Students' working lunch Tests: To prepare for state exams, Lyndhurst Elementary fifth-graders go where most have never gone before -- a formal luncheon. A journey through two Baltimore schools continues.

November 29, 1997|By DEBBIE M. PRICE AND STEPHEN HENDERSON | DEBBIE M. PRICE AND STEPHEN HENDERSON,SUN STAFF

Clap-clap. Clap-clap-clap. Snap-snap. Shhhhh.

Fifth-grade teacher Margie Smith brings her hands together with the rapid-fire rhythm that signals time to begin. Seventy-four 10-year-olds clap back in response and silence falls across the Forum. At tables done in Lyndhurst blue and white the fifth-graders sit -- boy-girl -- in their Sunday best.

Everybody looks wooonderful. Give yourselves a hand, Smith tells them.

They are proud of themselves; she is proud of them. And now down to business.

"What did we come to school for today?" she wants to know.

To learrrn!

They will take a few minutes to talk about why they have come to the Forum, the West Baltimore banquet hall famed for big-deal political functions and fancy dinners. The business at hand is serious -- the Maryland Schools Performance Assessment Program tests, the MSPAP, by which every school in the state is graded.

Unorthodox as it seems, Lyndhurst fifth-graders have gone out to lunch to grasp a concept that eluded them in class -- a concept that will come up on the tests.

But first, everybody's coat must come off. Coats are not worn at the luncheon table.

"What do you see on that table?" Smith wants to know.

"Utensils," several students shout.

"What is a utensil? What is Ms. Smith talking about?" she prompts them. "A spoon. A fork. More than one fork? What else do you see?"

A cup and a saucer!

"You see a cup and a saucer. What is the cup for?"

Hands wave wildly. You drink from the cup, someone shouts.

"And what did you tell me the saucer is for?" Smith asks, revealing now the reason for the luncheon on this recent Thursday noon.

A sandwich, someone shouts. Everybody laughs.

It's funny now, but it wasn't several weeks ago when Smith discovered that her students really did not know how a saucer is used.

The class was practicing analogies for the MSPAP tests, which challenge children to think critically and decipher relationships. The students stumbled on what seemed like an easy question.

Cup goes with what? A spoon? A fork? A saucer?

Margie Smith, who left the world of investments to become a teacher, was stunned. Could their experiences be so limited?

Once, cups and saucers were as commonplace as jam and bread, and 10-year-olds in even the poorest households watched grandma sip her tea from a matched set. But tea today comes from mugs and in the Edmondson Village area around Lyndhurst, many parents are often too busy working or too poor to expose their children to social graces.

The MSPAP, however, expects children to know what cups and saucers are.

Learning by doing

Smith decides that her children need to drink from cups and saucers, set before them, to understand the relationship.

She asks around and arrives, through the mother of one of her students, at the Forum.

Principal Elaine Davis, who is under tremendous pressure to raise academic performance at Lyndhurst, is willing to try anything and agrees to the plan.

The MSPAP scores have weighed heavily on Davis. The entire school is measured by how well third- and fifth-graders perform on this test, and they have not performed well.

As Davis waits for the 1997 scores, due in December, she is acutely aware that only 1.6 percent of the school's fifth-graders scored satisfactory or better on the reading portion of the 1996 tests.

Lyndhurst, like 49 other Baltimore schools, has been placed under the threat of state takeover because of such consistently poor performance.

If test scores do not improve, Davis and others could lose their jobs.

By the end of first grade -- and certainly by the end of third grade when the MSPAP takes its first measure -- Lyndhurst students should have learned to read.

By the end of fifth grade, it isn't enough for students to read and write; 10-year-olds also must be able to reason and interpret.

And to do that, they must have knowledge gleaned from the classroom and the world.

"My hope is that this isn't just to help them with MSPAP, but that it will also help them with their social skills and give them something that they can take back into the world," Smith says of the luncheon.

And so, now, in the cavernous banquet hall of the Forum, the children sit like little adults, boys in coats and ties, girls in lacy dresses, waiting politely for the next cue.

"Look at that table," Smith challenges. "Do you see any sandwiches? Where is the cup? We're using a higher order of thinking. Am I supposed to use the cup to drink from and use the saucer for something else?"

Nooo!

"Talk to me about what is going on here. What about the relationship? What about how these things go together?" Smith prods. "I'm looking for a fifth-grade word. I'm looking for an 'S' word. What does the cup do for the saucer? It supports it."

So now, they will try again to answer the questions.

What goes with the cup?

Drink, someone shouts.

What else? Saucer!

"That's right! Cup and saucer. Cup goes with saucer."

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