Danielle Davis, teacher's
aide at Peninsula School in Samoa.
by EMILY GURNON
HERE IS PLENTY OF BAD NEWS TO REPORT ABOUT EDUCATION.
Budget cuts, declining enrollment, crumbling buildings, students too burdened with the weight of poverty or difficult home lives to concentrate on their studies.
But, as those involved in education know -- whether they are parents, students, teachers or community members -- there is also plenty of good news to report. In this issue of the Journal, we have selected a handful of exciting, innovative or just plain worthwhile public school programs to highlight.
Not coincidentally, these programs are among the dozens to be showcased beginning Friday, Feb. 6, during Humboldt State's third annual Education Summit, a three-day event organized by the education department and, in particular, by education professor Eric Rofes.
If you haven't registered for the summit -- which touches on everything from rural kids with disabilities to homophobia in the classroom to global justice -- you can do so at the door, and the sessions are clearly geared to appeal to parents, community organizers and interested citizens as well as educators and administrators. See the box at the bottom of this story for a few of the highlights, or log on to the website.
We have not attempted to find the "best" things about Humboldt County education for this story. There are far too many great teachers, savvy administrators and cutting-edge ideas to write about in one issue. What we hope to do is touch on just a few.
Danielle Davis [photo at right] stumbled, "kind of by accident," on the idea of using juggling in her elementary school classroom.
"I found, my first year of teaching, that I didn't know what I was doing," the 31-year-old said bluntly. "I did know that I needed to do the things that I knew how to do well. I could juggle, I could organize things really well. I wanted to put my very best foot forward. And then I found that it actually got the kids' attention."
But of course, there was no place for "juggling instruction" in the school curriculum. She needed to teach reading, writing and math.
So she figured out how to do both.
"If it was someone's turn, I threw them the ball and then they would speak. Then everybody else in the class wanted to catch the ball and to answer."
This year, Davis -- who is presenting a workshop on Saturday at the summit on the relationship between juggling and improving focus in students -- began to use her colorful scarves, balls and hats in her position as a teacher's aide at Peninsula School in Samoa. She is also working on her master's in education at HSU.
One morning last week, Davis had the 20 second- and third-grade students sit in a circle. The children paid rapt attention; the only sound to be heard in the room was Davis' voice and the hum of the computer.
"If you're sitting up straight, I'm going to put a magical hat on your head," she said, slowly making eye contact with each student. She then chose three to bring into the center of the circle, asking the other students, one at a time, to "juggle" the three by calling out their names in sequence. "Jillian, Haley, Luke," the children would say, and Jillian, Haley and Luke would each, in their turn, step forward. "Jillian, Haley, Luke."
Photo below left: Peninsula School student Dallah Murray practices tossing a ball back and forth with a classmate as a part of Danielle Davis' juggling demonstration.
Davis encouraged the kids' concentration during the exercise by telling them, "If you are quiet and you have your hands on your knees, you get a ball."
Still in a circle, the students got to practice throwing the small balls back and forth to each other, "shaking hands" with a juggling pin, and tossing a scarf from one hand to the other. Davis then took them out to the courtyard to demonstrate the unicycle, telling them in advance that she might fall. "Just like you. You may fall in school -- you may make mistakes. But you get right up again. And you learn."
Davis' supervising teacher, Catherine Arnold, called her "extraordinary."
"Juggling is a really concrete analogy for learning," Arnold said. "I think it's been very good at helping the children learn to focus and concentrate, and we use it when we're talking about reading and when we're talking about struggle and perseverance."
And the children have responded. "I have never seen children more `on task,'" Arnold said. "When Danielle's working with the students, they are attending. They are very highly motivated. And they want to participate." The children have also learned patience and compassion when others make mistakes -- saying things like, "Don't laugh at her; she's still learning."
Arnold said having Davis in her classroom has provided an unexpected and joyful bonus: The veteran teacher herself is now learning to juggle.
"I was startled at how much you need to pay attention to," Arnold said. "It's pretty complex. It made me understand what it was like to learn something brand new. And it made me have empathy for children," as they tackle the difficult tasks of reading, writing and working with numbers, she said.
