Paula E. Alvarez April, 2004
Sociological and Psychological Foundations of Learning
I visited St. Francis of Assisi School in Astoria New York on four separate occasions for a total of 20 hours observation as course requirements for the Graduate Education Program at St. John’s University during the Spring 2004 semester.
From a sociological and psychological perspective, I was impressed by the students and teachers in this school, which has a strong principal. Mrs. McArdle is passionate about her responsibilities, the level of support she gives her teachers, the timely and comprehensive information which gets passed to parents, and most importantly, the academic achievement of the students. Mrs. McArdle was a teacher for 30+ years (reading specialist) prior to her position at St. Francis. She knows each of her 500 students and their parents by name, can be seen in the schoolyard during line-up in the morning, in the cafeteria at lunch time, at every sports event, and even at dismissal. Each child is dismissed to the care of a designated parent or guardian or does not leave the school.
The school’s program runs from toddler time through eighth grade. In addition to the basic academics, each child also has "specials"; computer, Italian, Music, Library, Health/Guidance, and a full gym program. They do not serve a hot lunch, but have Pizza and bagels available for purchase twice weekly, a daily milk program ($60/year) , and 20 minutes supervised recess each day in the school yard or gym.
Tuition for the school year is $3320 per child, payable in 10 installments, plus a $7 weekly donation to the church. The school in clean, quiet, and safe. The socioeconomic status of the families which attend this school in my estimation is greater than $60,000 per year. P.S. 2 is the public elementary school in the area, which is a Title 1 school. PS 2 is located between "Upper Ditmars" (Astoria), which is predominantly single family dwellings and Jackson Heights, which is predominantly multiple family dwellings and some low cost housing. This community has a varied SES, ranging from low SES to incomes which are well into $100,000 per year. The Upper Ditmars area of Astoria is a neighborhood located 20 minutes from Manhattan, with modest single family
homes to homes costing in excess of $1 million dollars. Property taxes are at the city rate, and are much lower than Long Island and Westchester.
My first experience in the school was with the 6th Grade during their library period with Mrs. Carpanini, their librarian. The children assisted me in completing an interest inventory for a literacy class I am taking at St. John’s. The library was small, with round tables accommodating a small group of about 25 students. The children had been told in advance that I would join them, and they stood up and greeted me with "Good Morning, Mrs. Alvarez". I introduced myself and the task they would be helping me with, and they completed the survey. They needed very little assistance from me or the librarian, they knew their titles and authors. After I had thanked them for their help, Mrs. Carpanini quickly returned their books, and pointed them individually to their favorite authors. She had a mental picture of what each and every child was waiting for or wanted to read.
On a separate occasion I had the pleasure of Mrs. Stefandl’s 4th and 5th grade math class. I spoke briefly with this teacher, certified to teach mathematics, who was a career change person. This teacher had a wonderful command of the content, treated her students with love and respect and it was clear that the students were returning this gift to her.
Mrs. Stefandl demonstrated long division with single digit divisors on the board asking them to listen and watch the first time. Prior to this demonstration, she discussed the terms divisor, dividend and quotient, constantly asking for the correct math terms when eliciting responses from the children. Divisor was presented as the door, the dividend as the house, and the quotient as the roof. She also referred to the times tables as a "help" to the children when they were performing this operation. She talked about groups of four asking the children to use their fingers in the problem 76 divided by 4 equal 19. She asked them to remember that division is all about equal groups. She talked about the importance of checking the math using the times tables and estimation.
She then wrote down the following steps 1. "d"ivide, 2. "m"ultiply, 3. "s"ubtract, 4. "ch"eck that the difference is less than the divisor, and 5. "br" ing down. In order to help them remember the steps she created the following sentence: "Did Mom Serve Chocolate Brownies?" All the examples she presented at this point were without
remainders. After she presented several problems going through the various steps and checks, the children began to see shortcuts. She clearly told them no shortcuts yet.
At this point the children were asked to begin doing the operation on their own from examples in their book. The teacher checked for comprehension as she walked around checking and correcting notebooks, asking questions to help children through the problems. She talked with individual children about specific problems they were having, offering comments i.e. "if multiplication is making groups, then division is taking out groups." As she spoke with individual children, she demanded the correct "math language" and it appeared that for some children this was difficult.
