Teacher Spotlight: Elizabeth Noren

In our first “Teacher Spotlight” it is a pleasure to present CSU alumna Elizabeth Noren!
Elizabeth Noren teaches Social Studies at Westlake High School in Westlake, Ohio.  She has taught diverse courses at Westlake over the past four years, including AP Art History, Honors American History and College Prep American History. Outside of the classroom, Noren is involved in efforts to bring the International Baccalaureate Diploma program to the Westlake School district and is the faculty adviser for Forensic: Speech and Debate, Key Club and the Museum Ambassador Program at the Cleveland Museum of Art.  On a regional level, Noren has been invited to serve in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Education Department TEAM program (Teachers and Educators at the Museum). At the museum, Noren creates best practices and lesson plans that align with the common core for the museum’s Teacher Resource Center.  She is also a member of the Teacher Leadership Team for the Cleveland division of “Facing History and Ourselves,” a Boston-based program that promotes tolerance and acceptance through the use of history and literature.  On the state level, Noren is a member of two Ohio Department of Education advisory committees: Student Learning Objective for Economics and Financial Literacy and a second committee which oversees the development of the new American Government end-of-term statewide formal assessment. Noren lives in Bay Village with her husband Jim and their children Madison and Benjamin.
What inspired you to become a teacher?
I took a non-traditional path into teaching.  As an undergrad in both history and art history I had no aspirations of becoming a teacher at the time.  Instead, I wanted to pursue a career in an art museum. Upon graduating, I worked at the Cleveland Museum of Art as a supervisor for the special exhibition store. While there, I had the opportunity to work with members of their education department and from that experience I realized I wanted to work in the education field in some capacity. In 2003, I decided to return to school as a non-traditional student to pursue licensure in secondary education. Holding a BA in history, I felt that I could convey my historical knowledge better through pedagogical training. I was nervous. What if I was an awful teacher?  What if I could not convey my lessons correctly for the students?  What if the students hated me?  All of these thoughts came at me, but I moved forward through the post-baccalaureate licensure at CSU and with each course I completed I felt confident that I chose the correct career path.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
The most rewarding part of my job is when I see a student making connections outside the unit of instruction.  I love when they can take an idea presented in a unit and apply it to their own life.  Students often begin the year questioning why they have to take a history class.  It would be easy for me to just to put the blame on the state for making the course a graduation requirement.  But if I did that then I am undermining the importance of the liberal arts completely.  History provides students the ability to acquire skills that they can use outside the confines of the classroom.  Having students take the lessons of history and apply them to real world issues and individual concerns allows the student to use a higher level of thinking. I believe this is the real goal of education.  We need to teach students “how to think” instead of “what to think” since the former allows for application in real world situations.
What are the biggest challenges you face as a teacher?
There are many challenges of being a teacher but I think the most difficult is the teaching towards a standardized test. This goes completely against what I believe the goal of education to be.  For all the effort we put into teaching students to think critically, the weight placed on test achievement undermines it because it requires us to revert back to rote memorization. One way I try to combat this trend is to refrain from relying on multiple choice assessments on the areas of focus for the specific test.  Instead, I have students respond to short answer and extended essays so I can get them to critically think and respond to the material.
What are your favorite ways to incorporate primary sources and/or technology in your lessons?
I use primary sources all the time in my classroom. I am not a fan of content area textbooks.  I do not believe in having the students memorize names, dates, places, and events.  Rote memorization is only beneficial when those facts can be placed within a larger context.  Though I do not use it myself, I do not discourage students from referencing the textbook outside of class as a reference point. I find that if my primary instruction is reliant on the course textbook then my students also become reliant on the textbook as their only source of historical knowledge.  Facts can be looked up, but the threads of history are multifaceted and we do a grave disservice to students when we only present them the myopic view of a textbook. When I use primary sources students become critically engaged in the subject.  Often times I introduce a unit of instruction by examining primary sources from a particular group.  This allows the students to use their prior knowledge to come to a conclusion on their own. Recently we used textbooks as a primary source. My objective was to teach the students how the reliance on one source can be limiting in terms of learning a subject. We examined how our course textbook presented the events of American imperialism. The students then examined excerpts on the same topic from textbooks from Spain, Cuba, and the Philippines.  Students began to not only analyze the facts but also the way the information was presented through word choice, omissions, and most importantly perspective. I find that students are more likely to take ownership of the topic when their ideas and interpretations can be expressed instead of having to regurgitate facts.
What is the most important thing you learned in your teacher education program?
While going through the education program an ongoing mantra was the need for individualized instruction.  As a student myself I did not truly understand what the professors meant until I was in the classroom.  I realized how important this idea is now.  I quickly learned that students, regardless of overall academic achievement, learn differently.  I cannot homogenize my instruction because not all students learn the same way.  When developing my unit plans I try to incorporate a multitude of learning techniques to meet the needs of my visual, auditory, and tactical learners as well as my ESL and IEP students. But diversity also needs to be addressed.  In a school culture where there are multitude of ethnic and religious backgrounds represented it is important not to preference one belief system over another when instructing. Cultural sensitivity is not only a concern to meet the needs of individual students but also it provides all students with the opportunity to be mindful and respectful of the beliefs and ideology of those outside of their group memberships.
What advice would you give a student interested in becoming a Social Studies teacher?
Social Studies is one of the most competitive areas to get into in regard to secondary education.  To separate yourself from the competition you need to go beyond the teacher training program and become involved with groups and institutions that would benefit both you as a teacher and your future students.  I went to educator workshops, presented at educator conferences, and volunteered my services to organizations that work directly with the local education community.  It allows you to network with people and open up avenues with organizations that you may be able to work with if a traditional classroom opportunity is not available. You also might consider volunteering at the school you do your student teaching at to get your name known. When I was a student teacher I approached the school’s principal about bringing a Holocaust survivor to speak to my class.  He was thrilled with the idea and asked if I could extend an invitation to the other faculty members. My initial plan was to have my speaker present to 50 of my students but it ended up being nearly 850 students when all was said and done. This opportunity allowed me to work with faculty outside the Social Studies Department and meet students I may never have encountered.  What it did most of all was leave an impression on the administration and faculty.  Two years later when I interviewed for my position our principal brought up my presentation and the opportunity it gave our students.
I also recommend that you continue your education in your content area.  I believe knowing your subject is as critical as the instruction process in terms of being an effective teacher.  Students can tell if you know and love your subject.  When you rely on a textbook or instruct solely to a test students feel little or no connection to the material.  Even if your subject is not the students’ favorite subject, your enthusiasm and knowledge will draw them in. But do not rest on your laurels in terms of success in the classroom.  If we want our students to be life-long learners then I believe we need to model that behavior also.