- The Washington Times - Monday, March 3, 2008

A cube. A paper airplane. A cut-up sentence.

All are tools teachers can use to instruct any student in just about any subject as large in scope as the history of imperialism or as basic as the names of colors. They can do it while accommodating different learning styles, sometimes even different languages in one classroom, as is done at the trilingual Elsie Stokes Whitlow Community Freedom Charter School on 16th Street Northwest in the District.

Given training and direction along with some purposeful goals and a philosophy, some District educators are doing just that under the direction of a nonprofit educational group called the Center for Inspired Teaching. The spirit of open inquiry, akin to the famed Socratic method that is fundamental to its approach, has resulted in improved test scores and attendance records, according to research provided by the center.

They do it and manage to surmount challenges from parents, unsympathetic principals and an occasionally stubborn bureaucracy, since the program also includes long-term support.

“We train the teacher to work with parents, even angry parents,” says Aleta Margolis, executive director of the center, which she founded 12 years ago as a third-generation Washingtonian eager to help a struggling public school system.

Her premise, then and now, she explains, is that traditional top-down instructional methods turn off a child’s natural curiosity. Figuring out how each student’s mind works and finding ways to engage that student is key.

“Research shows that even — especially — kids not from stable families can take advantage of our approach,” she notes.

In addition to seminars, workshops and a two-week-long summer institute for professional development, the center sponsors classroom mentors in certain schools and partners with others for one year or longer. In the latter case, all of a school’s personnel, including service workers, take part.

Issues surrounding the art of teaching are at the heart of each program. Skills and strategies are core. These can involve physical as well as mental activities to fully engage a student.

“It’s a lot of what you the teacher put into it,” suggests Carol Betts, a program graduate.

Brooke Buerkle, a newly minted graduate of Harvard University’s master’s in education program, uses small, 3-D paper cubes to teach a ninth-grade social studies class at Bell Multicultural High School about imperialism. Students write relevant questions on the sides and then each toss the hand-made cube to a partner across the room who has to answer back. The exercise, called cubing, is intended to “help students avoid ‘flat’ thinking — and showing that processing information is a multidimensional task,” a center prompt sheet explains.

Ms. Buerkle participates in the cubing exercise, she said recently during an early evening course on differentiating language arts instruction held at the center’s offices at 1436 U St. Northwest. The session was attended by an experienced pre-K teacher as well as a former principal of a Los Angeles high school who is now a literacy coach for the Hope Community Public Charter School in the District.

An entire lesson, or unit theme, might flow from a single key question, such as “What is a continent?” It’s a question intended to prompt answers that in turn will prompt more questions. A student is far more likely to retain what he learns by applying critical thinking in an imaginative setting, the reasoning goes.

“Brain research shows this is more beneficial,” says center staff member Jenna Fournel. In turn, teachers are shown how recommended lessons and activities connect to District standards and how to explain innovative concepts to principals. “Teachers are a solution to fix what happens in schools because they work with kids day to day,” she says.

Thus, a paper plane in the sixth-grade classroom of Abdu’l-Karim Ewing-Boyd at Elsie Whitlow Stokes School becomes an object around which students can learn math, science and history.

Initially skeptical about the center’s inquiry-based method, he says he had more of a crisis mind-set: “I saw my student population not doing well — there are all these problems, a classroom full of young black and Latino children — and I know my country is not going to give them a whole lot of breaks so I have to do this quickly, march these children as quickly as possible. I get to the center and they want me to play games. [But I found] it’s easier to march children in the direction you want them to go if they are enjoying the trip.”

It helps that he has a supportive principal, he says, and also that he never liked “the idea of sitting kids down in seats and throwing things at them just for the sake of it.”

Brearn Wright, the principal of Clark Elementary School in Petworth, where he says 80 percent of students are on free and reduced-price meals, saw “tremendous gains” that another elementary school had achieved in partnership with the center. He then “pestered” the center to have the full-time school program manager that a partnership entails. The biggest change he has seen since the fall has been a reduction in discipline problems as well as modest gains on reading and math tests.

George Penny of John Eaton Middle School, a District teacher for 35 years, terms the center’s summer workshop “inspiring,” but says it didn’t change his methods in any fundamental way.

Ms. Betts, an elementary school teacher for 15 years, once was dismissed from a job for defying a principal’s instruction to involve her class in a competitive history exercise that Ms. Betts believed was detrimental to children’s emotional well-being. She later recouped with a transfer to another school, her principles intact.

The incident occurred following her participation in the center, an experience, which she calls “life changing, almost a paradigm shift. … They bring your defenses down.” Schools where children do well, she says, “believe in kids,” and teachers aren’t just “keeping a mortgage and a principal happy.”

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