Mrs. Stefandl kept this class on track. In my observation, she knew exactly where the children would make the mistakes and intentionally pointed them in the right direction. The children were respectful of Ms. Stefandl and their fellow classmates by raising hands and helping each other during notebook time. Ms. Stefandl also respected her students and showed this by "promising" to work with them until they mastered the operation. The children asked really good questions which showed that they were engaged in mathematical thinking, which she promptly answered either by referring to larger math concepts, additional problems, or promising to show them something at a later date. Once she was comfortable that they had grasped the concept of division without remainders, she moved on. I was also impressed that she insisted on correct math language. Ms. Stefandl was constantly pointing the children back to their addition, subtraction and multiplication families. She knew exactly which students to ask specific questions of, one boy in particular always knew which step came next, which students were good with the math facts, which students still needed to study multiplication tables, etc.
Looking at the time, she proceeded on to division with remainders and briefly presented a problem and the check, divisor times quotient plus remainder. The kids got excited for the second time. Again, she would show them no shortcuts even though some of the children were doing the problems in their head. At the conclusion of class, about 5 minutes, she had the children stand up in a single line and they played a memory game with multiples of two. It was obvious that they had played this game before and got into it quickly and had fun doing so.
After class, we had a quick discussion and she told me I was in for a treat with the Fifth Grade. This was the second year she has been teaching them math. There were 32 children in this class compared to 17 in the fourth grade.
The class was about factors and divisibility rules. The teacher handed back a test they had taken the previous day as the students moaned and groaned. As she went over the correct answers on the board, she knew exactly which children were being disruptive (with her back to them) and quickly got everyone under control. The "classroom" contract was prominently displayed on the bulletin board closest to the blackboard.
They discussed factors for 24, 35, 26, 56, 27, and 72 and divisibility rules for even numbers, a number ending in 5 or 0, a number ending in zero, and sum of the digits. This class clearly had its math stars, it appeared that everyone else was struggling. Again these gave them problems to do in their notebooks as she monitored comprehension and checked answers.
After class, she discussed that these students were great in math in the fourth grade, but needed lots of extra help this year partially due to class size and age.
The school is departmentalized in Math and Reading, therefore, Mrs. Brooks teaches ELA exclusively. Upon entering the classroom the children stood up and it was clear to me again that they were familiar with greeting guests. The daily schedule was posted in addition to classroom rules to the front of the room which involved issues of "self control", "never settle for less than your best, and a beautiful hand made banner with the words "Explore, Dream, Wonder". The room was clean and organized, with a special library area with two round tables for reading. There were sample’s of student work posted on the bulletin board outside, and a collage with the first names of the children titled "Our Efforts".
I spoke to the teacher, Mrs. Brooks, before class who told me the focus of the lesson was on Tall Tales, chain of events, author’s craft, genre, and vocabulary (figuring out meaning from content). The students have been on this unit for about two weeks and they were very familiar with graphic organizers which she would use to explain chain of events. No actual writing other than note-taking would be produced in this class, but homework questions would be reviewed.
The book being read was "If You Say So, Claude" by Joan Lowery Nixon. This is a fictitious story about pioneer life and was included in their ELA text book. There was a teacher’s edition to this lesson. The children have a book report due on April 27th so one main point of the lesson was to reinforce skills for gathering information and that they do not need to record every detail in their reports, only key events. The graphic organizer and chain of events was used to identify key events in the story. The teacher modeled reading for the children very nicely reading aloud excerpts to be used in graphing several chains of events in the lesson. She spent some time around "the first event" to get the chain going, the difference between verbs such as looking and throwing, and that chain of events relates to physical movement that causes a reaction.
The children were given practice reading specific parts of the text and creating graphic organizers on their own. The teacher informally assessed students by walking around the room checking notebooks. After the exercise was completed, she asked open ended questions and created a graphic organizer on the board. She talked about subtle differences that words can connote such as "stepping" and "looking down my foot was planted square on the snakes neck." The first suggested the action was intentional; and the second was not a deliberate action in the chain of events.
