Reality Check

High school students, the district gifted education coordinator, and classroom teachers each find they need to shift gears when reality doesn't match their expectations.

Nicole and Christie have trouble seeing the relevance of their 11th grade honors English class.

Nicole and Christie are more concerned about their social lives than literature.

“What’s that gotta do with anything?”I hiss across the aisle. I arch my brows the way I know makes Christie laugh: one up, one down.

Christie rolls her eyes back at me, lashes fluttering above the whites. I accidentally let out a snort, slide deep into my chair, and pretend to read The Grapes of Wrath, my cheeks turning hot. Mrs. Boralis shoots me a look and heads our way. Seems I always get in trouble when I sit next to Christie. But we don’t get to sit together much. Mostly we get separated by Mrs.Boralis. And Ms. Peters. And Mr. Schwab. Christie and I have a lot of classes together. We’re in the honors program.

Mrs. B points her finger at me and then at a desk near the front of the room. All the while, she keeps right on talking to the class like I was just a piece of lint she flicked off her sweater. I grab my backpack and stuff and follow her finger to that empty desk near the front, fake snarling at Christie over my shoulder on the way. Why is it me that always gets moved? Then I sit down. And listen. Not much else to do. Mrs. B is lecturing about the Great Depression. And justiceI’ll tell you about depression: time is practically standing still in here. That’s the real injustice.

While I half take notes and try not to look at the clock, I doodle. First some scribbles, then some curves that become waves that become scrolls that become hearts. Then, I add “I love Cameron” because I do. Can’t help it. When class is finally over, I try to time leaving so it matches when Cameron leaves his class across the hall like I do every day. Mrs. B calls Christie back to her desk just when Cameron rounds the doorway. Perfect!

“Hey Nicole.” He gives me his movie star smile, looks over his shoulder into Mrs. B’s class, and whispers, “Hey, did James ask you to the prom yet?” James? Is Cameron gonna askME? I’m gonna DIE!!! “I was thinking of asking Christie. Then, if you go with James, the four of us could go together. Do you think she’ll say yes if I ask her?”

George Augustine fights his sweaty palms as he leads an inservice on concept-based curriculum.

George struggled to reach the teachers he was hired to lead.

Dag-gone-it, here I go again. I could probably star in one of those deodorant commercials—you remember, the ones where the nervous guy needs extra protection to prevent those unsightly circles from forming under the armpits of his crisp, cotton shirt. Luckily, it’s just my palms that are sweating, and there’s no need to shake hands, so maybe no one but me will notice. I rub my palms against my trousers again and check for the fifth time to be sure my PowerPoint presentation is all set.

Click here to view George’s PowerPoint on concept-based curriculum models.

The library is nearly full, big people in small furniture, and as I talk through the slides I start to wonder lots of things, like why they scheduled this inservice in an elementary school (probably to show off its new library and its tiny little chairs), whether or not I’ll have time to pick-up my dry cleaning on the way home (doubtful), how many of the teachers are actually listening to me (few, maybe that new teacher on the left?), and whether or not I’ll actually be able to do what I promised during the interview that landed me this gifted coordinator job last year (hard to say).

I’m plowing through my slides, and just when I’m about tired of listening to my own voice I check the clock and see I’ve taken only half of the time I thought I would. I make a note, in my head, to slow down, give people a chance to think. I see a hand raised in the back. Dag-gone-it! It’s Stacy Boralis. We worked in the same school for years. A real stickler. Just what I need. “Yes, Stacy?”

“I’m not sure how we can teach with concepts and move through the arc of literature in a coherent way.”

Can’t tell if Stacy wants an explanation or an audience, and I figure it can’t hurt to wait just a minute to see, so I start to count backward from 5 in my head, moving each finger just a bit to tick off the seconds. Before I even hit 3, another voice answers. Takes me a minute to even figure out who it is.

“Well, in my college curriculum class, we spent a lot of time on this. I think the idea is to connect what you’re studying at the moment to other topics and ideas. I mean…”

First year teacher Anita Gadde shows genuine interest in George’s presentation.

