"Come, climb stars with me And help me build great pirate ships And paint golden sky castles in sand And spin fairy tails of pink silk thread . . . And I'll make you a rainbow!"
--From the frontispiece of "I Can Make a Rainbow" by Marjorie Frank, published in 1976 by Incentive Publications
The patch of yellow brick road leading to the Rainbow Room at University Park Elementary School in Hyattsville is not paved with gold. Nor can Elizabeth P. (Betty) Hansen, the Rainbow Room's volunteer teacher and "fairy godmother," conjure up county funds for the learning resource program she pioneered a year ago.
But with the help of parents, other teachers and the principal, Hansen has worked magic anyway in realizing her dream of a center where students working in small groups can use "hands-on" or "manipulative" materials to reinforce what they have learned in the classroom.
Last August, rather than accept a transfer to another school, the former California educator and author took a year's leave without pay from Prince George's County public schools to begin the project.
She said the resource center, which she calls the Rainbow Room, provides "enrichment instruction" beyond daily classroom work for all of the school's 393 students, in first through sixth grades, who use the room on a regular basis.
Hansen said she feels the "power" of the Rainbow Room is in the small group and individualized instruction it gives pupils, who work there in groups of five or six. About 30 parent volunteers, mostly mothers, have been trained by Hansen to work there on a regular basis.
Hansen and the parent volunteers use a wide variety of materials, such as mathematical pattern and base-10 building blocks, color cubes, peg boards, rods, hand calculators, illustrated tiles, odds and ends such as rocks, pebbles and bottlecaps, and skills games patterned after children's card games and bingo. The materials and games, some of which Hansen invented, help reinforce basic math processes and provide students with "problem-solving and logical thinking experiences." Other activities include art, writing, science fair projects and learning independent work habits.
Students also work with the Apple II microcomputer the PTA purchased for the Rainbow Room in October. It is near the "Happily Appely Yours" board. An "apple corps" of parents, including a physics professor and a mathematics professor from the University of Maryland and a military computer specialist, instructs the pupils.
The charm of the Rainbow Room, which the children seem to love, is its colorful theme. Hansen said she decided on rainbows because she always has liked the "I'll Make You a Rainbow" poem.
Hansen provides first-time visitors with inexpensive glasses that diffuse light, similar to those used for the old 3-D movies, which cause the viewer to see rainbows. Bulletin boards decorated with colored-paper rainbows flank the large, airy room. A stuffed unicorn, the school's symbol, hangs near the multicolored sign welcoming visitors. A poem, "The Rainbow Fairies," handprinted in black script on a white background, hangs near a rainbow mobile. Brightly colored plastic chairs, buckets and bric-a-brac also decorate the room.
Hansen also has borrowed two System 80 teaching machines, which let students use use recorded discs, earphones and a television screen for practicing basic skills.
Students are not graded, says Hansen, so they can be more flexible and imaginative in their work. Records are kept of the pupils' activities, however, and Hansen and her parent volunteers discuss students' progress with teachers.
Two second-grade classmates, Adriana Ortiz, 7, of Riverdale, and Sametra Lee, 7, of Hyattsville, checked each other's work while playing "Robot Race," a mathematics-skills game involving "number families."
"It's fun," Sametra said of the Rainbow Room. "You get to do a lot of stuff, like play games and play System 80, and they teach you a lot. System 80 is fun for kids who need to learn their numbers . . . they can come every day and learn everything they want to learn." And, she added, "Rainbows are everywhere, and I like rainbows."
Her friend, Adriana, said, "We learn good stuff--like pluses--and we learn how to do puzzles and games and stuff. And there are nice colors."
Hansen, a widow who lives in Bethesda, earned a master's degree from the University of California at Berkeley and taught in the university's summer demonstration elementary school for three years before moving to the Washington area in 1964. She was one of three teachers who worked with scientists to develop classroom materials on the "discovery" approach to science, which encourages students to follow through with study or experiments on their own to arrive at solutions, instead of depending upon their instructors for answers. While in California, Hansen wrote several scientific textbooks that are still in use.
She said she feels a math curriculum using "hands-on" or "manipulative" materials to reinforce basic methods is imperative in the primary grades. If the program continues next year, she said, she "would focus the Rainbow Room on a single area"--mathematics.
Hansen believes ways must be found to help children stretch their problem-solving abilities.
"The key element in learning math is logical thinking," she said. "With logical thinking one is able to see a pattern and use it to make sense out of the world."
Other teachers at the school call Hansen "a wonderful resource for teachers, an outstanding teacher."
Twice since the Rainbow Room was started, the teachers have passed a "pot of gold" among themselves to collect money for the program's materials. One student, whose family asked that his named not be used, landed a $400 donation for the room.
Principal R. Dean Powell, who said Hansen "brings something special" to University Park Elementary, has asked the school superintendent's office for "even partial funding, materials or even possible leads to investigate that would allow . . . the program to continue."
Dr. Allan I. Chotiner, deputy superintendent of Prince George's public schools, replied that the system "would like to be supportive. . . . We want to make it known that we think it's a wonderful project." But Chotiner added that the school system faces "a drastic budget cut" and "we are deeply concerned to keep what we have now."
Hansen plans to continue her work and has requested another year of leave without pay from her teaching job. She hopes to open the Rainbow Room again next September, regardless of whether the school system provides money.