From a table in the back of Room 226 at Paseo Academy, I could see Carol Charismas’ seventh-grade English students enter, walk across the off-white tile floor under the fluorescent light and take seats in neatly arranged student desks.
On the board, Charismas had written: “I can read, write and comprehend at or above the eighth-grade level by May 15, 2015. (No doubt about it!)”
That’s her goal, and she has invited me into her four classes this school year to chronicle the hard work that she and her students are putting in to making the mark. Their effort parallels the heavy lifting Kansas City Public Schools must do to go from provisional to full accreditation.
That’s district superintendent Stephen Green’s goal for 2015. But it’s no slam dunk. About 70 percent of the 15,000 students in the Kansas City district score less than proficient on academic tests.
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Worst of all, students score poorly in English language arts. Charismas said 9.3 percent of her kids are reading at grade level. Another 9.3 percent are reading above grade level. However, 81.4 percent are reading below grade level.
That’s where the heavy lifting has to occur. Charismas’ eagerness has infected her students with a will to learn. She called last year, inviting me to her classroom. She remembered my columns, starting 20 years ago, following the Class of 1999 at Washington High School in Kansas City, Kan. I studied with the students from their freshman year until graduation to learn what it was like to be a teen and teacher.
I could see from my first visit to Paseo in December that a lot has changed. All visitors and students must show a security guard a picture ID to enter and walk through a metal detector. I always set it off so I also get wanded. Tighter security is needed now to prevent weapons from entering schools. It is an unfortunate part of education today. In the classroom, dry-erase boards and markers replace chalk and the old-style black boards.
Teachers like Charismas also have to adeptly use computers, projectors and smart boards for lessons. When stumped, teachers ask kids — America’s digital natives — for help. Students sometimes use their smartphones to retrieve information, which adds to classroom learning. Those devices are tool, not taboo.
A lesson worth sharing for Black History Month was one I saw Charismas have with her first two classes on Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and John Brown.
Questions on the smart board asked: 1) Is Harriet Tubman’s life and her work relevant to today’s American society? 2) How? 3) Has reading about Harriet Tubman influenced you in any way?
The students had to read pages 432-433 in their “Common Core Literature” textbook. In class they also took turns reading the paragraphs out loud.
Charismas explained: “You’re using two senses — your sense of sight and your sense of hearing. You’re learning double.”
That strategy also could buoy the district’s reading scores. Another Charismas tactic was to put questions in front of the students before reading. “It helps you to focus,” she said. Charismas peppered each class with questions, which enhanced their comprehension. She asked how Tubman was injured as a girl, why she ran away and what techniques Tubman used as an underground railroad conductor.
The students were quick to respond. Some also gave more extensive, self-generated reports on Tubman, Brown and Douglass. Independent study and peer-to-peer learning boosts comprehension. Charismas got the students to think of character traits Tubman, Brown and Douglass possessed that could be useful today. One that stood out was courage. “You have to put yourself in their place,” Charismas said.
For words the students didn’t know, Charismas coached them to try to determine the meaning through the context. “You have to get used to putting two and two together,” she said. Better comprehension comes from reading more. That’s Charismas’ goal and the district’s, too.