Classroom can provide a few lessons Teaching: A brief stint shows a wide range of abilities in sixth grade -- and reminds the substitute how hard teachers work.

October 25, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

EMILY MAUNZ AND I taught English at Baltimore's Northeast Middle School Wednesday.

Actually, Maunz taught sixth grade most of the day. That's her job. I filled in for her for 45 minutes. It was Teach For America Week, described in a TFA news release as "a nationwide event that calls upon successful Americans to share their knowledge and expertise with pupils in the classrooms of Teach For America corps members."

Corps member Maunz, 23, wasn't born when I earned a living as an English teacher in New York in 1963. I was 23, too, just out of college. Maunz, of Bethlehem, Pa., is a year out of the University of Pittsburgh, committing two years of her young life to teaching in an "under-resourced urban school," as Teach For America puts it delicately but accurately.

I gave my assignment serious thought. I knew I had no celebrity cachet with these 11-year-olds on Moravia Road. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, a genuinely successful (and recognizable) American, had taught at William Paca Elementary earlier in the week. Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier was booked to teach social studies that Wednesday afternoon at West Baltimore Middle School.

Lucky him, I thought. He could regale the class with tales of bloody homicides.

I, by contrast, actually had to do some teaching. No one would be interested in my views on Sun editors or turf protection in the state university system.

So I decided to combine writing and reading. I started with a brief talk about reporting and news writing. I discussed the structure of a news story. We talked about some of the "leads" in the newspaper I'd purchased on the way to school. I explained that most news stories are written in the third person: "he" and "she" as opposed to "I" and "we."

Then I wrote this partial "lead" on the board -- "When he walked into the cafeteria " -- and asked the pupils to expand those words to as much of a news story as they could muster in 10 minutes or so.

The reading part came when I asked volunteers to come up front, face their classmates and read their stories.

Maybe I've spent too much time recently with first-graders, but by and large these Northeast kids were great. We had murders and food fights, one of which involved the principal as combatant. We had a student transported by ambulance to a hospital after eating contaminated creamed spinach.

Such imagination! I was pleased that most wrote in the third person, and though I hadn't discussed what we call "quotes" in my business, several young Pulitzers used them.

I learned something, too. Only minutes after committing it to paper, some children have trouble reading their own writing. The first two R's are, of course, forever intertwined, but perhaps in ways that we don't yet fully understand.

After the class, I sat down with Maunz, her department head, Ella Hamilton, and sixth-grade reading teacher Barbara Beamon to discuss reading in middle school.

So much attention has been paid to beginning reading that it's all but forgotten that the city also revamped the middle school reading curriculum this fall. Middle schools have colorful new reading textbooks from publisher McDougal Littell, and the new material is "more than welcome," said Hamilton.

The trouble, the three teachers said, is the alarmingly wide range of reading ability among city middle schoolers, and one set of books can't reach them all. The splashy new textbooks, said Maunz, "have vocabulary that's way beyond the slowest readers."

"What we need," said Hamilton, a 25-year veteran of city schools who acted as Maunz's mentor when the Teach For America corps member arrived last year, "is high interest and low readability."

Baltimore sixth-graders are required to read 25 books this year, and Maunz already has learned the first rule of successful teaching in the city: If you want an adequate library in your classroom, you have to buy the books yourself.

She's stocked her room with books ranging from "Goosebumps" to "Little House on the Prairie" and several biographies. "Kids at this age like to read and be read to," Maunz said. "It's a matter of exposure, of trying to get them motivated."

As I drove back to the office and reviewed my morning at Northeast Middle, I realized that I, too, had pitched my lesson to the kids who already read and write well. Kids with poor language skills were not going to volunteer to read to their classmates, and I had to admit that a couple of pupils hadn't written a word on my assignment.

And I realized -- again -- how mentally and physically exhausting is the job of teaching.

Pub Date: 10/25/98

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