Davis gathered her three red-and-white juggling pins, which resemble bowling pins, and tossed them in the air. After a few seconds, one of the pins dropped.
"Pick it up!" several of the kids called. "Do it again."
Morris Graves: Coming soon to a computer near you
Local artists and art lovers know all about the richness of the Humboldt County art scene. Now, students from grades four through 12 can learn about one local art icon while sitting in front of their computer screens.
Michael O'Neill, director of the Magnet Arts Program of the Humboldt County Office of Education, has created an interactive CD-Rom about the life, art and influences of Morris Graves, the local painter who died in 2001 at the age of 90.
O'Neill spearheaded the project last year as his master's project in education at HSU, with the help of his advisor, art professor Joanne Berke, graphics artist M. Wayne Knight and art education students. Part of his motivation for the CD came from a desire to create something that students would actually use.
"Over the 1990s schools spent billions of dollars investing in computer equipment, but how effectively are they used in the classroom?" O'Neill said. "It turns out that art teachers [in particular] really aren't using the tools that we have very much. I wanted to make a piece of software that students will use and learn from."
[Right: Michael O'Neill, M. Wayne Knight and Joanne Berke]
The CD contains scenes from Graves' Loleta estate, a pictorial biography of his life, a portfolio of his paintings and video interviews. It also features lesson plans for art, language or history teachers, including plans that guide students to create their own paintings inspired by Morris Graves' work.
O'Neill and Berke are sharing copies with teachers interested in using it in their classrooms on Friday during the education summit.
"We want to talk about how to use it in the classroom or with an individual. We'll demonstrate how to use the program. Then we're all going to create art work from the lesson plans," O'Neill said.
Other copies of the CD-Rom are available through the Morris Graves Foundation, 5241 Tompkins Hill Road, Loleta, 95551.
Above: Morris Graves' Waking, Walking, Singing in the Next Dimension, 1979
Above: From the interactive CD on the art and life of Morris Graves
Learning the ROPES at Freshwater
When Freshwater School decided to add a seventh and eighth grade charter school to its campus in 1999, administrators envisioned a place that would offer a more student-centered, small school environment, with project-based learning as its focus, said Principal Elaine Gray.
"The idea behind project-based learning hinges on what we know about how children and people learn," Gray said. "They learn best by making choices about what they want to know, by having hands-on [experience], by taking on a larger piece of activity and learning how to divide it into manageable parts, and then having skills such as reading, writing, speaking as part of the components in their project."
The 44 students who make up the two grades have the opportunity to study languages and explore the "world of work" through job shadowing with adults. In the eighth grade, students also select one yearlong project for their Rite of Passage Experience (ROPES).
One student wanted to learn how to draw portraits; she did a portrait of her younger sister as her final project. Another learned the work of a farrier: how to shoe horses. Yet another studied Civil War uniforms and sewed one himself. Each student works with an adult mentor from the community, and at the end of the school year, all students present an oral and written report on their project.
Matthew Perkins, 14, is an eighth-grader
who chose as his ROPES project a subject he thought would combine
his interest in sports and woodworking. Through weekly sessions
with his mentor, Mark Elking of Arcata, he has learned how to
make baseball bats on a lathe.
"I was kind of nervous that I might not find a mentor or, like, it might not work out," Matthew said. "But I caught on to it pretty quick. I feel actually good because I'm succeeding in it. I've always wondered how they're made, so now I know."
Gray said she believes the charter program has been a positive one.
"We feel like we've made a big difference in a lot of children's lives. We still have to abide by the [testing] standards, and our students do as well if not better than the students in the local junior highs.
"The reason ours works is because it's small, we have family involvement, we have an incredibly gifted staff and we have good kids who want to do well." She and others will discuss the charter program in more detail on Saturday at the summit.
Breakfasts are in -- sodas out
Last year, officials and teachers with Eureka City Schools got worried about what they were hearing: National statistics showed that there was an epidemic of obesity among children and that diabetes was afflicting kids at an alarming rate. They also knew that California legislators were working on a bill to ban sodas in schools.