Ahh, the new teacher. Thank goodness for new blood.

“That’s easy to do in an elementary classroom. You’re an elementary teacher, right? And you’re with the same kids all day. It’s different in a high school setting.”

I know Stacy has a point. I taught high school English, too. In the end, I felt like my days were chopped into little bits by the bell. Nearly drove me nuts. Helping kids make connections is tough in that setting. While I’m on my little trip down memory lane, I start to wonder what the heck I’m trying to do here, elicit some kind of miracle? Or incite some kind of riot? The new teacher’s voice brings me back.

“Sure, I know high school is different. But the curriculum connections are there, you know. I think we just have to cull them out, you know, make them more obvious.”

This new teacher (what’s her name, anyway?) is saving my you-know-what. Maybe I should just sit down and let her take the helm! I page back to my slide on the superintendent’s mandate, hoping it will help address Stacy’s point and refocus us.

I’m hitting the backspace button when I hear another voice. “I don’t know about the rest of you,” a large woman at the back stands up and intones in a loud, clear voice. “But I’m sick and tired of this emphasis on the gifted. It just smacks of elitism.” She looks around the room for support, and I see a few heads nod and a few eyes roll.

Well, shoot, that’s not what I mean at all, but I am the gifted coordinator. What does she expect?

That new teacher raises her hand again. “Where I interned. There was this program for at-risk students.” She sounds a little more timid as she tackles this question-or maybe it’s this woman who is so intimidating. “And they did their whole program using concepts to link everything together.”

The woman hardly seems mollified. “Well, I’d like to hear more about that instead of all about these gifted students. Why do they get everything anyway?”

My blood boils a bit, and I wait for the new teacher to continue my in my defense, but she’s quiet. I’ve never been much of a debater, but I can’t let that one go. “Actually, our gifted students get less funding than our ESOL students or our special ed students.”

The woman actually snorts.

I try to bring it back to concept-based curriculum. “And it’s true, what she said.” I nod towards the new teacher. “Concept-based instruction is effective for all learners.” I try a little humor to lighten the mood. “You know, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

The woman flumps down and scribbles frantically on her notepad. I keep rolling.

When I’m finished with the last slide (finally), I know it’s time to drop the bomb: Every teacher in the district will be required to implement at least one concept-based unit in the fall. We’ll start with a summer curriculum-writing institute. I’m looking for volunteers to create the concept-based units, one per grade, and I’m sweetening the deal with new laptops for each teacher. Luckily, I won a grant, and I’m expecting the laptops any day now. That new teacher is the first to add her name to my summer institute sign-up sheet: Anita Gadde.

During summer school, Anita Gadde implements her first concept-based unit with her K-2 students.

Anita’s class waits to load the bus for their fieldtrip.

I hate buses. They make me turn green. I used to think I’d outgrow this, you know, it’s just not happening. I’m not sure if my avoidance of field trips is related, but I think so. Somehow I got through my first year of teaching without going on one field trip. But, my number’s up.

The summer curriculum institute was really helpful. It’s exciting to put what I learned in college to work. And a free laptop! Can’t beat that. The systems-wetlands unit I helped design just begs for a balmy trip to the nature park, and the only way to get there is by bus. So off we go.

Anita’s students’ different needs are apparent during their trip to the nature park.

My shirt’s drenched, and I’m beat. And it’s only 10:30! I hope the indoor displays will keep my kids busy for forty-five more minutes. Forty-five more minutes? Kindergartener Helen had needed Band-Aids and constant reassurance while we were outside. Now Deon—he’s in second grade—seems obsessed with aligning the indoor sliding displays! Most of the other kids are just glad to be out of the glaring sun. Meanwhile, I’m trying to keep them focused and refresh my memory about the lesson I’ll teach when we get back to school.

On the return trip I make sure to sit toward the front of the bus. I keep my eyes forward and try to ignore the chatter behind me. Instead, I think about what’s ahead. I wish I could read my lesson plans one more time. But, I know better than reading while moving. My laptop sits unopened in my backpack on the seat next to me, where it belongs.

