Teacher celebrates pupils' lives


IT'S A FOOD chain of writing.

Mike Rose, a California author and professor, has written a compelling new book, "Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America," which should comfort anyone depressed about what is happening in public schools.

One of the book's heroes is Stephanie Terry, a first-grade teacher in Northwest Baltimore who writes every day about her life and about her 35 students at Ashburton Elementary School. Her writing is part of her work as a teacher.

And one of those students is 6-year-old Khrystina Adams. Khrystina writes, too; she's been doing it every day since school started. Her writing is part of her work as a student.

Each morning, Ms. Terry, 48, writes in her journal, an oversized, lined notebook propped on the chalkboard in the front of her stuffy classroom at Ashburton. Then her students write -- about themselves, their families and the menagerie of small animals in the room (starring a floppy-eared female rabbit named Teddy who hops about freely while the students work).

Dr. Rose, an educational psychologist, discovered Ms. Terry three years ago when he visited Baltimore for a workshop. Hers was one of many classrooms across the nation that he observed in the four-year sojourn that led to "Possible Lives," published last week by Houghton Mifflin.

Ms. Terry teaches, Dr. Rose says, "by paradoxical logic, at the intersection of hope and despair." But she succeeds, he says, "because she has an extraordinary classroom manner and because she celebrates her children and their learning, and eventually they celebrate themselves and their learning, too."

Long ago, Ms. Terry discovered the "secrets" of the programs on which city taxpayers are spending a bundle in the name of reform -- "Tesseract," "Efficacy" -- and put them in place on her own. Long before Tesseract's "Morning Meeting," Ms. Terry had a "Morning Unity Circle." Long before Efficacy and its expensive workshops for teachers and administrators, Ms. Terry was posting a sign on her classroom door: "Each child is sent into this world with a unique message to share a new song to sing a personal act of love to bestow."

Writing is the bedrock of her approach. After they watch their teacher make an entry in her journal, students follow suit, filling as many as a dozen journal books by year's end. (Ms. Terry has kept the journals from previous years, studying children's writing development and sharing her observations with the Maryland Writing Project at Towson State and the Elementary Science Integration Project at UMBC.)

At first the writing is free-form. Drawing is encouraged, and many students in the first weeks are reluctant to do more than draw a picture. No one is punished. "They all come along in their own time," Ms. Terry says.

By year's end, the students are doing much more sophisticated work, often in teams. They're writing their own stories, even each other's stories.

But there has to be a beginning. Khrystina' first entry Sept. 8 paid no respect to lines on the page or rules of grammar and spelling. "my Momsi cpehsi," she wrote.

"We had been talking about heshima, Swahili for respect," said Ms. Terry. "She's saying, 'My mom is respected.' This was the first week of first grade, remember. By mid-year, Khrystina will be rich in language. Her mind is open and ready."

The writing in her class is the vehicle for the rest, including, it should be noted, grammar and spelling. Writing is integrated with the other two "Rs," especially reading, which many educators still believe should precede writing. Also covered are social studies and science, a subject often assigned a designated period (typically at day's end) and learned from textbooks.

One day last week, for example, Ms. Terry was leading her students to discuss in their journals why the spider had died over the weekend while its cage-mate cricket showed no signs of ill health.

Stephanie Terry is watched and admired mostly by teacher colleagues and outsiders like Dr. Rose and the Nickelodeon cable network, which this month and next is airing a series of programs on her techniques.

Her superiors in the city system have not always been enamored.

"I think it's a mixture of envy and the fact that she goes off on her own, which bureaucracies can't stand," says one North Avenue administrator. Dr. Rose puts it another way: "She does things beyond protocol."

Wendy Saul, a professor who directs the UMBC science program, says teachers like Ms. Terry "prove that inner-city kids can learn as well as anyone in the suburbs. There's got to be room for lots of Stephanie Terrys. If we don't make room for them, we'll be enforcing the mediocrity that's been in place for such a long time."

'Dangerous Minds' school may lose federal funding

Claremont High School Academy, a San Jose, Calif., inner-city school program that inspired the Michelle Pfeiffer movie "Dangerous Minds," may lose its federal funding and be closed, according to press reports.

With it would go one of the techniques the Pfeiffer character in the movie employs to calm her savage beasts: deductive grading, or "keeping an A vs. earning an A." On the second day of classes, she announces that all students have an A. Grades will be reduced, she says, as students misbehave or fail to do their best.

It works. By spring, Ms. Pfeiffer's character has her students wrapped around her fingers, drowning in love and adulation.

Christopher T. Cross, president of the Maryland State Board of Education and of the Council for Basic Education, said he had never heard of such a policy, "but it might be worth thinking about."

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