Stacey Baker, 30, has spent her five-year career teaching third-graders at Rock Hall Elementary School, an intimate setting in her Eastern Shore hometown where many pupils - including three of her four children - are taught by those who taught their parents.
A candidate for Maryland Teacher of the Year, Baker credits Principal Bess Engle with merging innovation and tradition to boost children in the blue-collar waterfront town to the highest ranks in statewide testing.
Among those classroom experiments is a teaching team of Baker and Donna Bedell, a close friend and colleague, who share 48 pupils in casual classrooms where writing is paramount in every lesson and pupils are encouraged to lounge on couches or stuffed chairs.
Baker earned both her bachelor's and master's degrees from Wesley College in Dover, Del.
The Sun's Chris Guy spoke with Baker recently about the classroom approach she and Bedell have developed.
Is there anything different, anything particular that's important for teaching third-graders?
Third grade is a grade of independence. It's the grade where they begin to become independent learners. It's less guided than what they're used to in their first couple years. We don't tell them how many sentences there should be in a paragraph - that's the kind of thing they're expected to make decisions about. We expect them to keep a daily journal, and before the end of the year, they're writing pages and pages.
Where do you fit in the traditional debate about phonics and whole language?
We follow our county curriculum, which really is a combination of the two. Nothing is taught in isolation; phonics or a whole language approach are just different tools. By third grade, our students have already been writing. They're very prepared for writing, and we keep a running record that stays with each child through each grade. There's great communication among the staff here, so you really know a child's strengths and weaknesses.
If you could develop your own curriculum - if you were making policy decisions - what would you do?
Our curriculum was developed by teachers. I worked on the language arts segments for two summers. That's the way we do things. I think that's why it works. [Maryland School Performance Assessment Program] has changed instruction completely - and I think for the better. After a couple months in third grade, our kids are writing two-page summaries of what they've read. Every year, Donna and I say we're not going to do third grade again; it's a lot of work. But we've built so much, we can't imagine starting over.
What are some of the classroom techniques that have worked for you?
First of all, we spend at least two hours a day on reading. My strength is in language, and Donna feels more comfortable with math and science, so that's the way we handle it. ... We use two books, one a novel, one nonfiction, and base everything - math, writing, social studies - around those two books. Everything is integrated. We did the same kind of thing around a social studies unit on China this year. The beauty of teaching as a team is the flexibility. We mix all the students up every four to six weeks so we both have a chance to work with all of them. If the kids really take off on something, we go with their flow. We're not locked into a schedule that says we have to be at a certain place by a certain day.
What about the overall direction the state Board of Education seems to be going with MSPAP and the intense emphasis on phonics and reading? Are we going in the right direction?
Yes, definitely. As a parent, I can't believe my daughter in kindergarten is writing already. My fourth-grade daughter can write pages and pages, and her spelling is starting to come together. It's all about making reading and writing fun. They want to read and write.