Learning Curves

Behind the scenes for a day in the life of a teacher, at three very different Portland-area schools

by Erin J. Bernard

Education breeds not only knowledge, but also confidence, hope and peace, Confucius once observed. It’s a calling as much as a career, and in honor of the looming first day of school, we visited three Portland classrooms to see just how modern teachers juggle it all.

David Berkson teaches sixth grade English and theater classes at Northwest Academy, an independent middle and high school college prep program located in downtown Portland. Stephanie Cranley presides over a third-grade class at Portland Public School District’s Llewellyn Elementary School in Southeast Portland. And Josclyn Shipman heads up the Daisy Blossom mixed-age kindergarten class at Swallowtail Waldorf School and Farm, which visits the school’s 26-acre Hillsboro farm each Friday, rain or shine.

Encouraging, inspiring, mediating — it’s all in a day’s work for all three. Confucius would be proud.

Swallowtail Waldorf School and Farm. Mixed-age kindergarten class.

« 8:08 a.m. »

On an unseasonably chilly late-spring morning, Shipman — known to her students as Ms. Josclyn — and her assistant teacher, Frankie Salvatore, share a sprig of comfrey around the campfire before the morning teacher’s verse. The Waldorf tradition places great emphasis on daily rhythms, and a relaxed, well-organized teacher is able to “meet children in a calm and centered way,” says Shipman.

« 8:57 a.m. »

Students chop and tear vegetables, picked from the school garden or brought from home, to be cooked into a soup and eaten for mid-morning snack. As with many Waldorf activities, the work of prepping vegetables is accompanied by spontaneous song. “Singing is a beautiful way to communicate with young children, a way they respond to,” says Shipman.

« 9:23 a.m. »

Shipman leads students in a physical movement activity. She says she was drawn to the Waldorf tradition’s focus on outdoor activity and learning through play and movement as opposed to early academics.

« 9:46 a.m. »

Shipman and Early Childhood Lead Teacher Sacha Etzel [not pictured] help students rehearse a puppet play they’ve written and plan to perform at the school year’s end. Etzel has mentored Shipman through her first two years at Swallowtail.

« 10:21 a.m. »

Shipman looks on as two students work through a disagreement that arose during free play. Students in Swallowtail’s mixed kindergarten have the same teacher for up to three years before transitioning into elementary school, which Shipman thinks helps them to feel a sense of deep kinship with their teachers and fellow students.

« 10:38 a.m. »

Peas, strawberries and kale are among the bounty coaxed from the Swallowtail garden by students and staff. Shipman spends time outside of school working on the spiral garden, planning and collaborating. “Young children learn through imitation,” says Shipman, “So we as adults strive to provide actions worthy for the children to imitate.”

Northwest Academy. Sixth-grade English and theater class.

« 12:01 p.m. »

Berkson lays ground rules for his sixth grade English class before a mock community meeting. The students have just read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the exercise is intended help them grapple with the book’s complex treatment of racism and social class. Berkson says he is always on the lookout for creative ways to help his students engage with challenging material. “When I’m not experimenting, that’s a bad sign,” he says.

David Berkson, Northwest Academy

« 12:06 p.m. »

A breakout group of students, designated as the “Poor Whites,” discuss their strategy before facing off against “Affluent Whites” and “Poor Blacks” during the role-play session. Many of Berkson’s lessons focus on issues of social justice.

« 1:13 p.m. »

Two students talk things out after the discussion grows heated. Dealing with highly charged topics can bring up strong emotions in students, and Berkson encourages plenty of deep breaths and thoughtful pauses. “The challenge is to remember that it’s really hard to be a kid,” he says. “You don’t want to under- or overexpect.”

« 1:30 p.m. »

Berkson rallies his afternoon drama class with a lively warm-up. The former professional actor and self-professed “spaz” taught theater camp before becoming a full-time teacher at mid-life, and says he’s never regretted the transition: “I like the version of me as a teacher more than the version of me as anyone else.”

« 2:15 p.m. »

A student struggling to remember his lines takes direction from Berkson, who says his years of performing arts experience inform the way he conducts his non-theater classes. “Art should have a place in every classroom, regardless of discipline,” he says.

Llewellyn Elementary School. Third-grade class.

« 12:15 p.m. »

Cranley observes as students break into small groups and rehearse lines from a play about the history of Portland. Cranley taught middle school math and science for 10 years before transitioning to third grade at Llewellyn three years ago. “I’m still calibrating,” she says. “It works out well with kids who need a challenge. I can bring them up.”

« 12:47 p.m. »

Cranley steals a moment away from large-group instruction to assist a student with his reading. Though she’s responsible for a class of 25, Cranley tries to carve out time to interact with students individually. “Especially in a school like this, the community permeates the school, and the school affects the community,” says Cranley. “It’s all connected.”

« 1:17 p.m. »

Cranley runs her classroom like a mini-democracy. Recalibrating rules and procedures to fit the needs of the group takes more time, but it gives kids more buy-in, she says: “Every year I’ve been here, I’ve had to tweak things because of the slightly different personalities. Nothing is exactly the same every time.”

« 2:01 p.m. »

By mid-afternoon, the class is often restless, so Cranley finishes the day by reading aloud to students while they draw. Teaching elementary school is definitely more exhausting than teaching middle school, Cranley admits, and the school year can feel like one long adrenaline rush. “You have to learn to manage little kid energy,” she says. After final bell at 2:30 pm, Cranley begins her two hours of prep time by quickly checking email. The district, parents and students all communicate electronically, and she’ll sort through 10 to 15 messages over the course of a day. She also maintains a weekly blog for parents. It’s a heavy workload, Cranley says, but the extra effort pays off: “It’s as much work as you make it, honestly.”

« 2:32 p.m. »

Cranley updates the daily schedule hanging near the door of her classroom. Keeping a schedule of activities in plain view and hewing closely to it is one of the ways Cranley encourages students to take responsibility for their own learning. “It helps them self-manage because they can predict what’s happening,” she says.

PDX Parent Staff
PDX Parent Staff

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