Diversity takes no holiday in school
Faces of the Future
The Gazette offers a nine-month series about local education in the 21st century. Gazette reporter Frank Schultz will spend time in Amanda Werner's fifth-grade classroom at Janesville's Adams Elementary School throughout the school year and write about the challenges and changes of a modern classroom.
Click here to read earlier installments in the Faces of the Future series.
Teacher Amanda Werner supplied this report on what's been going on in her fifth-grade classroom at Adams Elementary School in the past month.
We continue to develop the reading comprehension strategies, asking questions and making inferences, through shared reading and independent practice.
Reading groups included lessons on character traits, the importance of setting and how conflict drives the plot of a story.
We have four separate groups reading Battle of the Books novels.
Homophones and commonly misspelled words were practiced and reinforced.
We researched and wrote opinion essays around the theme of Martin Luther King Jr. as a warrior for peace for the MLK celebration at Blackhawk Technical College in January.
King's charismatic speeches naturally opened discussions and practice with figurative language—similes, metaphors, hyperbole and personification.
The after-school Writing Club is working diligently on submissions for the Southern Lakes Anthology writing contest.
We completely immersed ourselves in geometry this month by investigating properties of angles, polygons and three-dimensional shapes through hands-on experiences.
We explored the culture and environment of Afghanistan, wrote letters to soldiers and sent a care package to U.S. troops for the holidays.
We looked more closely at the cultural differences that grace our classroom and discussed how people can be discriminated against, and why.
We covered the establishment of the 13 original colonies.
We began studying human systems: skeletal, muscular, circulatory and respiratory.
Once again, we have had only minor behavior infractions this month. With help from our school counselors, we have discussed appropriate ways to settle common fifth-grade conflicts with our peers.
Tallies for incomplete work rose slightly, but notes home each Friday quickly improved this issue.
Rewards in the form of prize box tickets and school store coupons remain to be handed out all day, everyday, for positive behavior and great thinking.
JANESVILLE Karla Vriezen was dashing about, making last-minute preparations for the fifth grade to rehearse its holiday musical in the Adams Elementary School gym.
She pulled up her dark glasses to show visitors her puffy eyes.
"I have an eye infection. Should not be here. We'll get through this," she said tersely.
"This is where her experience comes in. The show must go on. She's taking one for the team," observed fellow teacher Carol Tyriver.
Vriezen quickly flipped hanging decorations on the scenery. Four houses in a winter scene became houses with the messages "Feliz Navidad," "Happy Hanukkah," "Happy Kwanzaa" and "Merry Christmas."
Some students in another class are Jehovah's Witnesses, so the holiday greetings were omitted for that show, Vriezen said.
The three fifth-grade classes filed in. The faces in front of Vriezen reflected the rainbow that is this country's ethnic diversity. About one-third are Hispanic, black or Asian or are rooted in two or more cultures.
Here, as in most of America, diversity has grown in recent decades. At the same time, federal and state education authorities have increased pressure on school districts to narrow what is known as the achievement gap.
While individual students of all races and ethnicities might be high performers or poor performers, statistics show that in general, in most schools nationwide, white students outperform minority students.
The gap persists, although it has narrowed for blacks and Hispanics since the 1970s, according to "The Nation's Report Card: Long-Term Trend 2008."
Closing the gap
The gap exists at Adams, too. Consider state reading test scores among last year's fourth-graders—this year's fifth-graders at Adams.
More than 85 percent of white fourth-graders at Adams were rated as "proficient" or "advanced" on the 2011 reading tests, while 72.8 percent of minority students were so rated.
The gap was even wider in math.
The gap persists across Janesville public schools despite numerous efforts. The district has made a point of hiring a more diverse staff and trains all staff on diversity issues. The school board in 2011 made closing the gap one of the district's top goals while maintaining its previous goal of improving achievement for all students.
"We're willing to keep pushing to get the results we want, and ultimately it's about closing that achievement gap," said Director of Student Services Yolanda Cargile, who leads the district's diversity efforts.
