Summer-school teacher tackles tough questions beyond books

August 12, 1991|By Barbara H. Smith

Claudetta Cockrell's 25 years of teaching have taught her an important lesson: The school day must be planned to the second, especially in summer school.

Mrs. Cockrell, a stately woman in her 40s, has brought the wisdom of her years to the summer-school class of 1991.

There are six words seen when entering the main office of Baltimore's Dunbar Senior High -- "Life is what you make it" -- and the meaning of those words resound in Mrs. Cockrell's class every day.

"I remember my 10th grade English class was the most boring class ever. I swore and even knew then that I wanted to be a teacher, and that I would never let my classes be boring. I swore to fix the old way of teaching -- eliminating boredom," she said.

In her dimly lit classroom, bulletin boards hold stapled ghosts of great American writers -- Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin, Nathaniel Hawthorne -- that lend a creative touch to the surroundings.

Summer school is tough, Mrs. Cockrell says. She has never met or worked with these 28 students who are now attending Dunbar's summer school. These are students who failed to meet their English requirements and have been given a second chance.

Mrs. Cockrell wants to offer a comfortable, challenging setting.

She wants the students to know that she cares, that she understands each has different abilities and that she will work with them all.

Her 10th grade class moves along quickly.

In one two-hour period she leads the class from Maurice Walsh's "The Quiet Man" to an English grammar composition to a scheduled speech assignment.

While reviewing a chapter in "The Quiet Man," a buzz starts around the room.

One student noticed a still photograph from the 1952 movie version of the book, whispered his recognition of John Wayne, and giggled. But Mrs. Cockrell quickly refocused the group.

The students discuss what the term "qui et man" might mean or why Shawn Kelvin, the 20-year-old protagonist of the novel, was indeed quiet.

A few responses: He was a wimp. Maybe he was shy? I bet he was hiding something.

The teacher explains that "quiet" may in some cases come from a strength within.

"I am a human being first and a teacher second," Mrs. Cockrell said as she prepared to let students ask her any question they wished. This exercise was a way of getting the class to work on communication. Her goal was to get the students to work in a spontaneous action-reaction situation.

Michael Barnes, 16, one of the most outspoken students, was quick to take the challenge. "As a mother," he starts slowly and intently, "how do you feel about teen pregnancy and teen sex?"

Mrs. Cockrell was quick to reply.

"Do you all know the reference of Big Brother in the George Orwell novel '1984,' where people are constantly watched? That is exactly what I think should be done with two teen-agers when they are alone -- and if they get too close, an alarm goes off or lights flash."

She laughs, but only for a moment, and then her expression shows clearly how serious she is. "I have seen so many girls' lives destroyed, too many lost lives and they are only children themselves," she said.

Mrs. Cockrell does not spend all her classroom time making sure verbs agree with their subject. She also offers positive reinforcement and constructive criticism, and helps her students understand the control they can have over their lives.

Another assignment, given earlier in the term, was a two-to-four-minute speech on a familiar topic.

Angie, 16, was volunteered by Mrs. Cockrell. "My topic is child abuse. My best friend was beaten by her stepfather. It was horrible. He is not even her real father, and the police let him come home."

Her classmates reacted at once, rapidly firing questions. Why did he do it? Was he drunk? Where was her mom?

Mrs. Cockrell responds without hesitation. "I know this is a terrible experience to hear about. Let me pose a question. Was there something that Angie's friend could have done to prevent this particular beating?" she asks.

"Please, don't get me wrong, the behavior of this adult is unacceptable. But, you are young adults and must take responsibility for your actions. You must understand how a parent feels -- they worry. I speak to you as a parent, not as a teacher," she says.

One student called out in class, "You know, Mrs. Cockrell, you are the best teach er I have ever had." Heads nod in agreement all around the room.

This is a proud woman. Her response: "I know I am a good teacher, I love what I do. I am here to reach you, and if I can't get through to you in one way I will find another way."

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