Word walls become staple in classroom Fixture: As teachers across Baltimore strive to make students better readers, walls become teaching tools.


November 01, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

ALL ELEMENTARY classrooms look alike? Try a word wall walk-through.

About 30 of us, mostly city school principals, did that one morning last week at Matthew Henson A. Elementary School in (( West Baltimore. We inspected the "walls" (chalkboards, bulletin boards, dividers, easels and real walls) on which teachers display words, and we observed how the instructors use word walls in their teaching.

Our guide on this somewhat esoteric mission was Tom Nardone, former principal in New York's Community District 2, one of that city's low-performing districts that turned around rock-bottom reading scores with a successful literacy campaign. Nardone was in Baltimore to consult on a similar reform effort here, called Achievement First.

When you visit your child's classroom this fall, look for the word walls. They've become as much a staple in schools as alphabet strips -- the 26 letters usually displayed in upper and lower case (and sometimes in cursive) over the front or side chalkboards.

No self-respecting elementary teacher is without at least one word wall. Some teachers at Matthew Henson have three or four, each with a different purpose.

That's one of the secrets, Nardone advised us before the walk-through began. It's easy to set up a word wall. Harder to give it purpose.

"There's no such thing as an isolated thing in a good classroom," he said. "Everything has a function, a philosophy, a purpose." The riot of color that greets you in your child's classroom (particularly before Halloween) is a waste of time if it's purposeless, Nardone said.

My group visited three classrooms. In Leslie Hall's second grade, we inspected a wall of "outlaw words" -- words such as "should" that don't conform to the laws of phonetic "decoding," or sounding out.

You can sound out "map," for example, but you're just going to have to memorize "should." (Some reading programs code words by color: green for those that follow the rules of phonics, red for those that require a stop for memorizing.)

Tary Scroggins was putting on quite a show in her third-grade classroom. She and her reading resource teacher, Ida James, had four groups of children working at once around a single theme: Hawaiian language and culture. It was reading, writing and social studies rolled into one.

In Scroggins' "writing corner," four children were composing a song about three little Hawaiian pigs. They were using words from a nearby wall of Hawaiian words, as were other pupils in the room, a few writing on their own. (Often the words are portable. Pupils can remove them for homework assignments or to carry about the classroom.)

Nardone, a pluperfect New Yorker with Bronx accent to match, could hardly contain himself. "There's intelligence at work in this room," he whispered. "Notice how she uses the word walls as reference points. The kids know what they're doing. Amazing."

Back in the library after the walk-through, the principals compared notes. Most said the walk-through had taught them something about word walls. "I noticed that the higher the grade, the less interesting the classroom," said one. "It's almost as if there's a mind-set that if they get to the fourth grade or so, they don't need this anymore."

For Mabel Green, Matthew Henson's principal, the walk-through was "an opportunity to see myself in the mirror. It gave me some objectivity I didn't have because I'm so close."

Word wall walk-throughs aren't something most of us spend sleepless nights over. But the learning activities built around these classroom devices are integral to the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. On that test, 12 percent of Baltimore City third-graders scored satisfactory or better in reading in 1997.

Achievement First, a program designed to reverse such dreadful performance at Matthew Henson and nine other schools, is a new venture for the Fund for Educational Excellence, an organization known hitherto primarily for its advocacy for Baltimore school kids and "mini-grants" to teachers.

Now the organization is promoting "whole-school" reform that concentrates every aspect of a school's operation on a single goal: improving children's literacy. Word walls are only a tiny part of the effort, but Nardone made a case that they're an important part.

The other Achievement First schools are Curtis Bay, Cherry Hill, Dr. Martin Luther King, Highlandtown No. 237, Johnston Square, Mildred Monroe, Patapsco, Tench Tilghman and Thomas Johnson elementaries.

Without male teachers, no all-male classes

When this columnist last visited Matthew Henson three years ago, it was the city's nationally shining example of separate classes for African-American boys. The idea was that all-male classes with male teachers would give the boys role models and father figures. That was part of the rationale for the Million Man March, staged the day after I wrote about Henson.

The all-boy classes are no more at Henson. The reason? "We can't find male teachers," said Green, "and female teachers defeat the purpose."

Pub Date: 11/01/98

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