Daring To Be Different

By Elizabeth Schulz — March 01, 1992 19 min read

Marilyn Bue remembers the shock she felt the first time she visited Joan Riedl’s classroom in North Elementary School in Princeton, Minn. “It wasn’t like anything I had ever seen before,’' recalls Bue, who had a son in Riedl’s 5th grade program at the time. “It looked like a beehive, with everyone talking and doing things and moving around. Joan would be talking to just a few students, and it confused me because I thought the whole class should stop and listen to her.’'

Bue’s reaction is a common one. Parents don’t know what to make of a learning environment that is radically different from the one they knew as students. But those who visit Riedl’s classroom soon see for themselves, as Bue did, that children thrive in the setting she has created.

Riedl’s classroom is set up like a resource room. The children are workers, responsible for synthesizing and using, rather than just reproducing, information. Riedl has relinquished some of her authority, giving her students choices and welcoming their comments about how the class is going.

The elementary school teacher has not always taught this way. A decade ago, a classroom visitor would have found Riedl at the blackboard talking to students seated in straight rows. But in the early 1980s, Riedl began to explore the uses of technology in the classroom. Her quest launched her on a journey. She read extensively, contacted and visited schools using innovative teaching approaches, observed her own students, and thought long and hard about what makes sense. All the while, she was fashioning her own approach to teaching.T

Through this process, Riedl has learned that change comes at a price--but that there is a payoff, too. After overcoming some resistance in her school and community, Riedl recently persuaded the local school board to designate her program a “genuine learning alternative’'--another name for a school within a school.

But she has set her sights even higher. Under a controversial new Minnesota law, a select number of licensed teachers from across the state will be allowed to design, start, and run eight “charter’’ public schools under contract with a local school board. (See “Chartered Territory’’ on page 28.) Riedl wants to be one of them.

Smartly dressed in a crisp white blouse with brown twisted beads and a brown blazer, Riedl is describing the way she used to teach. For many years, Riedl says, she was a teacher cut straight from the traditional mold. She would stand in front of her classroom lecturing to children who had textbooks open in front of them. In those days, Riedl says, she made all the decisions in the classroom, and it was always quiet and orderly.

Then, in 1981, her elementary school acquired some computers. Riedl signed one out and wheeled it into her classroom. She put students on it for standard drill and practice and was surprised when they started coming in during lunchtime to use it. “There has got to be more to this machine,’' she thought to herself. “But I don’t know what it is.’' Seeing that technology had the power to motivate students, she wanted to find out more.

Riedl shopped around for a master’s program in technology. After calling universities and telling them exactly what she wanted--a program that would teach her how to use some of the newest technologies as thinking and teaching tools--she settled on the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul. The program, designed for both elementary schoolteachers and businesspeople, taught those enrolled how to use technology in common sense ways as a natural learning tool.

The St. Thomas program introduced Riedl to the ideas of the software developer John Henry Martin, who created the IBM program Writing to Read. These ideas provided the groundwork for Riedl’s re-created classroom. Setting up a classroom as a series of workstations, she reasoned, made good sense. If a teacher asks students to do real work at these stations and holds them accountable for what they accomplish there, the computer could be more than just something for them to play with after finishing their seat work. At a workshop on Writing to Read, Riedl heard that IBM was looking for someone to train teachers in schools that were implementing the program. After finishing her master’s, Riedl took the job.

During her two-year master’s program, Riedl had developed a vision for using technology in the classroom. But she found it difficult to translate that vision and transfer her enthusiasm to the teachers she was training for IBM. “The teachers were frustrated,’' she remembers. “They were thinking ‘Oh god, here are these machines; what am I going to do with them?’' So, after a year of teaching teachers, she decided she needed to return to the classroom and try out computers herself.

When Riedl got her own class in 1988, she was eager to make some changes. Technology got the ball rolling, but the transformation didn’t end there. Riedl realized that to use computers in a common sense way, other aspects of her classroom would have to change, as well. And the master’s program put her in the right mind set: It started her questioning her old approach. “I had to go away for a while before I could realize how cold my classroom was,’' she says. “I began to think of my classroom as an artist’s palette. I take a bit of this color and bits of that and see if it blends; if it doesn’t, I can wipe it out.’'

Over the next several years, Riedl used her new palette to paint a new classroom. This year, the changes have been more formally recognized by the district. Riedl’s 4th and 5th grade class and a 3rd and 4th grade class that follows Riedl’s approach have been made genuine learning alternatives within the school. What this means is that parents and students can choose to be part of the program. Still, the program is not independent of North Elementary. It must operate, for example, within the schedule imposed by the larger school.

