
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Tags: human development, Joyce Duckles, student