Over in a corner, not far from the guinea pig's glass cage, hangs a list of the 23 students in Joan Vickland's second-grade class at Patrick Henry Elementary School in Arlington.
One by one Vickland goes down the list, carefully guarding the students' anonymity, but giving a summary of each that underscores why many modern teachers must have some of the blood of a sociologist and a psychologist pumping through their veins.
"There are problems I have now (with children) that I didn't have when I started teaching, such as emotional and disciplinary problems," she says. "But, on the other hand, I don't think we were as concerned back then about the emotional problems of children or the need for special education and Title I (disadvantaged students) programs."
Vickland teaches in what educators call a "self-contained" classroom, where the students stay with one teacher in one room for most of the day. If they leave, it is usually only to get extra attention from a specialist such as a speech therapist or a Title I teacher with whom Vickland works closely to develop a special program aimed at increasing her pupils' skills and their parents' involvement in their education.
One of the most important factors in her students' progress, according to Vickland, is "how the families are structured . . . Out of 23 kids in my class, more than half are not all together in a single family (unit).
"Kids need discipline and structure and they need to know where they are and what the limits are. The more the family structure breaks down, the more they need structure in schools."
The children in Vickland's class clearly take to her warm smiles and soft-spoken, caring attitude. But they also are well aware of the rules.
If they get out of hand, they are asked to sit down and fold their hands in their laps until they are quiet. If that doesn't work, they are told to lay their heads on their deskks until calm is restored.
But there are also rewards for students. If the children do their work properly, they may be treated to an exercise in reality vs. fantasy and greed vs. goodness, disguised as a Grimm Brothers fairy tale. They get "extra effort" gold seals for their construction-paper butterflies dotting the walls of the room.
Since the start of the school year, Vickland has managed to pull the class ahead by 1 1/2 years in reading and bring them up to grade level in math.
Expecting the best from her students seems to be a major ingredient in Vickland's success. During a math lesson, she uses an almost cheerleader-like approach to encourage her students' enthusiasm for their first taste of multiplication.
"Do you think you can learn to multiply like the third- and fourth-graders do?" she asks, to a chorus of "yeahs" and applause.
The children pull out their slates and chalk, taking turns at counting three sets of two things. In this case, the sets are felt pears and birds on a stickum board in the front of the room. Soon it dawns on most of the students that three sets of two pears equals six pears. A new world has been discovered, and Vickland translates the discovery into a mathematical formula: 3x2=6.
When Vickland first came to Patrick Henry she was part of a two-member teaching team, in which teachers traded off teaching responsibilities according to the students' ability or the subject matter. Under the team approach, Patrick Henry had no walls and students sat around teachers in groups called "pods" not far from other "pods."
Although Vickland said she taught with a compatible, superb partner, she wasn't sold on team teaching. "I couldn't stand it -- all those pods and no walls. . . A lot of time I felt we had not really completed what was going on in the morning or that we had a problem with something and I wanted to reteach it . . . but you didn't have that ability or freedom to be flexible. . ."
Three years ago, at the teachers' insistence, the walls went back up, and so have test scores. Principal Marie Shiels-Djouadi says that in 1974-75 second-graders at the school scored better than only 25 percent of their peers nationwide in reading and math; today they do better than 57 percent of their peers in reading and better than 70 percent of their peers in math.
Vickland is among the teachers at Patrick Henry who welcomed the return to a more traditional classroom.
"I think one of the things that's been wrong with education is that it's full of ups and downs and turnovers," Vickland says. "I think we're going back to where we were a long time ago, but with more of a social conscience and more awareness of the differences (among people) and how to meet the needs of those differences."