Riedl once heard a quotation that she says describes the most important shift in her teaching: “Before I was a sage on the stage; now I’m a guide on the side.’' To get there, Riedl says she had to give up power. “I made it clear that the students’ opinions matter,’' she says. “They know that this is their room.’'

It’s true that students in Riedl’s program have more control than most, but they also have more responsibility. Far from being passive recipients of knowledge, Riedl’s students are workers, who must learn to manage themselves. Much of the day is spent with the class split up into groups working on projects or at technology “stations.’' Riedl works with one group at a time and fields questions from other students.

Today is a typical day. In one section of the classroom, a sandy-haired boy peers through a video camera with hand raised, five fingers spread. He signals a countdown: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. The camera focuses momentarily on a blackboard where “Channel 11 News’’ is neatly printed. Another boy says, “Welcome to Channel 11 News’’ as he wheels the board away, revealing two other boys seated at a news desk. They introduce themselves and take turns giving summaries of the weather and local news.

At another station, four girls have clustered chairs around a videodisc player. One student, the group leader, holds the remote control. The leader asks, “Does everybody have a workbook and pencil?’' They answer “Yes,’' and she starts a science video clip.

At the language arts station, a handful of students are writing in journals, summarizing books they’ve read. The students chose one of two books to read and decided as a group how many pages a day they would be responsible for reading. One group thought they could read 20 pages a day, so they could finish in a week. Most of them did; the rest finished over the weekend. “The peer pressure is greater than if I’m after them,’' Riedl explains.

The teacher herself runs a station called “How is it going?’' Today, the group is discussing a chapter from a social studies book about colonial times. “I really believe in students learning how to talk and discuss and share insights on readings and responding to other’s ideas in a respectful way,’' she explains. They talk about the relationships between the Indians and the early settlers and hypothesize about how the introduction of tobacco may have led to slavery.

Riedl uses this station to gauge how the class is working for the students. Because she is very task oriented, she explains, she has to set aside time to let the students voice concerns. Recently, a student told her that she felt overwhelmed, that there was just too much to do in class. Another student acknowledged that she, too, felt this way at the beginning of the year but that she had found a strategy to conquer it. She writes down everything the class is supposed to do during the week, looks at it, and then she decides what to do first, second, and third. “Kids love to hear other kids’ solutions to handling the classroom,’' Riedl says.

Later in the day, the students disperse into math stations. Some go into an adjacent room, where today they watch Square One, a TV math show, and answer questions on a worksheet. Another group works with tangrams, Chinese geometric puzzles.

But most of the students spend the time working through problems in the math book. Because it’s an individualized math program, one student is working on remainders while another is on least common multiples. Students take pretests and then read a chapter and do problems. Riedl teaches skills that they can’t seem to get on their own. Students move on to the next chapter after they conquer the end-of-the-chapter test.

Roland Benson, the principal of North Elementary, points out that with this interdisciplinary, project-oriented, individualized approach, Riedl must keep on top of the skill needs of her students. Her program assumes that children bring more to class than what they learned during the last school year. She must determine the areas the students can fly through and pinpoint where they need more extensive instruction. It isn’t easy, he says, but Riedl seems to make it work. “If you are attuned to the sparkle of eyes, the smiles on faces, and the changes in the channels of energy,’' he says, “you see that children are getting involved in their learning because they want to be involved.’'

Parent Debbie Burroughs puts it this way: “She demands of the students and they end up demanding of themselves. I don’t know how she does it.’'

This school within a school has been a successful testing ground for other ideas Riedl intends to use in her charter school, if given the chance. In the past four years, she has given much thought to the design of classroom space, parental involvement, and student assessment.

In 1990, North Elementary, suffering from a space shortage, set aside money to transform an old locker room into a classroom. Riedl saw an opportunity to design a room that would suit her new teaching methods, and she seized it. She found an architectural firm that would donate its services, called a professor at the University of Minnesota who recommended books on designing spaces for children, and recruited a college senior studying interior design to help coordinate colors. Riedl organized a workshop that brought together these people and resources with students, school administrators, and parents.

The group decided to keep the walls that separated the coaches’ rooms and the showers from the locker room to cut down on noise when students work in groups. Carpeted floors at various levels, as well as movable carpeted structures that can be used as both tables or benches, were constructed. Today, the back of the main room looks like a library, with paperback books displayed on shelves and a circular rack and magazines on a flat rack. But there is also a homey touch: two white wicker chairs with quilted pillows. Riedl’s desk is in one corner, with some shelves that give her a little private space without shutting her off from the classroom.