The soda ban, signed into law by then-Gov. Gray Davis in September, eliminates sodas from elementary schools and restricts their sale in middle schools to after-school hours, beginning July 1.
Eureka decided to go even further: The district ended soda sales at its junior highs and high schools during school hours. (Elementary schools did not have soda machines.)
The health of the district children was at stake, said Joyce Hayes, president of the Eureka City Schools Board of Trustees.
"That's what is really driving the decision to offer nutritional foods at school. We were looking at national statistics [on obesity and diabetes], but we realize that those probably are pretty close to what we're seeing here, too."
The soda machines have been converted to offer only fruit juices, water and milk, Hayes said. Candy machines are also out.
The move is a part of a larger nutrition policy, approved by the trustees last year, which also includes free breakfast for all children at the district's six elementary schools.
The breakfast program, which started in January, is based on simple principles of biology, said Joyce Houston, a registered dietician and public health nutritionist with Humboldt County.
"This is an old story. This is something that we've been saying maybe since the earth cooled. When you've been sleeping for seven, eight hours -- and it's maybe longer than that that you've eaten anything -- the system doesn't work as well. It's running out of gas," Houston said.
"If we want our children to be able to concentrate on learning, we need to feed them, and we need to feed them something that's going to stay with them, [that's] going to contain protein. And they're going to feel good and much more motivated to learn."
The alternative, she said, is unacceptable.
"There are a lot of kids who stop at a small local store, they may pick up something like a donut or a sweet roll and a soft drink. And that is what they start their day on, or nothing. As soon as they come down from that sugar high, they're going to feel very tired, they're going to feel uncomfortable [with hunger], they may get a headache, be agitated. And school is not going to be nearly as much fun."
Jerry Johnson, chief business official with Eureka City Schools, said the universal breakfast was not expected to cost the district any extra money, because it requires no additional labor costs, and the district pays a bit less for the food than it gets back from the federal reimbursement. Seventy-five percent of the schools' 1,773 kids qualified for free breakfast and lunch before the universal breakfast started, Johnson said.
Houston and two of her colleagues will be presenting a workshop on the link between nutrition and learning on Friday at the education summit.
Oceans R Us
It seemed like a natural for Trinidad: a program that would teach children about the marine environment that was, literally, down the block from their school.
Terry Tauzer, a special education teacher at Trinidad School, jumped at the chance five years ago to go to the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley, and get trained in its Marine Activities, Resources and Education (MARE) program. The program, which has been implemented at schools nationwide, "transforms entire elementary and middle schools into laboratories for the exploration of the ocean," according to the Lawrence Hall of Science Web site.
The program at Trinidad, highlighting during an education summit workshop on Friday, includes visits to explore the beach and tide pools; trips to HSU's Telonicher Marine Laboratory, located a stone's throw from the school; guest appearances by local college professors or the Coast Guard or National Marine Fisheries staff; and classroom experiments and investigation. "This is a perfect curriculum for Trinidad because this is our back yard," Tauzer said. "We need to know about it."
Some teachers incorporate the material into their classrooms throughout he year, a little at a time. Others plan a concentrated program during May, designated as "Oceans Month" at Trinidad School. Rebecca Leuck's fifth- and sixth-graders, for instance, recently built a topographical map after studying ocean depths, and they are now raising salmon eggs in their classroom
[Above at left: a topographical map of ocean depths in the Channel Islands]
[Below, Camille Damian (left) and Leah Diggins, sixth-graders in Rebecca Leuck's class at Trinnidad School, examine a tank of salmon eggs as a prt of the Marine Activities, Resources and Education (MARE) program. ]
This year, parent coordinator Cynthia Anderson is working on bringing more parents into the project. Working with Eureka City Schools, which is using a grant to encourage family involvement in education, Anderson is helping set up a series of night meetings in which parents get to try out some hands-on science for themselves. Her own sons, ages 9 and 7, motivated her to get involved, said Anderson, who has a bachelor's degree in marine biology and a master's in wildlife biology. "I wanted to see more marine studies being taught in the schools. And my kids love it when I'm involved in anything."
© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.