The Jewel In The Crown
|According to Marilyn Norfleet, a 4th grade teacher, basic skills are crucial, but they are just a starting place.|
At P.S. 161, there is no trace of the battle over whole language and phonics that has divided many schools around the country. That fight was resolved a while ago with the adoption of the Open Court phonics program. Yet listening to several teachers talk together about their approach to reading instruction, it becomes clear that they each have their own take on the matter.
"You can't just teach phonics," explains Jacqueline Streets, a kindergarten teacher. "If there's no reason to read, they won't want to."
"You need the whole piece to read," says Karen Billot, who teaches 5th grade. Billot gives her students a reading assignment from their supplementary readers every night. Reading is a top priority in her own life, and she lets her students know that. "I tell my class that if I'm reading a book, I do it first, and then I balance my checkbook."
Billot believes students need a strong grasp of phonics. "You need word attack skills," she says. "The 26 letters, and 40 sounds they make, allow you to figure the puzzle out. You need the tools to figure it out."
According to Marilyn Norfleet, a 4th grade teacher, basic skills are crucial, but they are just a starting place. "I like to integrate artwork along with everything we do to give children a way of expressing themselves," she says. "It isn't porridge and no extras. It's not just meat and potatoes--we put a lot of other things on the plate."
It's Authors' Celebration Day for Alice Cherry's 4th grade class. Her students are reading picture books they have written and drawn to a 3rd grade class. Cherry, a tall woman with smooth blond hair, stands with an arm around the shoulder of one of her students, Keegen Phillip. She introduces him to the 3rd graders by reading the "About the Author" note from his book, Jose Renardo's Big Problem: "Keegen Phillip is a Trinidadian boy who lives to write stories. He is an immigrant to the United States. He has written many books such as Jose Renardo's Adventure, Dwayne's Graduation, Impact, and many more. He is inspired by R.L. Stine and C.S. Lewis. He lives in an apartment in New York City and has many friends."
Keegen stands very straight and reads the story dramatically to his audience, stopping to show the illustrations as he goes along. Jose's problem, Keegen explains, is that a bully, Richard, has been shaking him down for his lunch money. "How can I get rid of this bully?" Jos‚ wonders. With the support of his brother, Jose decides to stand up to Richard. The bully--quite surprised by this turn of events--asks to become Jose's friend.
"How many people enjoyed Keegen's book?" asks Cherry, who already knows the answer from the intent looks on the 3rd graders' faces. Hands rise, followed by applause.
After Keegen, Anastacia Cenci reads her story, The Special Gift, about a girl who doesn't have enough money for a Mother's Day present. Then Jessica Etienne reads about a girl who has lost her parents to gunfire and is adjusting to living with relatives.
Later, Anastacia explains how she and the others prepared their books. "We picked a character and chose people we wanted to be in the story," she says. "And then we wrote and edited and illustrated it." Cherry showed her how to improve her writing. "I started to understand how you describe characters by their actions. You have to show actions, not just say it. The character traits come out by how they act against people."
Cherry came to P.S. 161 four years ago with 18 years of experience. "I had heard that P.S. 161 was a well-managed school--a nice place to work, not an easy place to work," she says with a laugh. She calls herself "a middle-of-the-road kind of teacher." She explains, "There are lots of teachers here who are very traditional and others who are very creative."
Kurz gives teachers guidelines on how to pace their classes' work in the Open Court readers and in the math curriculum through the year. Teachers are also expected to spend several days preparing their students for the state and city math and reading tests that all New York City students take. "We don't teach to the test, but we teach a lot of test sophistication," Cherry says, like how to take a test within a time period and how to work with an answer sheet.
|At P.S. 161, people do not make excuses. "No one says it's another person's job," says reading specialist Diane Yule.|
Cherry uses the phonics-oriented Open Court reader, but for only about 20 minutes a day. She likes to have her students do as many independent projects as possible. Still, she doesn't bristle at having to use the reader or take time to prepare her students for the tests. "Even the most creative teachers take the time to do it," she says. "Children get the basics."
She started the book-writing project with her class in September and built on it throughout the year. The students analyzed characters in the 10 novels they read as a class. They examined how authors use description. They worked with a graphic organizer that helped them develop plot, setting, and characters.
"I know that they're children," Cherry says, "but I really want them to understand how writers get readers to understand things." She often sits with them individually as they write, revise, and edit their stories. Cherry says she has learned a lot over the course of the year and intends to change some aspects of the writing project in the fall. "I'm still not 100 percent satisfied with the results," she says.
This kind of striving, thinking, and refining is typical of the teachers at P.S. 161. Perhaps it comes from the fact that so many of them are "seasoned." Perhaps it has something to do with the way they are treated like professionals. Or perhaps it's an outgrowth of those high expectations Kurz talks so much about--expectations for himself, the teachers, and their students. At P.S. 161, people do not make excuses. "No one says it's another person's job," says reading specialist Diane Yule.
That's what Kurz communicates to the parents attending this morning's kindergarten fair. "I'm never going to tell a teacher that this kid doesn't have a father, doesn't have a mother, or is hungry," Kurz says. "It's important for all of us to take responsibility, and you're the first teacher."
His words aren't lost on the parents. After the meeting breaks up, they line up three and four abreast, many with their kids at their sides, to buy books at the makeshift bookstore. Yes, summer is on the way, but at P.S. 161, it's time to gear up for the fall.