Class is a microcosm of education's evolution
Faces of the Future
The Gazette offers a nine-month series about local education in the 21st century. Gazette reporter Frank Schultz will spend time in Amanda Werner's fifth-grade classroom at Janesville's Adams Elementary School throughout the school year and write about the challenges and changes of a modern classroom.
Click here to read earlier installments in the Faces of the Future series.
Here are a few items Amanda Werner and her fellow fifth-grade teachers at Adams School have been teaching in September.
-- Introducing ourselves through writing.
-- Beginning personal narrative: strategies for generating personal narrative story ideas, reading "mentor texts" and asking, "How can I make my writing better by doing what the author did?"
-- First drafts: finding small-moment stories and writing long.
-- Noun review
-- Spelling: four lists to meet individual needs.
-- Making connections to self, to the text and to the world to deepen reading comprehension.
-- Writing meaningful reading journal entries on paper and by interacting with classmates and teachers by using Edmodo software
-- Finding the author's purpose/theme
-- Building independent reading stamina
-- Establishing Reading Workshop expectations and routines
-- Building a community of readers: communicating, responding in person and on the computer.
-- Vocabulary: six words per week, beginning a synonyms chart and suffix chart.
-- Number theory: place value, rounding, prime/composite numbers, adding and subtracting with decimals, factors, divisibility, squares/square roots, multiplication review.
-- Scientific process
-- States and properties of matter
-- Physical versus chemical changes
-- Types and purposes of maps, intermediate and cardinal directions
-- The globe: hemispheres, latitude, longitude, a review of continents and oceans.
Meet the members of Amanda Werner’s fifth-grade class at Adams Elementary School in Janesville.
Poems written by Amanda Werner’s fifth-graders at Adams Elementary School. At the request of school officials and because of the sensitive nature of some of the poems, the students' names and certain other identifying information were deleted.
JANESVILLE An old weather vane decorating Adams Elementary School features an iron boy and iron girl happily running, being pulled by an iron dog on a leash.
Some things about kids haven't changed much since the vane was placed atop the school in 1939.
They still can be sweet and endearingly innocent.
They still like pets and playing.
They run and shout on the playground.
They play kickball and hang from monkey bars.
Other things have changed a lot.
Most kids play video games and spend a lot of time with the television.
Many families are split, with mom and dad in different places.
Both parents often work, but the number of families with low incomes—either officially poor or close to it—is a growing concern.
Kids at Adams Elementary are used to a multiracial, multicultural classroom, and their teachers are charged with teaching them respect and how to communicate across cultures. It's something they'll need in a global economy, experts tell us.
The 21 students in Amanda Werner's fifth grade class at Adams reflect those changes and the ways things have stayed the same.
Perhaps at no time in U.S. history has so much attention been focused on raising levels of learning. These kids will reap the benefits if it's done right or suffer if the system fails them.
Who these kids are makes a difference, and local educators have heard this over and over: People have different ways of learning.
Cultural differences should be acknowledged and embraced, they are told. Kids should be made welcome, no matter who they are. Teachers have to learn that downcast eyes, for instance, might mean one thing in mainstream culture but something else in another.
Werner's handbook for some of this is "Culturally and Linguistically Response Teaching and Learning: Classroom Practices for Student Success."
The Gazette asked the students in Werner's class to fill out questionnaires about themselves and their families to show the community the kinds of students local schools are teaching to handle the challenges of the 21st century.
The kids in Werner's class live in a variety of home settings. Twelve live with two parents. Often, one of the parents is a stepfather or stepmother or a fiance or a boyfriend or girlfriend.
Three live only with their mothers. Five live sometimes with their dads, sometimes with moms.
Two are lucky to have grandparents in the house along with two parents. Nearly all of them have siblings. Many have stepbrothers and/or stepsisters.
Most of their parents work in local factories or provide services. They work at Hufcor, ABITEC, Clack Corp., Blain Supply and Goex.
One dad fixes cars and another is a fitness instructor. One mom works at a hospital while another runs an in-home daycare. One dad is looking for work, while mom can't work because of a recent surgery. Two other parents have long commutes.
One dad cuts grass. One is a DJ. Another works in construction. One is a student at Blackhawk Technical College.
A few kids weren't certain exactly what their parents do.
Kids don't know about family income, but official statistics for Adams School show that more than half are "economically disadvantaged," a figure that has more than doubled since 2000.
Adams is close to the district elementary-school average of 53 percent economically disadvantaged and well ahead of the state average, about 45 percent.
Another difference is the faces. Previous generations of Janesville students were overwhelmingly white. Werner's students make a rainbow of races and ethnicities.
Desires, needs and fears
Werner asked them to write about themselves this month. It was a way for her to get to know them and for them to get started on the writing curriculum.
One assignment was to write a poem that describes themselves. The poem required them to describe their desires, needs and fears.
Some feared the dark, or spiders or heights. Several wrote that they feared losing a family member.
One boy wrote that his brother died in a traffic accident. He was 18. "Now he's 22," the boy said. The same boy wrote that he likes pizza and soccer and gives lots of hugs. He drew a picture showing grandpa giving him money. He needs it, he said, adding, "I try to save it for shoes and stuff like that."
One girl said she fears being separated from her siblings. Her dad is in jail, she said, and "my stepdad, he treats me like I'm his real daughter." Still, she worries about the family being split.
