Connolly School wins teaching strategy contest

Jay Mathews
Columnist July 5, 2012

Reliving immigration beat unpacking sludge in our first reader vote on creative teaching strategies.

Teacher-lawyer Patrick Mattimore suggested the friendly competition to me. It seemed that discussions of what works in schools are often too vague. Why not celebrate very specific lessons? Many teachers submitted their best ideas. Readers picked their favorites.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

The winner’s prize, in this era of journalist frugality, was getting her name in the paper.

Readers debated for weeks on my Class Struggle blog what constituted a teaching strategy. Many students who experienced the competing strategies firsthand sent in their votes.

The winning finalist was Karen Craig, an eighth-grade language arts and social studies teacher at Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac. Here’s how her immigration project works: Her students are grouped into make-believe families. They pretend they are immigrating here in about 1900. In language arts, they blog about the experience. In science, they study the diseases that afflicted immigrants. In social studies, they analyze immigration laws. In foreign language, they take a look at countries that provided the most immigrants.

“It was very helpful to my studies,” said Caroline Holmes, one of Craig’s students.

Sara Downes, a reader who lived in Australia, said the immigration unit reminded her of the First Fleet unit her son did in third grade there. First Fleet was the initial group of convicts sent to Australia from Great Britain. The Australian students worked on various projects to earn a “ticket of leave,” which the third-grade convicts learned meant parole.

Two parents, Brooke Morton and Maureen Appel, were particularly impressed with Holy Child’s field trip to Ellis Island at the end of the project. Their children saw what the immigrants they were pretending to be saw when they arrived.

In second place was Debbie Pakaluk, an eighth-grade chemistry teacher at the Norwood School in Bethesda. Her sludge project sounds hard to me. Students pair up. Each get a 100 milliliter mixture of glop in a plastic cup. They have three weeks to report its ingredients. They check the odor and appearance and test for density, boiling point, solubility and flammability.

This is the second time I have encountered such an exercise. My two sons did something similar with a brilliant science teacher, Paul Korn, at the Chandler School in Pasadena, Calif. Twenty years later, Korn is still doing it, and parents there are as thrilled with the results as the parents in Pakaluk’s class are. Sarah Foster Wetstone said her two daughters are now science majors in college, in part because of “Debbie and her infamous sludge project.”

The obvious difficulty of the assignment scares the Norwood students, just as it frightened my boys. It needs a tough teacher. “It takes great discipline on Debbie’s part not to help her students,” Norwood teacher Annette Matzner said. “As teachers, we’re taught to help students when they struggle, but it’s the struggle of this project that makes it both memorable and life-changing.”

David Eacho, a former Pakaluk student, said the project “made me love chemistry so much more.” He just finished studying Advanced Placement chemistry as a high school sophomore.

Mattimore and I picked three finalists from dozens of entries. I loved the teaching strategy that took third place: something strange and wonderful called choral reading. The entrant was Trayce Diskin, who teaches literacy at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring. Her students highlight the parts of a literary work they find most compelling and read only those parts aloud when the class recites the work. This brings many surprises and much discussion.

In our online poll, choral reading got 6 percent, vs. 52 percent for immigration and 42 percent for sludge. The e-mail count was 58 percent for immigration, 34 percent for sludge and 8 percent for choral reading.

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