Achievement should improve as the district's training of staff to be "culturally responsive" takes effect, Cargile said.
Cargile said denial about the need to change can be a problem, but "this isn't about placing blame. … This is about increasing their toolkits, their knowledge."
Poverty, of course, is another factor and another place where a gap exists. Poverty will be the subject of a future article in this series.
Back in the gym, Vriezen looked at the students assembled on the risers. She managed a smile through her pain.
"I compliment you on working so hard on a very difficult show," she said.
The show, "Once on a Housetop," began. Vriezen led the children through the songs and motions. Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah and Las Posadas were the combined themes.
The show included songs involving elves, lighting of candles, snowballs, Santa, angels, holiday food and chimney sweeps.
"Wow, I never realized there were so many ways to celebrate the season," was one young actor's line.
This emphasis on multicultural celebration has been similar since the late 1990s, Vriezen told The Gazette.
Kitty Grant, who was principal of Adams School until she retired last year, said Christmas shows where the norm this time of year when she arrived in 1989, but that had to change.
"We needed to represent the students that we served. … Obviously, there's always been a strong Christmas influence, particularly in Janesville, but at Adams School we worked very hard at trying to have other cultures represented," Grant said.
Cargile said presenting diverse cultures in holiday shows is one way schools can provide equal educational opportunities for all.
Back in class after rehearsal, teacher Amanda Werner complimented the students on their performance and celebration of cultures. She used it to steer into an activity about what she called the opposite of such celebration—discrimination.
"Discrimination is different treatment of different groups of people, often in an unfair way," she said.
She asked the students about the reasons people discriminate.
"The color of their skin," said Robby Welsh. "Or their religion," he added.
"By how rich or poor they are," said Payton Kahl.
"Maybe how they speak other languages," said Annika Leverson.
Werner asked them who would get more respectful treatment at a store, an adult like her or kids like them? They all knew it would be the adult.
Had any of the children ever felt discrimination? she asked.
Juan Esquivel recalled someone at a store making a comment about "crazy Mexicans."
"I got really mad, and my mother sent a complaint," he said.
Annika talked of being dropped off at an activity in her parents' older car.
"People laughed at me. It hurt," she said.
The discussion led to a reading lesson. Werner passed out storybooks in which a young person deals with discrimination. Students discussed their stories afterward and wrote answers about them on a worksheet.
Diversity at home
The children in Werner's class know who they are, but they don't seem to make a big deal of it.
As part of an exercise in cultural awareness, teacher Amanda Werner asked her students to make posters highlighting various aspects of their families' cultures—language, foods, customs, holidays, manners, etc.
"I want you to realize what we have in common and also to celebrate—to recognize—our differences," she told her students.
Here some quotes from the posters:
- "I speak English. We celebrate Christmas."
-- "I see my cousins three or four times a week. They are very important to me. We celebrate Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter."
-- "My favorite thing to eat is tamales. Hola, I speak English and Spanish. … I'm good at dancing," (with a drawing of a boy break-dancing).
-- "I speak English and Spanish. I like eating pizza."
-- "I eat a lot of Mexican food. Spicey."
-- "I speak English and Chiniki (an American Indian language)."
-- "You don't ask for more food until everybody gets food."
-- "We eat healthy. We go to church. We are hospitable to guests."
-- "I have to take my shoes off when I go home. I enjoy playing video games. … I have to listen when my mom is talking."
The next generation
Werner said her class is much more diverse than what she experienced while attending Janesville's Roosevelt Elementary School in the 1980s.
"Things have really changed, but I think that's great," she said.
Werner said she and her husband chose to return to Janesville in part because they wanted to expose their children to different cultures.
While students seemed to understand that their classmates have differing backgrounds, Werner said she hasn't observed any race- or culture-based friction among them.
"I love that we have different cultures celebrated in here (the classroom), whether it is ethnicity or socio-economic differences," Werner said. "I like to think we are raising a generation of kids who are accepting that others are different, and that's OK."