Summer school seemed like the best place to try out the systems-wetlands unit, but teaching in a multiage classroom—kindergarten through second grade—makes things messy, even if my students are potentially gifted. As I move through my vivarium lesson after the fieldtrip, I realize that my more advanced students are getting it, but I’m leaving some of the others—like Helen—behind. I wish I’d thought to ask Mr.—I mean George—Augustine about differentiating these lessons. Note to self: don’t refer to colleagues as Mr. or Mrs. I’m a teacher, too!

Click here to read more about the summer school program where Anita teaches.

Click here to see an excerpt from the systems-wetlands unit and student work samples.

George Augustine prepares for fall.

The countdown has begun. There are only four days until the teachers come back, and it’s time to get ready for blastoff! I’ve got all the new concept-based units organized by grade level and ready to email to the entire district faculty. We’re ready to roll! To celebrate, once I send the emails, I’m planning to head over to Hardee’s and treat myself to a sausage biscuit and a cuppa-joe. Doc says I shouldn’t have either of ‘em, but every now and again I say it’s a-o-kay.

After my biscuit, it’ll be back to the office to prepare my preschool week inservice. I’ll need hard copies of the new units to share and a presentation that’ll inspire the teachers and get ‘em to put these babies to use. It’s time for the rubber to hit the road, Jack!

I hit “send,” and they’re off. And, so am I. Just as soon as I find my keys.

See excerpts from the Romantic poetry unit developed during the summer below:

*Related Web Sites:

The Romantics Unbound: A Hypertexual Learning Space

The William Blake Archive

Romantic Circles Scholarly Resources

The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill

*Supplemental Resources:

Abrams, M. H. (1993).� The Norton anthology of English literature. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

While I’m driving back to the office, I pop in my new favorite oldies cd, The Best of Breadfor a blast from the past. I’m chewing on my biscuit and chewing on something else, too, something I feel like I was supposed to do, only I can’t quite put my finger on what the heck it was. No matter. It’ll come to me later (probably at 3 AM). I’m still humming “Baby I’m-A Want You” when I sit back down at my desk and see I’ve already gotten my first reply from the unit emails. From Stacy Boralis. Seems she’s found a flaw in the Romantic Poetry unit. Dag-gone-it!

It’s the first day of school, and Nicole gets a look at what’s in store for her during her senior year.

“There he is.” Christie just about slaps my books out of my arms. Why do these lockers always take so long to open? I look up, and there’s Cameron. And I look at my friend, Christie, as she straightens up and beams at him. Traitor.

I can hardly believe it, but Cameron walks right by us both and slips his arm around some new girl at the other end of the hall. Christie looks like she’s gonna throw-up. I turn my back to her and try again to open my lock, smiling inside. There is justice, after all.

Finally, my locker is open, my armload of books dumped, and we’re off to our next class: English. Christie barely says a word the whole way there. This year, we have Mrs. Clark. Bye-bye Mrs. B. Everyone says Clark’s pretty hard. The room is all squeaky clean, like the rest of the school, shiny floors, waxy smells. All the pencil marks have been scrubbed off of the desks, and they even feel clean. A fresh start.

Mrs. Clark is talking about her expectations, our senior class responsibilities, getting ready for college, and lots of other stuff while she hands out her beginning of the year letter home. I scan it while I check out everyone else’s back to school outfits. Lenore’s still wearing that Hello Kitty t-shirt that she’s had since ninth grade. It’s getting a little small. I woulda worn my strappy new top, but Mom says the school won’t allow it, and I don’t wanna get in trouble, especially not the first day. Mrs. Clark’s voice seeps into my brain. “….and we’ll finish the semester with a focus on Romantic poetry….” Romantic poetry? Now that sounds appealing. I give Christie my eyebrow look, and she shoots me a half-hearted wink back.

Click here to read Mrs. Clark’s letter home.