PHOTOS BY LAUNCE RAKE
Gilliane Holt leads her Kit Carson elementary students to class in the morning.
When I went to elementary school, some four decades ago, the best part of the day was recess. We had two recesses, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, for a full hour of running, screaming, throwing balls around, doing what kids do on playgrounds. Panorama Village Schools in State College, Pa., had a full schedule of reading, math and other subjects, but we had a full hour to burn off energy.
Last week, I went back to elementary school, this time in Las Vegas, with a number of other reporters, elected officials from our area, union and school district officials. The classroom visits marked Education Week nationally and locally.
There is a lot of impressive work going on in the schools. Far from the barbaric Blackboard Jungle that many people fear, I didn’t see a sign of any troublemakers at Kit Carson College Preparatory Academy, an elementary school. And that was despite the fact that they had 10 minutes for recess, not the generous hour we enjoyed each day, back in the day.
That was far from the only difference.
Back in State College, our school district tried a number of experimental setups for classrooms, including a large common area subdivided by sliding walls into six classrooms. (There were some older, traditional classrooms, too, for the bigger kids.) Sometimes there was a lot of noise, laughter, or shouting or music, coming from the other subdivided classrooms.
That wouldn’t be a problem at Kit Carson. Not only were the walls all thick cinder block construction, but the doors were thick steel, closed with a heavy lock. This, I surmise, is the result of school shootings and lockdowns. Legitimate fear has increased the routine security all over the place, including the doors themselves.
And clearly the nature of instruction has changed. We hear volumes about how teachers have to teach to the test. That must be true to a degree, but Gilliane Holt, a fourth grade teacher at Kit Carson, told observers that she came from a charter school in California where she drilled students all day long, “without providing enrichment.”
She finds in the urban Las Vegas school that she can provide a “well-rounded” education.
“I don’t think I’m working towards a test,” Holt says. “I really feel we’re creating well-rounded kids.”
The biggest change, or at least the most obvious change, is in technology, though. In my day, we had a blackboard. That was it.
Today at Kit Carson, every student has a laptop, plugged in and ready to use every day. And use them, they do. Both the fourth and third graders we observed pulled them out and practiced math and English on them.
While those exercises were fairly passive — although how I would have loved to have computers to practice on when I was that age — the teachers also had small group activities. And they also had an interactive white board for full-room participation, which the kids seemed perfectly comfortable with.
Computers today are “an integral part of learning,” Holt says. “We’re requiring more of our kids today than we ever have.”
Of course, some things are still the same. We had paper, scissors, pencils, and backpacks. We had the familiar desks. But today’s young people work with tools that would have been in science-fiction movies when we were young.
We watched while the young people used the white board projected on the wall to do multiplication and decimals. The latter was a group activity called “Attack of the Place Value Pirates.” The computer randomly picked students to go up to the electronic white board and do answer the math question.
The young people did fine.
I noticed another technological advance.
In the 1970s, teachers would have to yell to get the attention of their charges. Today, the teachers we observed had microphones attached to their shirts. Their voices, electronically amplified, cut through the chatter (and there wasn’t much of it).
Does all the technology help students learn? I think it probably does. I think it also probably helps the students when it comes to the test-taking by which teachers, supervising administrators and schools are judged. Being familiar with the tests that come with technology cannot hurt when students have to use the same skills to answer achievement test questions.
The innovations that are everywhere in classrooms today caught the eye of Nevada state Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, who with Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick visited Kit Carson on the same day.
“The kids today — they are doing a lot more advanced things than we did,” Denis says. CL