Lessons from the Third Grade

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

She shows them a picture of children working in a coal mine. "Do you think you're better off than these kids?" she asks. "Would you rather be reading or digging?"

Several voices roar at once: "Reading!"

"Digging!" shouts one smart aleck.

Mrs. Tracey finishes unpacking the box and reads the class a story about a young girl in a mining town. This is followed by reading and writing assignments. Soon, she says, they will be making puppets, and she will be teaching the class how to sew. The announcement provokes some titters, but she silences them with a wave of her hand. "This is something that artistsdo," she explains.

History lessons and art projects may not have much to do with standardized test scores, but Mrs. Tracey believes they're essential. "We're supposed to be spending all our time on reading, writing and math," she says. "The system tells me these are the important things. But I don't really agree. I think social studies and art are important, too."

So are values, she adds. "I've had kids in my class who were coming from homes where there were drugs being used right in front of them. If they trust me and hear another perspective from me, it's like planting a seed that could grow, something that could show them there might be another way. If they fall in love with me the way I fell in love with my teachers, it could make a huge difference.

"I'm giving these kids a lot more than how to read and write," she continues. "How do you make good choices? How do you take responsibility for what you're doing? If they don't have these values, the reading and writing are hindered. If they feel like they're capable, then they do learn and excel."

Reading scores, she says, tell her "absolutely nothing" about the most critical question of all: What motivates children to learn? "These are kids," she explains. "They need things to touch and feel, experiential stuff. Then they want to read. You can't just sit them down in front of a book. That's not how I learned."

The teachers Mrs. Tracey remembers most fondly taught music, art and social studies and made her learn how to do research and write many papers. The best ones were "very strict and had incredibly high expectations." She wants to be the same way, even though the district seems to care only about what can be demonstrated on tests.

So she assigns homework four days a week, a wave of paper that comes back to swamp her every morning. She has parents sign contracts, agreeing that they will see that their children read at home for at least twenty minutes each night. She pushes her students to write "third-grade sentences" that have more than one clause, sentences bristling with adjectives and cause and effect. She requires multiple drafts of major writing assignments, a refining process that winnows out bad grammar, misspellings and leaps of logic. She warns slackers to beef up on their vocabulary, telling them, "You guys are supposed to be getting ready for fourth grade."

The children in Room 205 who have been to other schools say they like Ashley better. Their reasons aren't always clear, but perhaps it's because of all this intensive effort expended on them. Nine-year-old Boubacar, who was born in Senegal and went to public school in New York City, knows what kind of teacher he prefers.

"They wouldn't give me homework in New York," he says. "I just sat down and watched them and didn't do anything. This is more fun."

But tending to the mechanics of reading and writing is not enough for Mrs. Tracey. There is more, much more, she says, that her students need to learn.

"These kids are so limited in what they know, what they've been exposed to," she says. "They don't know what coal is. They watch Jerry Springer. That's their frame of reference."

Half past nine in Room 205. On most days, class starts promptly at ten minutes after, but on this particular Friday morning the room is empty. So are most of the other classrooms at Ashley.

The girls are in the auditorium, getting some common-sense tips about protecting themselves -- what Lydia calls "stranger awareness." The boys are in the gym, learning about sportsmanship. The teachers are in a planning meeting.

A few minutes later an emotional Mrs. Tracey emerges from the meeting. She embraces another teacher, a reading specialist she works closely with, and bursts into tears.

"They keep giving us more," she says, "and they don't take anything away."

Her friend nods. "I know," she says. "It isn't right. You're one of the best teachers I know. I wish you were staying."

But in May Gayla Tracey is leaving Ashley. She will no longer teach in Denver Public Schools. Although she reached this decision several months ago, recent events have only strengthened her conviction that it's time to go. The school is faring better, much better than when she arrived. She loves teaching, loves her class, gets along well with her colleagues and her principal. But there is also the sense of being caught in a tightening vise. The handle is being cranked at the statehouse and at district headquarters, and teachers throughout the district are feeling it.

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