ROCK HALL -- There's no single silver bullet in education. Where schools work, there are cartridges of little silver bullets. Some get there accidentally; some are carefully loaded, aimed and fired.
Thus, Rock Hall Elementary School, one of the most effective schools in Maryland. Thus, Edward J. Silver Jr., a third-grade teacher at Rock Hall who was selected last month as Maryland's 1995 Teacher of the Year.
There are no "bests," you'll notice, in the above paragraph. Education is uncomfortable with "bests." But small-town Rock Hall Elementary and Mr. Silver, a 37-year-old father of four and a former seminarian, are about as close to superlative as Maryland is going to see.
Mr. Silver teaches a grade that is tested in the tough Maryland School Performance Program. And Rock Hall in the 1994 round of testing ranked higher than all but a few of the 797 public elementary schools in the state, including those in the suburbs, where schools are expected to work. (This year's MSPP results have not been released.)
The Rock Hall accomplishment was all the more remarkable because the Kent County school, closer to the Inner Harbor than Aberdeen and Westminster but isolated on the Eastern Shore, is a Title I school with about half of its 277 students from families poor enough that they are eligible for free lunches.
It's precisely because Rock Hall is a community, though, that seems to make its elementary school unusual. The town's 1,584
residents may be suffering because of the decline of crabbing and oystering and the closing of the nearby Campbell's Soup plant, but no child goes hungry or without a coat in winter. Rock Hall's churches see to that. And no child misses school because she misses the bus. "I go out and pick them up," said Principal Bess L. Engle, who has been around Rock Hall as a teacher and administrator as long as anyone can remember.
"We think of the school as part of our family," said Rosalie Kuechler, who was defeated for re-election as Rock Hall mayor in May. "It's a community thing. There are always volunteers down at the school, and we pay particular attention in the winter, when the tourists are gone."
Mr. Silver agreed. "It always amazes me that some of these kids have never been over the Bay Bridge," he said, "and this may not be an educated populace, but they have respect for education. They want their kids to learn."
Rock Hall Elementary is no benighted school at the back of the educational pack. Here are some of the other little bullets:
* Mr. Silver teams with Gina Scalzo-Zsebedics, 32, who grew up wanting to be an actress. She teaches reading and language arts; he teaches science and math. They teach social studies together. They confer every day. Their 42 students, and their students' parents, are encouraged to call the teachers at home, any day, any hour.
+ "We're always brainstorming
ideas," said Mr. Silver. "Gina will call me and say, 'Let's try such and such tomorrow.' Every month we have a new theme, which we try to integrate into all of our subjects. We're always taking risks, but you have to take risks in teaching. On the other hand, you try to be consistent, and you always try to have high expectations."
* Most of what Mr. Silver and his teammate do is "activity-based," though Mr. Silver reads to his students every day before lunch.
"Kids learn the basic skills through activities," said Mr. Silver. One day last week, for example, his students were tossing a soft plastic globe around the classroom. As students caught the globe, they reported to a student keeping a tally at the chalkboard whether their fingers landed on land or water.
The final tally was 2-to-1 in favor of water. "Almost two waters for every land," mused the mustachioed teacher. "What if we had a thousand students and we threw the globe to every one of them? Do you think there would still be twice as much water?"
The class discussed that proposition. Lauren Jones, 8, an energetic blonde, argued that it was "possible it could always be land."
"Ah, but is it probable?" Mr. Silver asked. He wrote "probable" and "possible" on the board, and the students considered the difference. Then the teacher went to a map of the world on one wall and led his class in a discussion of the continents and oceans. Most
of the third-graders at Rock Hall Elementary already know the oceans and continents and where they are. Mr. Silver tossed the plastic globe around again, this time asking students to point out the Earth's major features.
In one 45-minute period, he had taught lessons in mathematics, the laws of probability, geography, even a little calisthenics. "I've seen Mr. Silver's students walk blindfolded, create a class quilt and take a trip to the moon," said state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.
* The bedrock of education at Rock Hall is writing. There's a "Word Wall," on which students' work is posted. Students write daily in two kinds of journals, one formal, one informal. "We encourage free writing, but we also insist that kids learn how to write correctly," said Ms. Scalzo-Zsebedics. "And just as we take risks, we encourage the students to take risks in their writing."
* Maybe the most precious of the little bullets is the attitude Mr. Silver and Ms. Scalzo-Zsebedics bring to their work. Both think they've died and awakened in educational heaven. "It's the most satisfying thing I can imagine doing with my life," said the Teacher of the Year. His partner said she doesn't mind not sharing the spotlight. "It's quite enough for me to be getting paid for doing what I like," she said.
Mr. Silver is a white male in an occupation dominated by white females. About three-quarters of the nation's 2.9 million teachers are women, according to the American Council on Education. Women particularly prevail in elementary education.
About three-quarters of Maryland's black teachers and two-thirds of the state's white teachers are women, according to the state Department of Education. In Kent County, Mr. Silver happens to work for a woman principal, Ms. Engle; a woman superintendent, Lorraine Costella; and a woman school board chairman, Ann H. Dwyer.