In Dahlia Constantine’s classroom at Patrick Henry Elementary, 8- and 9-year-olds are puzzling out an issue that has confounded grown-up decision-makers: What to do about Arlington’s Thomas Jefferson Middle School.
The school is in dire need of expansion, but it would come at the cost of green space. It has left the community sharply divided.
Constantine, 36, had students recall articles they read about it. And she asked: Whose voice is being heard, and whose is being left out?
“The kids’ voices weren’t being heard,” said one student. “They’re the ones going to the school.”
The lesson underscores Constantine’s unusual approach to teaching and her view that her job is to empower students, even if they aren’t yet 10.
“Kids are capable of so much,” Constantine said. “I feel like if we get out of their way a little, they can do a lot.”
Teaching was not always Constantine’s dream profession. She once sketched out a 10-year plan that involved a jet-setting job at the United Nations working on human rights and learning all the Romance languages. “Something more glamorous,” she said.
As an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley, she majored in legal studies and prepared to go to law school. But her work as a mentor for a middle school girl from a rough part of Oakland grew into a part-time position running after-school programs. She ended up heading to Columbia University’s Teacher’s College.
“I realized I could have this impact here, at this small, subtle level in a class,” she said. She came to teaching with the idea that it could right social wrongs. “This is the way I’m going to change things.”
Many aspects of her day teaching third-graders — from the classroom layout to the curriculum — are child-driven. Rows of desks have been replaced by small cafe tables, and the room is warmly lit with paper lanterns and tiny electric votive candles.
There is no hand-raising, even in group discussions, and children often get to choose their own activities.
Constantine aims to teach her students that they have a voice, and she employs technology to help. Each student has a tablet computer on which they can tap out entries for closely monitored blogs. They write about class projects and their observations about life.
“Trampolines are so much fun,” headlines one entry.
The classroom also keeps a Twitter account and picks what messages to send as a group.
Constantine has a year-long lesson on community, where she teaches a variety of subjects — from science to social studies — through tackling a local issue. This year, students are studying the debate over the middle school expansion. In years past, students have set up miniature businesses, made public service announcements about green space and even grilled a local politician about his voting record.
“It’s not about them learning to . . . pass some test,” she said. “Each of these kids is going to be out there voting and out there making decisions. . . . How do I get them to speak up and say what they feel?”
Principal Andrea Frye said one of Constantine’s strengths is building communities inside the classroom, a critical task at a school that is a blend of students from different backgrounds. In Constantine’s class, some students spend weekends at vacation homes while others were recently homeless.
Frye said Constantine champions those differences. When one student’s father was injured on the job, Constantine helped mobilize a network of parents to aid the family: a lawyer helped with worker’s compensation, other parents assisted with child care and others brought meals to the home.
“She builds the network of parents so they can trust each other,” Frye said.