The presence of parents at the classroom-design workshop is in keeping with Riedl’s novel approach to parental involvement. Before Riedl reshaped her classroom, she would only contact parents when a student was having problems. Now, much more is asked of parents, and they get much more in return. All the parents sign a contract agreeing to volunteer in the classroom half an hour each month. Riedl also asks them to attend information meetings, where they are introduced to some of the classroom work stations. This, she says, helps them understand how different the learning environment will be for their children.

Parents say that the firsthand experience in the classroom helps them shake off their old notions of what a productive classroom should look like. Riedl recounts what one parent told the local school board when it was debating whether to designate her program as a bona fide “learning alternative.’' The parent said: “Listen, I came into Joan’s room and I really didn’t know what was going on. I was quite upset. But, my boy learned organizational skills. He learned how to be re- sponsible.’'

Riedl thinks parents learn from spending time in her classroom. But that is not why she wants them to come. The main reason, she says, is a bit more selfish. “To meet students’ needs,’' she says, “I need help.’' Parents assist in running the stations, special projects, and field trips. And Riedl is convinced that having parents in the classroom sends a good message to the students. “Parents are the single most important people in these kids’ lives,’' she says. “They can have a strong influence in how the students view school.’'

Every Monday, the students get a homework packet that must be completed by Friday. Parents are asked to check through the packet and sign it each week. That way, they know what their children are learning, they can see for themselves if their children are mastering the material, and they can encourage them to budget their time well. The homework packet can also act as a reality check for the teacher; Riedl asks the parents to write her a note if they find anything in the packet confusing or misleading.

In her dream school, Riedl would equip each classroom with a phone to make it easier for the teachers to contact parents during the day. She would also have someone take her class for a few days during the year so she could contact her parent volunteers to determine their skills and work out schedules.

Because communicating with parents is so important to Riedl, she is careful to assess her students in ways that the parents will understand. The teacher realizes that most are accustomed to academic progress being measured by tests. So, even though Riedl doesn’t depend on basals to teach reading, she continues to use reading comprehension tests included in the books.

For the same reason, Riedl would continue to use standardized tests to assess students in her charter school, in addition to the more “authentic’’ evaluations she has developed over the past few years.

Traditional multiple-choice and standardized tests gave Riedl an adequate picture of her students’ progress when her teaching was mostly lecture and textbook work. But since students in her redesigned classroom are expected to learn to communicate, organize their own learning, and demonstrate creativity, among other things, Riedl discovered that she needed measurements that more precisely chronicle their work and show their progress and performance. Now, students maintain portfolios of writing assignments and journals. The classroom video camera also archives the children’s progress. A comparison between early tapes of the children’s news summaries and a recent tape, for example, shows that their ability to synthesize and relay information effectively has greatly improved.

Gone, too, are the days when Riedl kept the standards for evaluation from the students. When making an assignment, Riedl always outlines how they will be evaluated on it. For an oral presentation of a project, for example, Riedl prints out a list of the points she will give them for such things as eye contact, self-presentation, use of visual aids, thoroughness of research, and content.

Riedl also asks students to evaluate themselves. “I want them to be able to say: I’m having problems with fractions or decimals. I need help on this,’' she says. She often asks them how they think they did on a project. The payoff comes when students gain the ability to evaluate their own work in order to improve it. Shortly after Christmas break, Riedl collected her students’ journals. For the most part, she was pleased with their writing, but she told the class that she had asked a few students to rewrite sections. The surprise came when a student who had done satisfactory work approached her and said: “Mrs. Riedl, I was looking over this, and I was wondering if I should redo this part.’' Riedl let the student know that that is what real learning is all about.

For the past four years, Riedl has consciously set aside time to familiarize herself with the latest ideas in education. She has put many of her staff inservice days to use reading, attending workshops, and observing other classrooms. Last year, she even persuaded her school board to let her take every Friday off, unpaid, to continue these activities.

Riedl attributes much of her pro- fessional growth to her relationship with teachers in the Clara Barton Open School in Minneapolis and three schools in the Bellevue (Wash.) School District. “I haven’t come up with all this on my own,’' she admits. “I take bits and pieces of what I know will work for me.’'

