Young teacher's lesson plan for success: Be strict

October 23, 1994|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,Sun Staff Writer

"You're late, Mr. Hawkins. You're late, Mr. Foster. All right, begin the drill. . . . There are four minutes left in the drill. There will be no talking! I need silence!

"Tanya?"

"I have to go to the bathroom."

Welcome to teaching, Mr. Ross.

Alexander Ross, the 22-year-old Teach for America corps

member, has completed five weeks of teaching in inner-city Baltimore. One of 19 young men and women beginning their careers in the city in the national program that sends students fresh out of college into urban and rural schools, he's survived 25 days of squirming sixth-graders at Booker T. Washington Middle School in West Baltimore.

After the big buildup and the article in The Sun speculating he might be "swallowed whole," there's no sign of damage, except that Mr. Ross is tired. Indeed, perhaps because he expected the worst, he's finding his new professional life "challenging and rewarding. I'm already seeing kids actually learn, and that's a wonderful experience."

Mr. Ross is succeeding, he says, because at least during the first semester, he's being as strict as a drill sergeant. It's a suggestion passed on to him by fellow corps members, experienced teachers at the school and the principal, Ruth N. Bukatman. There is no fooling around in Room 309: no gum chewing, a minimum of talking, regimented movement between classes and daily after-school detention for rule-breakers, during which they write essays while Mr. Ross watches sternly.

And in case those sentenced to detention try to escape, Mr. Ross nabs them at dismissal and escorts them to his room.

"I've had to regiment so that in the future I can have the kind of rapport with the kids that can facilitate different kinds of learning," he says. "When you come in April, I hope you'll see a change."

Mr. Ross works so hard that even watching him is exhausting. His first class, with 35 students, lasts 2 1/2 hours. At 11 a.m., his sixth-graders are marched from the third floor of the ancient brick school on McCulloh Street, down three flights to the cafeteria. Some 350 of them are fed in 30 minutes.

The after-lunch class has 37 students, 26 of whom are classified as "resource" children, meaning they have behavior problems. The kids are in constant motion, always seemingly on the verge of eruption. "I wear a different hat for that [class]," says Mr. Ross. "I have to be even tougher. Sometimes it's hard to be tough. It's not my normal nature."

Mr. Ross has 108 students in the three classes of language arts and social studies. In five weeks, he's learned all their names, learned which ones fall asleep in class because they share a bedroom at home with four or five siblings, learned that Lafayette isn't pronounced "La-FYE-ette," at least in Baltimore.

And learned, he says, that these children "have so much to offer. They have humor and intelligence. They know more about life than other kids their age. But they are still children in so many ways."

Even in Mr. Ross' first weeks of teaching, there have been moments of great insight (and of wonderful humor) in Room 309. Language arts and social studies lessons at Booker T. are planned around themes that are close to the students. They draw maps of their neighborhood, discuss drugs and gun violence and gangs. One day, Mr. Ross asks how many students think their neighborhood would be improved without drugs. Every hand is raised -- and the room falls silent for an instant.

As he works, Mr. Ross squeezes among the desks crowded in his small classroom, pointing at those who answer his questions successfully and saying, "Outstanding! Rhonda, you must have studied hard last night." He does not criticize wrong answers. He taps the shoulders or heads of students who have fallen asleep. He suppresses a smile when one student, asked to use "culture" in a sentence, poses, "In my culture we wear regular clothes."

The language arts students are preparing to read William H. Armstrong's coming-of-age novel, "Sounder." They're learning about maturing, about ceremonies. Vocabulary words include "universal," "nation," "territory."

He is not afraid to admit to mistakes. "I'm learning, just like you," he tells the students after he is corrected on the pronunciation of "Lafayette."

He sees evidence that students think logically. "Give me an example of a nation," he says one day. "Murphy Homes," says Robert. "But remember that a nation has to have a government," says Mr. Ross. "Well, Murphy Homes has a government," Robert replies.

The sixth-graders are fascinated by the concept of the bar mitzvah, about which Mr. Ross teaches deftly as part of a general discussion of culture and ceremonies. "How old do you have to be for a bar mitzvah?" asks Rodney. "Usually about 13," says the teacher. "Wow! A man at 13? I'd like to be Jewish," Rodney says.

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