Penny Suazo, fourth- and fifth-grade teacher, Maria Mitchell Elementary School, Denver, Colorado
Hazel Lucas, fifth-grade social studies teacher, Browns Mill Elementary School, Lithonia, Georgia
Q. Why are there only boys in your class?
A. Separating the boys and girls is being tried to promote more active participation from the girls within the Hispanic population. Many of these girls were not actively participating or appreciating the classroom experience. By separating the boys and girls and working separately on all of the issues that affect each group, the teachers were able to focus on student needs and academics.
Q. Please describe some of the challenges faced by Maria Mitchells student population.
A. The neighborhood served by Mitchell Elementary School sits just north of downtown Denver in an area called Five Points. This area is known for high crime, gang activity, and drug abuse. Denvers booming economy has not yet lifted this neighborhood out of impoverishment. Mobility is high (125 percent), and single-parent families are prevalent. Reflecting residential segregation patterns, 98 percent of the student population is children of color.
The community is made up of two groups: Mexicans who are newly arrived in the United States and African-Americans. These groups have a hard time getting along with each other outside of school and just tolerate each other inside the school. Many families in the area are very prejudiced and do not hide their own bias when dealing with their children, so very often racial tension will be brought within the school walls.
The average income of families is below the poverty level, and about 93 percent of students receive free lunch. Many of the children remain hungry throughout the day and will only come to eat breakfast and lunch. It also needs to be understood that these children often do not have clean clothes, a safe place to sleep, or even a bed to sleep on. These children do not have coats for the winter or shoes that fit their feet. Their families live in survival mode and do not necessarily see school as something of importance in their lives.
In part, this survival mode led the administrator to look for innovative ways to help the school population succeed.
Q. Where did you learn your approach to whole brain teaching?
A. Whole-brain teaching/learning is an idea developed by [education researcher] Howard Gardner. He looked into how the differences within the personality and learning styles are overlooked in current education, and he found a way to test each of nine styles. With these tests, the teacher can discover how the student learns and can then teach to his or her learning style. Many times this cannot happen in a class of 35 or more, so it is best to use centers or other ways to approach a curricular idea with multiple learning styles.
Q. Was this something you developed on your own?
A. What I developed on my own was a style that met all students needs and my own style of teaching. I found a balance. This balance includes multiple ways to learn ideas and formulate thinking patterns, as well as a fun learning environment.
Q. Where did the word tap and backward reading techniques come from?
A. Word tap is something that I came up with when teaching kindergarten. It was a way for students to learn to spell their names and learn their addresses and phone numbers. I found that using this technique with my son, who is dyslexic, helped him to succeed in school. So I brought it to my class at Mitchell.
Backward reading was taught to me by another teacher. She used it with her gifted students to help with vocabulary. I thought if it could help gifted students, it would definitely help language and special-needs students.
Q. Would you share any other techniques that have been particularly effective?
A. I find it best to keep the lights low, play music, and allow the students to talk. Communication is key to effective teamwork and learning in an active classroom.
Q. How do you maintain discipline in a classroom that is so active?
A. I have students take responsibility for their actions. Before I discipline a student, I make sure what he did deserves it. I treat all my students with the same respect I expect them to give me.
Q. How do you assess student achievement?
A. Multiple assessments are used. Because of high-stakes testing, the students learn to test and are assessed in this format. They also are assessed by the quality of their work, the type of answers and questions they use to come up with the product, and whether they can express what they learned from the assignment.
Q. Do you use a mix of qualitative and quantitative assessments?
A. Yes, this is a must when using multiple intelligence information.
Q. How is this reflected in childrens grades?
A. The children are graded by rubrics, outcomes, and test scores. Students understand what is expected and reflect this in their portfolio work.
Q. Where do you go for new ideas?
A. The Internet is really good, with sites like Creative Classroom. I talk to teachers, look at the community, and ask parents about things that are happening in the students lives.
Q. Are there resources on this kind of teaching for bilingual children or children with special needs?
A. Resources are available, but often these are expensive. It is best
to figure ways to modify ideas and make them work in your classroom.
Q. Do you have a culminating activity for each unit of study? Is it always a work of art? What other kinds of arts projects have you used as culminating activities?
A. If were studying artists, we always have a culminating activity. For example, if were studying someone like Nellie Mae Rowe, an African-American artist here in Georgia, then we would go to a museum to see her works. If were studying artists such as the mother-daughter team Alyson and Betty Faar both of those ladies dealt with found objects our culminating artwork might be a sculpture, a found sculpture. We might display it in the hall or outside to show what we have learned and what we can bring to the table.
Q. How did students learn the arts vocabulary (e.g., lines, patterns, repetition, and balance) that is part of the lesson in this program? Did the children receive any prior instruction in arts techniques, such as colors or composition?
A. In the first week of school I mean the very first week they come in I require that students have a discipline-based arts education notebook. And I give them several handouts at the very beginning. In discipline-based arts education, we study art aesthetics, criticism, history, and production. Students learn those four concepts and how they relate to each other. We talk about artists and how they fit in. We talk about all the vocabulary words theyll use for the entire school year. Thats the first six weeks of school.
Q. Was the quilt the children made displayed elsewhere in the school? Are any of the students projects displayed outside the classroom?
A. The quilts were displayed in the hallway outside my classroom. We kept them up for a long time, so the students could explain the assignment to their classmates. Only one class, my homeroom class, was involved in that.
When we do projects elsewhere in the school, we hang them up on bulletin boards and in hallways. Everything the students do in our program is displayed.
Q. How do you assess the students work through their art?
A. We assess students through rubrics, self-assessments, and critiques. Most of the rubrics are designed by the students. I ask, When you finish the project, what should you have learned or gotten out of it? Then we discuss it.
They tell me that, based on the artists we have studied, they want to
understand balance, composition, or other aspects of artwork. Or if we
have studied a particular artist, they might say, I want to make
sure I have bold, bright colors in my work, because that artist was very
interested in showing those colors. They talk about all the qualities
their work should have, and we write them down. Then, when I critique
and grade their work, its so easy because they know what
they wanted the work to have, and we all agreed to it.
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