Tuesday, January 6, 2009


I like the format offered me by Blogger when I started this blog--the one with the black background and white letters that you are now reading.  It reminds me somewhat of a blackboard.  I've used many blackboards in my career and cleaned almost as many.  And, yes, I do like the new Smart Boards.  Great technology.  But for a long time the only technology for teachers was the blackboard and chalk.   A few teachers even had colored chalk but it wasn't common. 

And when I think of blackboards I always think of Susan  (names will be changed in all my blogs).  Susan was a experienced first grade teacher in an established neighborhood school.  My reason to be in her room was that I was supervising a student teacher from my university for the quarter.  The student teacher, Anne, was a solid top of the line candidate to be a teacher.  I had good feelings with pairing Anne with Susan and I looked forward to at least one student teaching stop in my rounds that would be easy to supervise.  

It was early September only a few days into the start of the school year and Susan was warmly greeting Anne and showing her around the room, explaining what will happen when the first bell rings and what she will do to introduce her to the class.  All first graders eager to learn--about twenty five students if I remember correctly.  As I walked around the room looking at how the room was set up I noticed that the blackboards had not been cleaned, indeed, the boards were quite dusty from the previous day's use and a few days before that as well.  This is not a criticism of Mrs Donnelly.  Many teachers clean the boards maybe once a week.  It is easier to write on when there is a coating of chalk then when they are spotless clean.

As I passed the blackboards I couldn't resist and I made little footprints in the dust on the blackboard.  Never done that before?  It's easy.  Make a fist with your thumb at the top and roll the bottom of your hand (opposite of your thumb) on the board.  You'll leave a little print that looks like a small foot.  Now do the other hand and make a corresponding foot.  When you have made enough foot prints, go back and add three toe prints on each foot with the tips of your three biggest fingers.  It's easy and doesn't take much time.  

When I got done there were little foot prints that went across the blackboard.  Cute.  Anne was interested as she didn't know how to do that.  The three of us got to talking and pretty soon the first bell rang and in came the children.  They had had a week or so with Mrs. Donnelly before we showed up.  But today was the first time with Anne and me.  We were introduced and class started.  Pledge of Allegiance, lunch money collection, a quick look to the one blackboard to see what Mrs. Donnelly was going to teach them that day--the usual start for a first grade classroom.  

But it was quite obvious that the children wanted to say something about the foot prints I had left on the front board.  Yes, my fault, I should have erased them but I hadn't.  Now what.  Mrs. Donnelly called on one child--"Mrs Donnelly, someone has been walking on our blackboard."  Susan looked and said in a quiet voice, "I think I told all of you before that you are not to come into the room before the first bell unless I am here.  And certainly, I don't want you running on my blackboards."

I was amused by her remarks but even more so as some of the children looked at their feel and compared sizes.  "No" they assured her, "we weren't in the room before school started--we didn't do that and those feet are much smaller then ours."  

Susan and the kids discussed who might have made those footprints, even a number of them going up to the board and taking a closer look.  Anne and I kept straight faces and just watched.  Finally, Susan asked the children who might have made those foot prints and the kids considered the janitor (He had much bigger feet then any of them) and the hamsters' feet were way too small.  Who could it be and what should they do.  The first graders were really puzzled and paying close attention.  The class finally decided that they should write a note and leave it for who ever came into their room at night.  So Mrs. Donnelly got a large piece of tag board and with the help of Anne, the class composed a note.

Now remember, this is early September--school had been going on for only two weeks and most of these children didn't know how to write or read.  True a few did, but not well by any means.  So Mrs. Donnelly would get them to agree on a sentence and then Anne would print it in big letters on the tag board.  The children were beginning to see the correlation between the printing of letters and what they wanted to say.  

It was a brilliant beginning to teaching of reading and writing by Mrs. Donnelly.  She had seize the moment and the children's attention.  There are those that say that teaching is a science, particularly those who study at the university level, however, teaching is also an art of how you do things at that precise moment.  But I'd also have to say that some teaching is pure luck.  On this day in Mrs. Donnelly's first grade I saw aspects of all three characteristics of teaching.  The children's note was left for whomever came to their room at night.  Big time excitement for the children.