Riedl first read about the Bellevue schools in a software newsletter. Their work reinforced some of what she had been trying in her class, so she developed a telephone relationship with Marian Peiffer, a teacher at Ardmore Elementary School. Riedl would phone her and pick her brain about some details of the Bellevue program. “Do you use desks?’' she once asked. Peiffer told her that they use tables. After talking about it awhile, both agreed that card tables, which could be folded up and put away, would be ideal.

In the fall of 1990, Riedl’s district paid her airfare so she could visit Bellevue. She spent four days with the teachers there, watching how they had fine-tuned classroom management with technology. She noticed that they let the students work for long blocks of time, an option she had been wrestling with. “It was a great learning experience to follow other teachers, talk to them, tell them what I’m doing, and get their feedback,’' she says.

Riedl has also borrowed ideas from some of the more renowned minds in education. For example, she has customized some aspects of Mortimer Adler’s Paideia Proposal in her classroom. “I’m not rigid Adler, but I like the framework,’' she says. “It’s natural.’' Adler believes that teachers have to build students’ knowledge base. So, every Thursday and Friday, Riedl offers something she calls “Choices,’' which gives students the opportunity to play games that expose them to geography, authors, artists, and architecture.

And Riedl has not been afraid to embrace some tried and true methods. “There are some traditional, old-fashioned ways of teaching that I believe in and put into the curriculum,’' she says. She thinks it is important, for example, to teach students how to take notes and write a business letter, narrative, and descriptive story. Riedl’s principal notes that “she doesn’t have fear of stepping out of the crowd or of stepping back into it if she sees that is the right way to go.’'

Riedl’s proposal for a charter school is under consideration in both the Princeton and nearby St. Cloud school districts. If her dream school becomes reality, it would open in the fall of 1993 and would be shaped around her current teaching methods. At first, the school would serve 60 students, one class of 2nd and 3rd graders and another of 4th and 5th graders. The teachers would keep some of the same students for two years and would work as a team, sharing ideas and designing activities for use in both classrooms. Riedl’s primary role would be to teach; she would share the administrative duties with the other teachers. Secretarial and janitorial duties would be shouldered by parents, teachers, and students alike, or contracted out. In the second year, Riedl would like to add a 6th and 7th grade classroom.

She believes that the creation of small, alternative public schools like the one she is proposing may be the only way to achieve real change in American education. “You’ve got to move with the people who can see the vision,’' she says. “Just like small-group instruction frees you up to do more with different children, change in schools may work better in small pockets.’'

Ideally, her charter school would be housed on or near a college campus that offers teacher education. Preservice teachers would be invited to apply for full-year apprenticeships that would give them more than a brief exposure to the ways technology and offering choices can motivate students. “People talk about experiential learning for children,’' Riedl explains. “I think it is real important that teachers experience different forms of teaching and learning.’'

The past four years have taught Riedl some lessons about the pace and pain of progress. “I have real enthusiasm for change--for getting quality, being cost efficient, and being a good consumer with tax dollars,’' she says. “But change is hard in any setting. I know that now.’'

Riedl didn’t realize when she started rebuilding her classroom that she was sticking her neck out. She went in thinking she had discovered great new approaches to help kids learn and was surprised when other people didn’t share her enthusiasm. She even met some resistance when she went to the board to have her program officially designated a school within a school; and now that she is seeking a charter the naysayers are raising their voices again. Says Bue, one of Riedl’s converts: “Anytime you change something so dramatically and especially if tax money is going to support it, it has to be explained many, many times before it can sink in that it will work.’'

The process has taught Riedl how hard it is to try something different in a society that rewards conformity. “In upsetting the status quo, you take a risk,’' she says. “When you put forth your ideas, there is always the possibility that they might be ridiculed.’'

The battle is made tougher, she says, by the poor image many people have of teachers. “Elementary school teachers don’t have a lot of status,’' she explains. “It’s easy to believe sometimes that you have no right to speak your mind.’' Before major meetings, she gets psyched up by telling herself: “Listen, you are fine.’'

Nowadays, most parents, local educators, and school district officials agree that Riedl’s risk-taking has earned her the respect of the community. “She has changed her school by what she has done in her classroom,’' says Benson, Riedl’s principal. “She showed others that it is OK to do things differently as long as it better meets the needs of the kids.’'

Riedl says the leadership role has changed her. “Being out there, breaking new ground, and probing into new territory has made me stronger, more self-confident, more focused, more diplomatic, and more adaptable to working with the system in the decisionmaking process,’' she says. “My students are better for it, and I’m better for it.’'

This is the first in a series of profiles of teacher leaders underwritten by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Daring To Be Different