Throughout the lesson she referred back to "vocabulary words" presented in an earlier lesson". There was some talk about words such as "suddenly", "diverge", "furrow", "pallet", "landscape", "boulder", "bank" and "damn". The children identified the text supports that would allow them to figure out meanings, and also suggested use of glossary when the words were not supported. She also talked about gathering information is different based on the question asked.
It appeared that she ran out of time, but concluded the class by referring them to their workbook section on tall tales and simply tied this to the concept of exaggeration.
She noted that they would continue their discussion the next time they met and the class ended.
What I did observe was a satisfactory climate, and the components identified in the postreading, skill and strategy, and satisfactory teacher practices. I did not witness the prereading or guided reading phase to this lesson. Materials and tasks of the lesson consisted primarily of children working silently at their seats and writing in their notebooks, although they were relevant to the task of the lesson mentioned earlier. I felt that the children were engaged, that is to say they were doing what they were supposed to be doing, but they were not overly excited about it.
For the most part, the teacher’s interaction with the student’s was positive and encouraged answers. She knew her students academically and held good answers requiring further discussion for later and came back to them. For the most part, she treated students respectfully but it was clear that she required "certain" behaviors from them, i.e. hand raising. She corrected the same boy twice about covering his mouth, commented about yawing so early in the morning, and was clearly bothered by a student who walked in late and set her quickly to task. The children were seated in groups of four but there were no group activities to this lesson. Overall, the quality of the lesson in relation to the goals and the assessment was clearly aligned. The teacher had a good command of the lesson that was executed in such a way that demonstrated this and also engaged students.
In having to deliver this lesson, I would like to elicit a little more excitement from the children and relate critical events to more than information gathering. There are many instances in other topics areas such as math, science and social studies that children could also relate to. Simple activities where children could compare their own graphic organizers and negotiate one group answer, possibly graphing them on their own at the board for class discussion, would contribute to excitement, along with group writing around a series of critical events identified in class which would serve to have them apply their knowledge.
My final observation was again with Mrs. Stefandl, and I spent the entire day with her and her fourth grade class. The class opened with the greeting that I had become accustomed to, and the first five minutes was dedicated to prayer and patriotic songs.
Although the prayers were set, the children picked Yankee Doodle for their patriotic song.
She asked the children what day it was 6 months and five days ago! It took them a couple of minutes but they reached the correct answer, October 23, 2003. The next warm up activity was Shirly Temple, Did you know that when she was 9 years old only six people in the U.S. made more money than her? They then did a Riddle for the day, What gets wetter the more it dries? A towel. She read them a book about Cathedrals and talked about Iroquois belief that what you do has an effect on seven generations to come. She talked about the word Exhaulted and had them look this up in the dictionary. They then reviewed a practice test they had taken of the State Math Exam and it appeared that they had done well.
The children then took a vocabulary test, moving their desks, taking out rulers, etc. The words were focus, troublesome, quake, extreme, marine, discard, magnify, coarse, circular, bristle, grasp and one synonym for encourage. They then had to put these words in "fifth grade" sentences.
She then did a "fun" activity with the children. They had to write a jingle about Spring in New York City for the radio. The children had a lot of fun with this, some even sang their jingles. All the children took their turn in a democratic way. She was really impressed as was I, the children did a great job and she referred to them as future "marketers". She gave out her most valuable student award. The children were given soft pretzels for a snack.
There are no specials on Friday, so she told me they would have more time for "fun stuff". Everyone in this room was having fun. All of the students had a "voice". One little girl in particular caught my attention because of the constant "pained" look on her face. I discussed her with Ms Stefandl who said that not only does she "get it" she gives it 110%.
Throughout the day, it was clear that Ms. Stefandl has a great relationship with these students and that she is having just as much fun as they are. It is clearly a democratic classroom, children checking other kids for homework compliance etc, board
monitors, everybody contributing something.
After lunch, the class was science, proton neutrons, and electrons. The children conducted experiments with balloons which they then got to take home. They were out of their seats, learning and having fun. She was comfortable with children moving freely around the room and was able to get them back to task quickly and back to their seats for some concluding thoughts on religion, the right to life, and a fun weekend.
Overall, I think her example is the best of the best and I would aspire to this clear example of what we can and should give students in the classroom.
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