Kentucky voices: Irvine educator, part of NBC summit, says teach to children's needs, not the test

September 21, 2012 

At one point in elementary school I was having trouble keeping up with my classmates. After a few months of consistent struggle, my parents took action. It turns out my academic problems didn't have anything to do with school.

I simply couldn't see. I got glasses and went through intensive vision therapy. Once my physical needs were met, I could see the chalkboard and things improved rapidly.

An eye appointment — such a seemingly simple solution, but in an era when parents are stretched thin and student-teacher ratios are approaching 30 to 1, even simple solutions take monumental effort.

In low-income schools like Estill Springs Elementary where I teach, solutions are even harder to find.

But we have found them, and this week I'll travel to New York City to share them with the teachers, lawmakers and education thought leaders who will be assembled at NBC's "Education Nation" summit.

More than three-quarters of Estill Springs' students are on free or reduced lunch; an incredible 23 percent are homeless. Less than 10 percent of the parents in our system have college degrees. They often work two or three jobs just to put food on the table. They send us their children trusting us to not only educate them, but to feed, and for a few hours each day at least, shelter them.

Research shows students dealing with hunger and homelessness have a harder time learning (it's harder for them to retain information given the competing stresses in their lives) so we tailor our instruction to their special needs. Most of the lessons we teach begin with a physical activity — using your whole body to learn something makes a student more likely to retain information — and offer instruction in small, tight bits.

We let that information sink in, repeat it and then ask the students to apply what they've learned to a real-life situation. These students have life experience well beyond their years — asking them to apply academics to the world they deal with every day also helps them retain knowledge.

Our method works. While our school has the highest enrollment in free and reduced lunch in the district, we are also the only school over the last three years that has been above the average on state assessments. It's not a radical idea, but we've proved that when you teach for the student, and not teach to the test, children learn.

Estill Springs has succeeded with limited resources, but funding cuts will have an effect on our students. We no longer have the budget for intervention teachers and many of the social services that form the foundation of our instructional method. We cannot expect our students to learn when their stomachs are rumbling or when they lack the added emotional support our school provides. With the increasing class sizes that result from massive budget cuts, it's also less likely our teachers will be able to give the individualized attention our children require.

A few years ago, I had a student I knew to be homeless. A staff member had given him a Christmas gift — a pair of pajamas. When this little boy opened his gift he asked me, "What is this?" "They are pajamas," I told him, "for bed time." He'd never had a pair because he'd always slept in his clothes.

While lacking in the basic necessities of life (not just pajamas, but food and shelter), my student was gifted in math. Before he could be expected to excel, though, we had to give him the basic tools to survive.

If I could give one piece of advice to local, state and federal lawmakers who set education policy it would be this: Visit our school. See where our dollars go, how our children rely on them, and the results we've produced with them. Ask our bus drivers, office staff and teachers what works, and what doesn't. Then ask the many students in our school who, like that student of mine, had never had pajamas.

Until all educators put themselves in that boy's shoes (or pajamas) we won't be able to see the simple solutions that are right in front of us.

Toni Garrett Hall is a third- and fourth-grade teacher at Estill Springs Elementary School in Irvine.

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