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Published in Print: May 20, 1998, as Hands-On Learning

Hands-On Learning

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An unusual class at the U.S. Department of Education is helping educators bridge the gap between policy and practice.

Washington

It's 5 p.m. at the U.S. Department of Education. Just a few headquarters employees are lingering in the agency's long, drab corridors. But on the top floor of the six-story building, in a small conference room, school is in session."Hi, Calvin," Mary Beth Blegen says, reaching out to shake the hand of a tall, thin, African-American teenager sauntering into her makeshift classroom. As she makes contact, Blegen trains her blue eyes directly on the student's brown ones. Calvin Howard quietly returns the greeting and finds a seat at the conference table.

It's a ritual for Blegen to welcome students individually. Today she considers the greeting especially important because Calvin and his classmates are returning from spring break.

The 54-year-old, whose blond hair and youthful enthusiasm belie her 30 years as a teacher in her rural Minnesota hometown, shakes hands with all five students who enter. She is as earnest and sincere as any resident of the fictional Lake Wobegon, Minn.

Soon the class is sitting around a table with Blegen, the 1996 National Teacher of the Year who is halfway through a two-year stint on Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley's staff, and Paul Schwarz, the department's principal-in-residence, who is in the middle of his two-year leave of absence from Central Park East Secondary School in New York City.

"OK, everybody," Blegen says. "Look at me."

And, so class begins at the Department of Education.

This exercise--something that is commonplace in the nation's 82,000 schools--is actually an event at the federal agency. That's because while the department that sets much of the tone for national education policy is now almost 20 years old, rarely has anybody on its payroll been an active classroom teacher in his or her spare time.

"It takes about 20 minutes to forget how hard it is to work in a school," Schwarz says in an interview shortly before a recent Thursday-afternoon class begins. "If you sit in a room and think about education all day, you begin to think: 'If we line it all up, we would get it right.' This [class] reminds me once again how hard this stuff is."

"For us, it is a chance to keep our feet grounded where they should be," Blegen says. "What it does is reinforce my role at the Department of Education, and that is to be a teacher."

Day in and day out in this headquarters building, Riley and his employees plot how the federal government can best help the nation's teachers, administrators, and students. Federal officials set guidelines, for example, that determine how states and the District of Columbia will distribute money to charter schools such as the charter-school-to-be that Blegen and Schwarz's students attend. They orchestrate support for the president's proposal to lower class sizes so more students will receive a personal greeting like the one Calvin got today. They design testing programs to gauge how well students read. They discuss the best ways to mesh education and technology.

Riley and some of his lieutenants visit schools often. But they don't do what Blegen and Schwarz do today--regularly teach a class with the same students for a semester.

The course is a seminar on the American educational system, and one of several electives offered by the nearby Maya Angelou School here in the nation's capital. It meets on Monday and Thursday afternoons in a crowded conference room down the hall from Secretary Riley's sixth-floor office suite.

The students have at least two things in common: They all are African-American, and they all have had run-ins with the law. They attend one of the growing number of publicly funded schools designed to operate with a minimum of regulation. It's located in a block of many abandoned row houses just north of the city's Chinatown.

Hands

By contrast, both of the department instructors are white and have earned some of the highest honors in their field. They work in a federal office building across the street from some of the capital's most popular museums.

Paul Schwarz arrived at the department from Central Park East, a nationally recognized model of school reform with 450 students from the working-class neighborhoods of Harlem. He is on leave from his job as principal of the Jackie Robinson Complex, one cluster in the school for children in grades 7 through 12.

Schwarz has hair with more salt than pepper in it, which he wears parted to the side. His mustache wraps around his lips. His accent gives away his New York roots. Like Blegen, he is 54 and has worked in public schools for 30 years.

Mary Beth Blegen speaks rapidly, her words peppered with hints of the broad, flat vowels common in the upper Midwest. Schwarz jokes that she comes from "a tiny little town like 'Little House on the Prairie.'" Actually, she is from Worthington, Minn., a town of 10,000 with a plant that slaughters 1,000 hogs an hour. She taught in Worthington's secondary schools, most recently at its high school, before being named Teacher of the Year, then spent a year on the lecture circuit. She joined Riley's staff shortly after finishing her tour.

Today, Blegen and Schwarz will teach about single-sex schools and classrooms. The students will read aloud from a newspaper article, discuss it, and then--if time permits--write in their journals about it. They will conclude by reading a Langston Hughes poem.

As soon as Blegen introduces the topic, Dallas Cooper says single-sex education will never work. The teacher asks why. Dallas says it just won't.

"I need a why," Blegen says, leaning across the table to look at him.

"I can't interact with males the way I can with females," he says.

"It would be chaos because girls gossip too much," Keisha Easton adds.

Left to right, Calvin Howard, Philip Russell, Keisha Easton, Tyesha Goode go to school

While the discussion may not win any debate prizes, it is a start. The exercise's purpose, Schwarz tells the class about halfway through the one-hour class period, is for students to form opinions from experience, read about others' experiences, and then decide if anything they've read changed their minds.

The objective is simple. But reaching it isn't, both Schwarz and Blegen acknowledge. That's exactly why they teach the course.

As two of the few teaching practitioners on Riley's staff, Blegen and Schwarz understand what happens in classrooms. Most of the secretary's staff is schooled in policymaking and politics--a world in which the educators say they aren't always comfortable.

They laugh that their colleagues speak a different language. The policymakers talk casually of "markups"--congressional committee meetings called to prepare a bill to be sent to the House or Senate for consideration--as if everybody knows what they are. They throw around obscure acronyms as if they were in the dictionary.

Blegen tells of an e-mail that used the term POTUS. She called someone into her office and asked for the definition. It stands for "president of the United States," she was told.

"When I start using POTUS, it will be time for me to go back to Minnesota," Blegen laughs.

Such technical knowledge and vocabulary are vital to succeed in Washington. But they have little relevance when it's time to pick a topic that will engage and challenge students for an hour late on a Thursday afternoon.

Vol. 17, Issue 36, Pages 32-35

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