Well--that's not the end of the story.  Susan and Anne put their heads together and decided on a message to respond to the children's note.  But they decided to code the message so that those children who already knew how to read would not be able to claim the spotlight.  Made sense to me.  I deliberately went back the next day to see what transpired.  Here was a note on the new tag board in the blackboard tray.  But no one could read it.  The letters were recognizable but not the words.  

The children tried a number of ways of decoding the message.  They tried it backwards, also backwards one word at a time.  Northing worked.  And then in the middle of the session, one of the shyest boys in class very carefully raised his hand and announced he could decode the message.  We all looked at him with surprise and it was a surprise.  He had brought to school a 1933 decoding slide rule that his farther had in his desk drawer at home.  By moving the slide rule one place to the right, he could effectively decode the words.  A task that Susan and Anne had decided might take a few weeks was solved in the first hour.  And the shyest guy in the class made many friends that day.  Sometimes luck goes in strange directions in teaching.

Ah, yes, the note was from Fred F. Foote (his middle initial stood for Friendly) and he was terribly shy (which endeared him to a number of children in the room).  He was also very sorry he had left his foot prints on the black board.  He really only came back at night to the classroom to talk to the hamsters.  When the children read this part of the message the whole class got up and went to talk to the little animals.  It was fun to watch.

Mrs. Donnelly was on a roll.  During the following weeks, she started the children in writing messages to "Fred".  Anne, the student teacher, had a minor in computer languages and had found a ton of old punch cards for an old computer.  By using a primary typewriter (for those not in the know, there was a time when we had a special typewriter with extra large print which was used quite a bit by the primary grades), the children would write their messages, bad spelling and all, and then take them to Anne who would type them on the back of the punch cards with correct spelling and punctuation.   The kids were learning from the corrections.  And one of the rules that Susan had told the class was that they couldn't just leave their message to Fred--they had to read it to five other students in the class first.  You're right, some of them couldn't read, but they knew what they had wanted to say and they would say that back as they "read" their note to Fred.  And yes, the sentences were simple.  "How are you?  I am fine."  That was the start.  By the next week when I came back, they had moved ahead with more complex sentences and questions.  "Questions" written by a first grader?  It is not a common occurrence.  Maybe by the end of the first year of school but not the first month of the school year.  The kids were really learning about writing and reading.

Of course my poor student teacher was busy after school writing "notes" back from "Fred" to the different children.  She would put them in their desk so that the next day they would find them first thing in the morning.  I've never seen so many children who wanted the school day to start and were excited about learning.  Sometimes Anne would write on a card, "Your teacher says you did well on your numbers today!"  These notes became powerful tools in learning to read.  They were also a slight problem.  One child was ill and her mother kept her at home. Except the little girl cried and cried to go to school (with a high temperature) to see if she had a "letter" from Fred.  Mom brought her in late, she got her note and went home happy if still sick.  Powerful motivation.

Mrs. Donnelly finally set up a bulletin board with the title "Footnotes."  Only we adults enjoyed the "pun."  By the end of the school year it is my estimation that those children were reading at least a grade higher than normal--closer to third grade level then I would normally expect.  They also could compose sentences and were starting to work on paragraphs.  What kept them back was the fact that they didn't have the muscle dexterity to do the writing.  In this case the body had not keep up with the brain.  It would come together as they grew older.

Anne did well and went on to become a successful grade school teacher herself.  Then I lost track of her.   Susan said she had fun with "Fred."  I wanted the two of them to write a book or an article about Fred but it never came to pass.  

Footprints on the blackboard.  Seizing the moment to teach.  The art of teaching.  Exciting the children to want to learn.  Helping students overcome shyness.

And if you will forgive me a political point, Mrs. Donnelly, one of my favorite first grade teachers, was teaching for the moment, not to a test.  It was the art of teaching--not a curriculum mandated by the school board or the state.  It was beautiful to watch.

If you've read all this, whether you agree or not, be sure to thank a teacher.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Big Bro!

    I LOVED this story! Congrats on your new blog. If you maintain this quality and interest half the time, you've got an avid reader!

    Love, Li'lSys