Class is a microcosm of education's evolution
Faces of the future
This is the second in a yearlong series about changes in education as seen in a class of fifth-graders at Adams Elementary School in Janesville.
Last month, we visited a fifth-grade classroom on the first day of school and met teacher Amanda Werner. Click here to read that story.
This month, we focus on Werner's students, whom we'll be following through the year, and the academic challenges they face.
Meet the members of Amanda Werner’s fifth-grade class at Adams Elementary School in Janesville.
Poems written by Amanda Werner’s fifth-graders at Adams Elementary School. At the request of school officials and because of the sensitive nature of some of the poems, the students' names and certain other identifying information were deleted.
JANESVILLE An old weather vane decorating Adams Elementary School features an iron boy and iron girl happily running, being pulled by an iron dog on a leash.
Some things about kids haven't changed much since the vane was placed atop the school in 1939.
They still can be sweet and endearingly innocent.
They still like pets and playing.
They run and shout on the playground.
They play kickball and hang from monkey bars.
Other things have changed a lot.
Most kids play video games and spend a lot of time with the television.
Many families are split, with mom and dad in different places.
Both parents often work, but the number of families with low incomes—either officially poor or close to it—is a growing concern.
Kids at Adams Elementary are used to a multiracial, multicultural classroom, and their teachers are charged with teaching them respect and how to communicate across cultures. It's something they'll need in a global economy, experts tell us.
The 21 students in Amanda Werner's fifth grade class at Adams reflect those changes and the ways things have stayed the same.
Perhaps at no time in U.S. history has so much attention been focused on raising levels of learning. These kids will reap the benefits if it's done right or suffer if the system fails them.
Who these kids are makes a difference, and local educators have heard this over and over: People have different ways of learning.
Cultural differences should be acknowledged and embraced, they are told. Kids should be made welcome, no matter who they are. Teachers have to learn that downcast eyes, for instance, might mean one thing in mainstream culture but something else in another.
Werner's handbook for some of this is "Culturally and Linguistically Response Teaching and Learning: Classroom Practices for Student Success."
The Gazette asked the students in Werner's class to fill out questionnaires about themselves and their families to show the community the kinds of students local schools are teaching to handle the challenges of the 21st century.
The kids in Werner's class live in a variety of home settings. Twelve live with two parents. Often, one of the parents is a stepfather or stepmother or a fiance or a boyfriend or girlfriend.
Three live only with their mothers. Five live sometimes with their dads, sometimes with moms.
Two are lucky to have grandparents in the house along with two parents. Nearly all of them have siblings. Many have stepbrothers and/or stepsisters.
Most of their parents work in local factories or provide services. They work at Hufcor, ABITEC, Clack Corp., Blain Supply and Goex.
One dad fixes cars and another is a fitness instructor. One mom works at a hospital while another runs an in-home daycare. One dad is looking for work, while mom can't work because of a recent surgery. Two other parents have long commutes.
One dad cuts grass. One is a DJ. Another works in construction. One is a student at Blackhawk Technical College.
A few kids weren't certain exactly what their parents do.
Kids don't know about family income, but official statistics for Adams School show that more than half are "economically disadvantaged," a figure that has more than doubled since 2000.
Adams is close to the district elementary-school average of 53 percent economically disadvantaged and well ahead of the state average, about 45 percent.
Another difference is the faces. Previous generations of Janesville students were overwhelmingly white. Werner's students make a rainbow of races and ethnicities.
Desires, needs and fears
Werner asked them to write about themselves this month. It was a way for her to get to know them and for them to get started on the writing curriculum.
One assignment was to write a poem that describes themselves. The poem required them to describe their desires, needs and fears.
Some feared the dark, or spiders or heights. Several wrote that they feared losing a family member.
One boy wrote that his brother died in a traffic accident. He was 18. "Now he's 22," the boy said. The same boy wrote that he likes pizza and soccer and gives lots of hugs. He drew a picture showing grandpa giving him money. He needs it, he said, adding, "I try to save it for shoes and stuff like that."
One girl said she fears being separated from her siblings. Her dad is in jail, she said, and "my stepdad, he treats me like I'm his real daughter." Still, she worries about the family being split.
One girl wrote that she needs to see her dad more often. He lives in Indiana, but he's coming to visit soon, she said hopefully.
The kids bring these worries and situations to school every day. Teachers keep these things in mind while pushing to teach them how to communicate, work together, walk safely in the halls, run computer programs and think through complex problems.
After several visits to this classroom, a reporter's initial impression is that these children are, for the most part, happy to be in school, eager to please and eager to learn. They have their quirks and foibles. Some need to be steered back on track several times a day. That's what Werner does.
Often, all it takes is a stern look or a request for everyone to focus.
Teaching kids to do the right thing was an emphasis for Adams Elementary students in September.
The whole school took time to review the rules of walking in the halls, playing on the playground and coming to school on time. Teacher Amanda Werner said these are the behavior items she's stressing in the classroom:
School expectations—safe, responsible, respectful and ready to learn.
Responsibility—turning in work, being ready to learn, classroom procedures.
Techniques—Werner gave out about 500 positive-reward tickets in September. Tickets go in a box, and there's a prize drawing.
Werner also gave out about 75 "tallies" for poor behavior choices/responsibility. Too many tallies, and kids must endure a silent lunch away from friends with a "think sheet" that asks them to describe their infractions, list the rules they did not follow, what they could have done differently and how they plan to improve. Parents need to sign it.
Parent communications—The Janesville School District stresses parent satisfaction. Werner said she planned to talk to or email all her students' parents this month.
Discipline—Werner said she had to pull a student into the hall "to discuss behavior choices" only once.
"This is a student that had an individual behavior plan last year, so I met with his fourth-grade teacher, and she shared her successes and program with me. I touched base with our counselor regarding this child. We plan to be proactive versus reactive in assuring he has a positive year.
"Other than that, I am working on getting kids to turn work in when they are completed or it is due and staying focused during instruction," Werner said.