Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Christa Weber's Interview with a Sixth Grade Teacher

Surrounded by cookie cutter houses with palm tree landscape, the Elementary school's campus does not give the impression of a low-income community. The school itself is a newer school, built eleven years ago in this semi-urban agriculture community. There are 900 students in this pre-k through sixth grade school, with averages above 30 students per classroom. Thirty-five percent of the students are proficient in English and 92% are Hispanic/Latino.

Entering the campus one must walk towards the playground to locate Mr. R's sixth grade classroom in the portables. Often you will enter a dead silent room as the students are independently at work either reading or moving ahead with their math. When Mr. R is taking the lead or facilitating students' interactions, there is a vibrant energy resonating throughout the room. Mr. R's energetic and often-funny approach motivates his students' learning and it is hard to find them out of line or off task. Creating this safe and positive environment was encouraged during the first week of school. He started the school year with a democratic drafting of class rules and procedures. This coupled with students who sit in groups and work together, helped to foster a cohesive classroom community. Every week begins with an overview of the WHAT, WHY, and HOW the class will adhere to the highlighted standards. Further simplifying these standards, the class creates objectives for the week. Mr. R's ability to adhere to the compulsory standards, yet provide class independence, is a skill he has learned through years of diverse practice, as an educator, an artist, and I am sure, as a parent himself.

At UC Davis, Mr. R followed his first passion and received a B.A. in Fine Studio Arts. After a brief career in custom home construction as well as on his family farm, he received a job teaching art for the military's MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) program. For five years, he taught art to the military personnel and their families, at what was then the Fort Ord military base. When the base closed, he received the chance to further his education. He took this opportunity to obtain his teaching credential at Chapman University. It was a constructivist program, where he was able to study under Jane Mead Roberts, the mind behind a small progressive charter school serving a heterogeneous population.

During the first six years of his public school teaching career, Mr. R was lucky to receive a unique experience. He worked in a multi-age, multi-grade program at a local public school. This exceptional program allowed his students to remain with him for two to three years. In addition, the program encouraged themed-based instruction with plenty of diverse projects. In this parent choice program, the students were actively involved in selecting the curriculum.

Overall Mr. R has taught in public schools for 16 years. His resume is lengthy with an assortment of experiences both in and out of the classroom. He has taught everything from kindergarten to sixth grade including intervention and technology, an out of the classroom experience he thoroughly enjoyed. Given this plethora of practice, he surmises his ideal classroom instruction promotes autonomy to empower students. He continuously looks for opportunities to incorporate his constructivist approach into an already stagnant teaching environment. He says you need to identify the standards, but get the students involved, evident in the class goals and objectives posted weekly. In addition, he believes in reviewing daily and using technology in his lessons. He says it is necessary to incorporate digital technology because the students are comfortable with it. He efficiently acknowledges the needs of a diverse cluster of students by grouping them together in order to provide peer support, along with the encouragement of student mentors and small group discussions. He always leads instruction with an "I do…, We do…, You do…" model and will pull additional small groups as needed.

Mr. R has remained motivated and passionate about his profession because he believes in what Thomas Jefferson said all those years ago*. Public Education creates fluent people and informs them of their choices. Proud moments are when old students visit or when he tracks the path they have taken in their lives. In conclusion, this veteran teacher provides this advice for new comers: Jump in! You are going to make mistakes, but the only way to figure it out is to do it. He also recommends moving around grade levels.

I feel very lucky to have the experience of working with Mr. R because he provides such a positive and unique perspective to teaching. Many teachers I have met in my short education career have been frustrated and cynical. I learn every day from talking to Mr. R that he does not check out at the door or ever on his students. He is committed and works very hard not only for his own class but to collaborate with the other sixth grade teachers so that they can pull resources and work together in targeting the needs of students for English Language Development.

Another equally colossal reward of witnessing his class is the simple way he makes clear, in sixth grade language, what needs to be addressed in the standards. It helps me as a learner, to know what we are aiming for and to see you do not have to give up entirely your beliefs and pedagogy. His rich background also creates a harmonious atmosphere and he is able to provide a great connection with the students. He is equitable and transparent in his teaching practice, providing a great role model not only for his students but also for other teachers to follow. He uses humor which the children enjoy, but also enforces a consistent management style.

* "I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness...Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils [tyranny, oppression, etc.] and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance." August 13, 1786 (Thomas Jefferson to George Wythe)

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