Sitting in the brand-spanking new cafeteria of the Bay Middle School last night I found myself near tears. It was open house for the sixth grade and my first at Ryan's new school. My fears of him not making the transition were unfounded to say the least. He came home the first day and proclaimed, "Mom, the middle school is the best thing that's ever happened to me in my life!" Pretty strong words from my boy who dreaded school for the past two years.
To be sure he's in stunning physical surroundings. Students and teachers moved into the new school in January, but they spent the second semester last year co-existing with a barrage of workmen finishing up the school. This year, it's done. The library's giant windows face a gorgeous view across Cahoon Park to Lake Erie. The art rooms are finer than those I remember from college days. And the technology program is simply incredible—not only do the kids learn keyboarding, word, excel and powerpoint, but they also get to spend time in a modular lab exploring graphic design, aerospace, human genetics, video production and editing and other possible career paths.
The school is amazing, but it was my first exposure to Ryan's teachers and the curriculum that moved me nearly to tears. Though it may seem normal to those who have fine educational experiences, this level of energy, enthusiasm and educational creativity is NOT at all what we experienced over the past two years.
Core subjects (math, language arts, social studies and science) are taught in hour-long segments. Within the block, teachers have the flexibility to use more or less time, depending on the preparation for that day. For example, if the math teacher is preparing students for a big test, she can use 75 minutes instead of 60 minutes! And built in to their schedule is 45 minutes for academic support. We used to call it study hall, but this is far more structured. Students may complete homework assignments or meet with one of their teachers for more instruction. Students receive no more than an hour's worth of homework (total) each night. If they spend more than 20 minutes on an assignment, parents are to write a note to the teacher and the teacher will accept the homework because (and this is the real kicker), if it took the student too long, the teachers feel as if they didn't explain it well enough.
The spokesperson for Ryan's team was Mr. I, the science teacher. He's a young guy (my son's first male teacher) and full of humor and energy. He actually studied the yearbook photos of the kids (as fifth graders) so he would know their names when they first stepped into his classroom!!!
Equally amazing were his two language arts and social studies teachers who—and this is when my jaw nearly dropped to the floor—teach the two subjects in concert!!! This is the year for learning about the ancients and language arts assignments are linked to what the students are learning in social studies. My heart be still, we're actually connecting the dots!!!!
And then Ryan's math teacher stood up, with a chicken puppet plopped on her head. She uses it to help students let go of their fear of math. In talking with her afterward I explained that Ryan's math experience over the past two years has been mind-boggling horrid. I'm not even sure what he has learned or retained from fifth grade. Of all his subjects, this is the one in which he is alarmingly behind. She reassured me that Ryan is very enthusiastic about math and assured me that he would soon catch up with his classmates.
She's making math fun and has set up a system of organization that makes my heart sing! The only method of communication his fifth grade teacher at the parochial school employed was screaming, even when a student asked for help. She was so horrible at teaching math that she is no longer teaching it this year. That someone who so clearly does not enjoy children is still teaching AT ALL is such a tragedy for those who must endure her this year.
Ryan is so excited about school this year. He leaps out of bed every morning, has written down all his assignments in great detail (and even his after-school practices, etc.) and finishes all his homework before football practice. I was always amazed at how our students (and boys are particularly bad about this) were expected to master organization between their fourth and fifth grade years at parochial school. It's a nice goal, but it's an ongoing goal. And his new teachers understand that kids still need time to LEARN organizational skills, not just be expected to possess them.
As I walked back to my car last night, I called Ryan on the cell and told him how cool his teachers are and how happy I am that he is in a place where he can thrive. He responds to teachers who treat him with respect, who make learning fun (and not simply rote), and who are engaging his young mind in ways I know will cause him to succeed.
I slept soundly last night knowing my boy is where he needs to be.