Today's schoolchildren know the facts . . . they just can't do much with the information, the National Assessment of Educational Progress charged in a recent report.
American students are doing better with reading and math, but the report said, "Very few of our young people can use their knowledge and skills for thoughtful or problem-solving purposes, and not many can reason at higher levels." Some American students lack critical thinking skills - those abilities used in analyzing, concluding and drawing inferences. But don't tell that to JoLyn Baldwin, a sixth-grade teacher at Bountiful Elementary School. She has found a way to teach all her students to use the information gleaned in school by teaching them to become effective readers and writers.Disdaining fill-in-the-blank homework, Baldwin has a class of 32 students who have homework - pages of it. And while at least one sixth-grader cried every night for the first week because she had to think instead of just drop a word into the blank on a mimeographed page, the students are finding learning exciting with Baldwin's program.
Baldwin returned to teaching after staying home to raise her three children. And she really hadn't taught very long before her first child arrived - she had been a long-term substitute and finished the year for a teacher who became ill, just signing her first contract when she discovered she was pregnant.
But Baldwin stayed in teaching mentally, taking classes over the years, and when the urge hit her to go back to work about four years ago, she was more ready than her sketchy resume would suggest.
There is one axiom that JoLyn Baldwin firmly believes in: "If children love to bury themselves in a book, they are going to be successful; they're the good students." As she prepared to teach sixth grade in Bountiful's Valley View Elementary, Baldwin spent a lot of time with teacher and longtime friend Vickie Smith, who also wanted her students to love reading.
The two wrote their own reading program and out of their own pockets obtained paperback editions of their favorite children's literature, enough for a whole class. They had the support of their principal in returning textbooks to the publisher for a $500 credit. Baldwin worked out a deal with Sam Weller's bookstore for full classroom sets of trade books to serve as reading texts for her class and Smith's.
Baldwin brought this approach to reading to Bountiful Elementary when she transferred there last year. Again with a supportive principal, Velda Morrow, Baldwin met with the two other sixth-grade teachers, Claire Martin and Vickie Smith (who also transferred to Bountiful Elementary). The three laid their plans and purchased complete classroom sets of "Wrinkle in Time," "Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes," "The Big Wave" and "Tom Sawyer," among others.
A sixth-grade class with no basal reader? No categorized reading by groups? Gifted children and slow readers all in the same group? "I don't believe in ability grouping," Baldwin says emphatically. "It's so defeating. Reading together as a whole is a self-esteem builder."
Baldwin said that some of her students had never read a book cover-to-cover until they all orally read "Egypt Game," "Tuck Everlasting," "Julie of the Wolves" and "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH."
The slow readers will read a paragraph or two outloud, and at first the faster readers couldn't resist correcting when a word was mispronounced. But the rule was reinforced that no one corrects and it's all right if a word gets missed sometimes. "The slow reader becomes more confident because he or she knows that I won't make them read for an hour. When I read or the faster readers take a turn, the slow reader benefits because he's watching the words and absorbing from that," Baldwin said.
But do the children really learn? After that first year at Valley View, Baldwin's class was tested using the test on the basal reader they didn't use. Out of a possible 120 points, 93 was the mastery score; all but two of Baldwin's 32 students scored 93 or better, and the two were between 85 and 93. "That was a normal class and you would expect to have a regular breakdown," Baldwin said of this above-average showing.
There are many reasons Baldwin prefers trade books to basal readers. "There were people reading before Houghton Mifflin! There is a national trend to get away from strict basal reading. A chapter from a book can't show character development or author's purpose. And the best things come out of discussions while you're reading a book," she said.
When her class was reading about the rats of NIMH, they discussed Mrs. Frisby's (the name was changed to Brisby for the movie because of a trademark dispute) leaning on others and never trusting herself. The discussion was a springboard into studying dependency and drug use. Speakers also came from the University of Utah who discussed animal research, and the animal rights issue was presented by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "The kids read the December Newsweek article on animal research and studied the legislation going on. They wrote opinion pieces and about their feelings on artificial organ research. You don't find that in a basal," Baldwin said.
"Charlotte's Web" sparked a dialogue on friendship and loyalties. The conclusion of "Julie of the Wolves" made the class unhappy so they decided to write their own endings. "Since the book left them hanging, they studied about and then wrote epilogues in the same style as the book, third-person narrative," Baldwin explained.
Baldwin found her students resisted the work and responsibility at first. She tells them she is preparing them for junior high school and that they must become responsible for their own progress. She taught them to use a small notebook to record assignments and due dates. She keeps a computer file on each student that gives the parents an instant progress report.
Baldwin grades "holistically." She says she was a perfectionist who hated the red marks on her papers so much she would hardly ever write. "Instead of circling every error, I read for content and structure," she said. By keeping running notes of progress and problems, Baldwin knows when students need help.
While reading the myths her students wrote for a book they put together, she noted that the students were having difficulty with paragraphing, so she spent time teaching them how to paragraph. "It's hard not to let that red pen come down, but the kids see their progress, and when I show them their first writing at the end of the year, they say, `I can't believe how bad I was!' " Baldwin laughed.
The secret to Baldwin's ability to assign, read and correct the many pages of reading and writing assignments is simply that she is highly organized. She says she seldom takes work home to do but uses spare moments in the classroom and an occasional lunch period to read and grade the work.
"It really isn't that bad, the `bookshares' (her version of a book report) come in on an irregular basis, sometimes 12 or 15 at a time. I may take an extra half hour after school to read them," she said.
After 15 years at home, Baldwin started all over again as a teacher. "I threw everything away and walked into the room with a brand new approach," she said. "I just know I'm where I need to be."