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From Chicken Soup To Captain Photon

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Kathleen McCleary, a mentor teacher at the Divisadero Middle School in Visalia, Calif., has heard it all, and then some. So she came up with a way to ease the transition from the warmth and safety of the elementary womb to the cold, frightening world of middle school. She calls it the Panel/Shadowing Program.

"Change is always difficult,'' she says. "This program puts the kids in charge of telling one another that this is just another change. And it's all right.''

In March, panels of 7th graders at Divisadero are selected to visit each of the district's elementary schools. Each panel consists of alumni from the feeder schools who then drop in on their old 6th grade classes for onehour visits. They are free to discuss anything and everything about life at Divisadero.

"PE is one issue the 6th graders always ask about,'' says McCleary. "For most, it'll be the first time they'll have to undress in public. The boys ask about jockstraps, and the girls talk about bringing stuff for their period.''

McCleary is aiming for just that kind of frankness. "I used to be a 5th and 6th grade teacher,'' she says, "so I'm real aware of their concerns. Kids were going to the middle school very unprepared, and there was nobody to talk to about it.''

In late April, groups of 6th grade students attend Divisadero for a halfday as "shadows.'' They're paired up with members of the 7th grade panels. The 6th graders attend a few classes and go to lunch with the panel members. Later, the shadows report back to their classes on what they did and saw.

Also during April, 6th grade students from each of the elementary schools walk through Divisadero and see a video that compresses a day in the life of the middle school into just under an hour. There's even a "Pictionary'' game about Divisadero, and all the 6th grade students receive a newspaper bringing them up to date on events at the middle school.

In the three years since the program was established, McCleary has seen a gradual warming in the middle school climate. "In the past, the new kids were ignored,'' she says. "Now, other kids welcome them. They're mixing better. We find more 7th and 8th graders socializing together.''

And perhaps the most fitting tribute of all, she says: "They come to me in 7th grade, asking to be put on panels, right away.'' Soup's On: Jeanne Nelsen, media coordinator and reading director at St. Mary's School in Alexandria, Minn., always has something cooking. But to kindergartners at the small Catholic school, nothing she cooks could be better than the chicken soup she uses to teach her children stories, rhymes, and a lesson in basic agriculture.

Once a year, on a bone-cold Minnesota winter day, Nelsen plunks a huge kettle onto a hot plate in the kindergarten classroom. Then, with all those curious eyes watching her every move, she drops a whole chicken into the simmering water.

With the smell of chicken filling the room, she sits down to read to the children from Watch Out For Chicken Feet In Your Soup, by Tomie dePaola. And together they recite the silly rhymes from Maurice Sendak's classic Chicken Soup With Rice--A Book Of Months: "Whoopy once, whoopy twice, whoopy chicken soup with rice.''

"I think it really hits all their senses: the sight, the sound, the smells,'' she says. "The whole thing permeates the room the whole day.''

At recess, as the children head for the playground, Nelsen removes the cooked bird from the now golden broth, bones it, and chops up the meat. By the time the children return, the meat is back in the pot, and it's time for them to take their turn in the kitchen. Following Nelsen's old family recipe, the kids drop in bowls of chopped onion, celery, carrots, and uncooked rice, learning about each ingredient.

"They stir, and they get to smell it all before it goes in,'' Nelsen says. "We talk about where everything came from: Where do we get celery? Where do you get carrots?''

By 2 p.m., soup is on, and the lesson becomes the afternoon snack. "What could be more nutritious than that?'' says Nelsen. "It's better than graham crackers.''

For many of the little guys, who wouldn't eat chicken soup with rice at home no matter how many times mom said "whoopy,'' it comes as quite a surprise that something with onions in it can actually taste good.

Says Nelsen: "I've had kids who say, 'I won't eat this chicken soup.' Then, they eat three cups of it. They eat it until it's gone.'' An Open Line To Information: There was a boy, Betty Minemier recalls, who would page through The Encyclopaedia Britannica all day long doing research for a paper, insisting that he needed no help.

Minemier, who retired last year as librarian at Dansville (N.Y.) Junior High School, was thinking of children just like that when she began to develop a sophisticated new program to improve student research skills using computers.

For a rural school, Dansville Junior High was already quite high-tech. Students had been using computers there, sometimes working on homegrown software, Minemier says, "long before Steve Jobs made his first Apple.''

But despite the students' relative sophistication, Minemier says, "they were still going about finding information in a very linear way, and never much beyond what was obvious.''

Working with three math teachers and an English teacher, Minemier put together a curriculum module designed to teach students how to find information on-line. Minemier would come into the classroom to offer basic instruction on how to call up information on various databases, and she would brief students on different search strategies. Teachers would follow up by assigning a research paper. As part of the assignment, students would be required to find bits of information--sometimes, but not always, using the library computer.

Time on-line, of course, costs money, and in most schools, money is in short supply. Because of that, Minemier says, "on-line searching forces students to refine their search strategy.'' They have to determine quickly what they want to find and how best to find it. What key words, when entered into the computer, are likely to turn up the most useful information?

"We started to see a lot of our students physically writing out their search strategies on top of their papers,'' she says. "Telecommunications forced them to do that.''

Any school with a computer, a modem, and the appropriate software--Dansville uses the Einstein program for searching--can do the same thing.

More important than anything students might learn about technology, says Minemier, is what they learn about research. "An 8th or 9th grader who tries on-line searching and fails has still learned something terribly important about how information is organized,'' she says. "The exercise of searching is as important as finding what you want.'' Captain Photon Rides Again!: Faster than a speeding spitball (ptau!), able to leap rows of desks in a single bound (sproing!), more powerful than, er, a staple gun (ka-chunk!), it's Captain Photon!

The Radiant Crusader--alias physics teacher Steve Kennedy--made his first and only appearance in 1985 at South High School in Fargo, N.D. Dressed in swim fins, goggles, flashing neon bow tie, and a flowing cape, Captain Photon flapped into the physics lab to explain the theory of light. And then, in a flash, he was gone. But the memory lingers.

Anything but mildmannered, Kennedy uses costumes to popularize physics. Once, he arrived in class looking and acting like the stereotypical bushy-haired, nerdy professor. In 1987, when the Minnesota Twins were in the World Series, he showed up dressed as a ballplayer, giving his students purely scientific pointers on pitching. For example, what makes a fastball fast? And why does a curveball curve?

Kennedy first started putting his own curve on traditional physics teaching five years ago, when the combined junior and senior physics enrollment stood at 35. Last year, it had soared to 120. The local PTA took notice, naming him Teacher of the Year.

"I just like to make a class interesting,'' explains Kennedy. "Physics can be kind of dull sometimes.''

Clearly, for Kennedy's students, there is never a dull moment. Although teachers like Kennedy tend to be one of a kind, he has no doubt another teacher could fill his flippers. It's simple, he says: "They just have to be a little crazy.''

-Jeff Meade

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