Before reading, students learn the rules of school Progress: For some first-graders at Lyndhurst Elementary, it's stunning. For others, six weeks into the school year, they can barely write their names. A journey through two Baltimore schools continues.

November 22, 1997|By Debbie M. Price and Stephen Henderson | Debbie M. Price and Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

I am a positive, a positive action kid. That's what I am. That's how I live."

The music is happy-happy and it begins every day at Lyndhurst Elementary, piped through the public-address system for the children to sing along.

Teaching at Lyndhurst is all about building self-esteem and encouraging students to take charge of their learning. For first-graders, that means learning the ways of school before learning how to read.

The first four weeks of school are devoted to just that.

Betty Pierce's classroom is her first-graders' "learning zone." The children chant, "This is where I get smart. I can do it. I just have to try. Let's get serious."

Class clown Randy adds the coda. "Let's get ready to rumble," he shouts, punching the air. The others crack up.

Cutups will be cutups, but Pierce's first-graders now know why they are here. They know what they are supposed to do. They put their books away. They sing the school song. They say the Pledge of Allegiance. They sit quietly through morning announcements.

This is progress.

When Principal Elaine Davis tours the building during citywide testing in mid-September, she sees the first-graders sitting at their desks, filling in the answers on the pages.

"They were disciplined enough to sit in their seats and show what they knew," Davis recalls. "And that's all I can ask of them."

Davis believes that Lyndhurst children have not performed well on past tests - not because they aren't smart - because they aren't focused. They are moving in the right direction.

Just watching the children at work brings an easy smile to her face. Davis spent almost 13 years in the classroom, and they were the happiest years of her career. Nothing equals the warm rush that comes from watching the lights go on in the eyes of little ones who suddenly get it.

She looks for every chance she can find to spend time with the children, including reading to Pierce's first-graders a Halloween story, "The Scary Monster House."

Standing in front of Pierce's class, the children's faces remind her of what she has left behind. And for what? A corner office? A deluge of demands that she cannot meet? A mountain of paperwork?

She has gone from being a teacher who regularly had the chance to hold children enraptured with a story to a principal who can never do enough to satisfy the demands of her teachers and parents. Above all, she fears that she cannot provide what everyone wants most - a school that works.

She wishes that she could wake up tomorrow and that it would be December and that the state test scores would be back and higher than last year's miserable showing. Then she could relax. Then this nightmare of scrutiny would be over.

For the moment, though, reading the story soothes her like a balm. The principal is having as much fun as the children who are sitting breathless, waiting for the scary ending.

The story over, Davis must return to her office. As she walks out the door, Josh looks up at her and says, "You have a nice Monday, now."


Pierce still starts the day in her first-grade class with the days of the week drill, but now the students are leading it.

Jasmine, tiny against the blackboard, plays teacher. "Who can tell me what today is?" She surveys the raised hands and in a petite imitation of Pierce, chooses Michone. The days of the week are written on the board. Michone scans the words. Thursday. Today is Thursday.

Little man Dontrelle takes charge of the calendar drill. "Who can tell me how many days October will have in all?"

Justin is quick with "31."

"Good," says Dontrelle. "Let's count." And they do.

Pierce stifles a smile. She has the look of a mother watching her child ride a two-wheeler for the first time.

All Lyndhurst first-grade classes are doing the same things, at the same time. For the school, the synchronized lesson plans are something new, and Davis welcomes the consistency. At the end of the year, all first-graders should have covered the same material, unlike past years in which teachers were allowed to move at their own pace.

The school year is four weeks old before first-graders are ready to open the hot-pink Harcourt Brace Jovanovich "Treasury of Literature" books and begin their reading lessons.

Pierce is trying to teach children to read by immersing them in words. For the first two months, instruction in her class focuses on stories and sentences - not on drills or letters or learning how to sound out words.

There is less formality in Pierce's Lyndhurst classroom than in the first-grade classes at City Springs Elementary, where the very structured Direct Instruction program is being used. At City Springs, reading lessons come twice a day and begin with sounding out letters and then move to words and finally to sentences.

Pierce's students begin with the "Three Little Pigs" and a lesson in house building. Pierce reads the story aloud to the children as they silently follow along, running their fingers over the words. This early in the game, she does not call on the children to read aloud.

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