One girl wrote that she needs to see her dad more often. He lives in Indiana, but he's coming to visit soon, she said hopefully.
The kids bring these worries and situations to school every day. Teachers keep these things in mind while pushing to teach them how to communicate, work together, walk safely in the halls, run computer programs and think through complex problems.
After several visits to this classroom, a reporter's initial impression is that these children are, for the most part, happy to be in school, eager to please and eager to learn. They have their quirks and foibles. Some need to be steered back on track several times a day. That's what Werner does.
Often, all it takes is a stern look or a request for everyone to focus.
Teaching kids to do the right thing was an emphasis for Adams Elementary students in September.
The whole school took time to review the rules of walking in the halls, playing on the playground and coming to school on time. Teacher Amanda Werner said these are the behavior items she's stressing in the classroom:
School expectations—safe, responsible, respectful and ready to learn.
Responsibility—turning in work, being ready to learn, classroom procedures.
Techniques—Werner gave out about 500 positive-reward tickets in September. Tickets go in a box, and there's a prize drawing.
Werner also gave out about 75 "tallies" for poor behavior choices/responsibility. Too many tallies, and kids must endure a silent lunch away from friends with a "think sheet" that asks them to describe their infractions, list the rules they did not follow, what they could have done differently and how they plan to improve. Parents need to sign it.
Parent communications—The Janesville School District stresses parent satisfaction. Werner said she planned to talk to or email all her students' parents this month.
Discipline—Werner said she had to pull a student into the hall "to discuss behavior choices" only once.
"This is a student that had an individual behavior plan last year, so I met with his fourth-grade teacher, and she shared her successes and program with me. I touched base with our counselor regarding this child. We plan to be proactive versus reactive in assuring he has a positive year.
"Other than that, I am working on getting kids to turn work in when they are completed or it is due and staying focused during instruction," Werner said.
TEACHER: EXPECTATIONS HIGHER ON TODAY'S KIDS
Michael Smrekar has seen the academic bar set higher and higher during his 15 years of teaching fifth grade at Roosevelt Elementary School.
"The expectations placed on children today, I think, have never been greater," Smrekar said.
The Gazette talked to Smrekar for historical perspective because teacher Amanda Werner over at Adams School has been teaching for just four years.
The parents of today's fifth-graders learned addition, subtraction, multiplication and division in fifth grade, Smrekar said. They learned fractions and some geometry, but not nearly as much as today's students.
Today's fifth-graders are learning pre-algebra skills such as the exponential notation, the use of parentheses and the "order of operations," which tells which procedures should be performed first in a mathematical expression.
The ability to think through a problem is stressed. At the same time, students are being exposed to iPads, Netbooks and a variety of software that their parents could only dream about.
The first day of school for Werner's fifth-graders included a trip to the computer lab and a lesson in Edmodo, a Facebook-like program that educators hope will encourage kids to write.
It was clear that some students had spent time on Facebook, while for others it was their first taste of online conversations.
"Computers are great tools for learning, and we want to be using them as much as possible," the kids were told by Shelly Block, district innovation specialist/computer instructor, who co-taught with Werner.
Even though it was online chatting, Block told the kids: "Use good language skills! Capital letters, periods, complete sentences, your best spelling!"
Reading and language skills are being ratcheted up, Smrekar said. Vocabulary is at a higher level.
In-school tests show each child's reading level so children can be matched to appropriate levels of reading material. The goal is for every student to be challenged enough not to be bored but not so much to be frustrated.
Students are reading more non-fiction, so science and social studies are integrated into the reading.
"There's definitely more crossover today than existed a number of years ago," Smrekar said.
It's not just the kids who are under pressure. The school board pressures the superintendent for better test scores, and that pressure rolls down to the principals and teachers, who are bombarded with the latest curriculums and strategies and the buzzwords, such as "21st century skills" and "common core standards."
Pressure comes from state tests, which in turn are influenced by federal education law and U.S. Department of Education initiatives, which in turn get political pressure to improve the country's educational standing among developed nations.
"We have to prepare children to be competitive across all nations, not just in this country," Smrekar said. "If you compare our students with other students around the world—we have to be competitive with those places."
So the schools are being scrutinized as never before.
"The expectations (for students) are greater, and part of it is because, I think, the tests are going to become more challenging," Smrekar said.
"This is going to cause, obviously, some challenges, some real challenges, for our learners," he said.
Not only has the subject matter gotten harder, but the new "common core standards" will stress mastery of the skills at a deeper level before students get to the next grade, said Kim Ehrhardt, district curriculum director.
Expectations have risen across the grades because the state tests are asking more of children. It appears the ACT college-readiness test will be required for every high school student, and to do better on the ACT, students need to learn more rigorous material.
To be able to handle tougher high school classes, students will need a deeper foundation in elementary and middle school.
For example, Ehrhardt said, 40 percent to 50 percent of eighth-graders now take algebra. But by the time today's fifth-graders get to eighth grade, algebra will be the basic course for nearly everyone, Ehrhardt said.
"You just hope students are prepared," but some aren't, Smrekar said.
Some homes don't provide the best preparation for school or the support to handle the challenges, Smrekar said.
"It's so vitally important kids have support to be successful. They need that," Smrekar said. "They all need that structure, that's provided by someone who is making sure their work is done, and all that guidance—these days it's more important than ever."