Lessons from the Third Grade

Three years ago, Ashley was branded the worst elementary school in Denver. Whatís changed? Everything.

Tutoring nine- or ten-year-olds from another culture can be daunting, admits Ted Bryant, a former state legislator who coordinates the Montview program. "In some of the families, the student might be the only one who speaks English," he says. "There may not be books at home, not much reading at home at an early age. By the third grade, it becomes a psychological problem. They don't want to admit they can't read. They try to hide it."

But Bryant also sees regular, persistent effort paying off. "We've seen some great differences in the ones that have been here a couple of years," he says. "The principal tells us they see something else in the students other than their reading ability. You can spot them in the halls. They have a greater sense of confidence."

Although paras and volunteers can help, Garvin says he's frustrated that the state and the school district aren't doing more to support schools like Ashley, rather than shoveling money into accountability programs. "Why are we spending all this time and money on testing when what we need are more teachers?" he asks. "There are bad teachers, sure, but I've never yet met a teacher that I thought was lazy. This stuff about them not working hard enough boggles my mind."

Like most teachers, John D'Orazio is wary of the notion that more tests and evaluations can magically raise performance in public schools. It's no secret that much of the school year is now devoted to preparing for the major testing periods, including the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the Colorado Student Assessment Program. Teachers are expected to weave material related to the tests into the curriculum, drill their classes on test-taking strategies, hammer away at the importance of the tests.

"I'm really pleased with the direction the school is going in," D'Orazio says. "But we need time to do what we're doing. We don't need people breathing down our necks and giving our school a report card. The more testing we have to do and the more pressure outside the school that's put on us, the less teaching's going to get done."

At 37, D'Orazio is in his second year of teaching. He took a $20,000 pay cut from his job running group homes for head-injured adults to pursue his dream of teaching children. He and his wife, who is also a DPS teacher, have two small children of their own who will be going to college some day. When that day comes, whether D'Orazio or his wife will still be teaching in a public school is an open question.

"I'm not feeling terrible about it now," D'Orazio says, "but older teachers tell me that what wears them down is the feeling of being underpaid. When you're told that you're doing a terrible job and you're underpaid, at some point you ask, 'Why am I doing this?'"

Two in the afternoon. Show and tell in Room 205.

Fall has given way to winter, the string of autumn leaves replaced by a string of paper snowflakes. In front of the wide-eyed class, Mrs. Tracey unpacks a large box on loan from the Colorado History Museum. It's filled with photographs and artifacts she uses to stimulate discussion of how people lived in the state fifty or a hundred years ago, before television and Pokémon.

She holds up a calcium carbide lamp used by miners in the days of Horace and Baby Doe Tabor. "Who knows what a miner is?" she asks.

Anthony raises his hand. "Someone who digs for gold," he says.

Mrs. Tracey asks the students to name other things that miners dig for. Nobody mentions coal, so she does. "What is coal? Nobody knows? Okay, I'll tell you."

The arrival of a new box from the museum is an occasion of great wonder and joy in Room 205. The photos and everything else -- tools of the Plains Indians, pioneers' snuffboxes, miners' kitchen utensils and their children's toys -- are displayed on the wall, where the children can study them, touch them, try to imagine a time that seems terribly exotic and remote.

Among the offerings are some insights into the history of public education in Colorado. A list of rules for teachers, circa 1872: "Teachers each day will fill lamps, clean chimneys, and...bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the day's session." There are also some personal mementos from Mrs. Tracey's family: A third-grade report card belonging to her grandmother, 1915-16; her grandfather's eighth-grade diploma, awarded in long-vanished Phillips County, Colorado, 1918; pictures of her great-grandparents, who moved to Colorado from a ranch in Nebraska, driving an early jalopy. She has been known to bring in her mother to model a family heirloom, a genuine buffalo robe, so that the children can feel its warmth and thickness.

The history lessons allow students to compare their world to a much larger one. It's also an opportunity for Mrs. Tracey to present some messages about values. One of the objects in today's box is a silver shot glass, which leads into a discussion of saloons, a word nobody knows. But almost everyone nods vigorously when Mrs. Tracey uses the word bar. She tells them about lonely miners going into town and getting drunk and losing their money to cardsharps. The story turns into a treatise on money management and temperance. Money should go into savings accounts before it's wasted, Mrs. Tracey says, and people who feel sad should "go find someone and talk to them" rather than trying to drown their sorrows in alcohol.

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