friend of mine sent me an editorial written by a teacher in a poverty-stricken, disgracefully dirty and poorly staffed school district in California. My friend commented, "Sound familiar?"
To that I say, "It's not familiar around here!"
I should know. I am on a mission to visit all of our local public schools this year. The plan is to visit during the school day, so that I can absorb the atmosphere that exists during those important hours, when students are present. So far I have visited 10 schools, spending approximately two and a half hours at each visit.
During these visits I have seen how beautiful our schools are when the children and school staff are there, caught in the act of being excellent. Decorated by smiles, calls of greeting, attractive books, furniture in good condition, gardens, fresh paint, and drinking fountains that work, our schools show pride and respect for students and the whole educational community.
I have gone into the restrooms to experience what is sometimes the hard truth about our students' daily lives at school. So far, so good. It is not 100% and I will spare you the details, however these restrooms should receive a B+. In the vast majority, these are clean, functional, and have soap, paper towels, and stall doors.
Let me tell you what I've seen in the classrooms!
I have seen high school students learning trigonometry and economics, small engine assembly projects, a student run video news show, and a class of student activists who took me on and asked me the hard questions facing us today. During break, one high school student spontaneously came up to me and asked me if I wanted him to show me where things were on the campus. I am impressed.
I have seen middle school students participating in art history. I saw their darling "Picasso Pigs" and "Matisse Roosters." I saw a beautiful library, which was clean, organized and welcoming. I saw kids get the exercise they so need, running around a track before commencing the PE activity for the day, beach ball volley ball.
At an elementary school, one of the classes that was most remarkably to me was a "newcomers" class. That is a class for students who have recently enrolled having previously lived in another country and not yet become familiar with our school system or the English language. The students were 10 to 12 years of age. There were about 30 students in the class.
The teacher had arranged her large classroom into 6 groups of tables at each of which 5 or 6 students were seated. Each group had written instructions posted for all to read. These small posters described the task they were to do cooperatively, things like locating synonyms and using vocabulary items in written sentences. The California State Standard accompanied each of these written instructions, a fine technique to keep everybody focused on the target! While the teacher worked with one group of 6, all other students worked on these assignments. I observed some students taking a leadership role and explaining the task at hand to others. No child was being left behind, thankfully!
After about 15 minutes, the teacher indicated it was time to change groups. In a very organized manner, all children moved to their next table and proceeded to read the instructions found there. I was very impressed. I have never before seen one teacher so effectively overseeing many small productive groups of students. And these are newcomers!
In another class students were reading the words to what seemed to be a poem. They first read in a whole group. Choral reading, as it's called. They practiced the words while following some rather complicated instructions, such as specific rows of students reading particular lines from the poem, each row waiting a turn. The teacher noticed that one student was remaining silent. Instead of humiliating her, the teacher simply told her to read aloud with next row of children. The teacher then said, "Now that you know the words, we will sing it!" And she took out her musical instrument and accompanied them while they sang. What a great reading lesson!
Now some might say, "The schools knew you were coming. They cleaned up for you. They dazzled you with their very best lessons." That is not what's happening here! They did dazzle me, but it is not a one-time event. Schools clean up every day. Teachers prepare lessons every evening. And a teacher can't put on an act for a visitor.
Sandra Nichols is past president of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Governing Board serving 19,000 students in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. She is a Speech and Language Specialist with Santa Cruz City Schools, and was recently appointed by the Board of Supervisors to the Santa Cruz County Children and Youth Commission. The opinions expressed are those of Sandra Nichols and do not necessarily represent those of any school district, print publication or web site.
© Sandra Nichols 2003