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Tracy Smith

© 2001

Action Research

Small Learning Communities

Central Park East Secondary School, Hoover High School, Chicago Vocational Career Academy, and Nathan Hale High School are just a few of the schools redesigning and rethinking the school structure to enhance student success. In the last few years, studies have been focusing on the impact of size on learning. Many studies indicate that the size of the learning community has an indirect affect on student learning (Raywid, 1996). Size, combined with standards and high expectations creates conditions conducive to student success. Not only is success achieved, it is achieved in a relatively short amount of time, within a year or two. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the result of creating a small learning community is:

1. Students experience a greater sense of belonging and are more satisfied with their schools (Cotton, 1996).
2. Fewer Discipline problems occur (Raywid, 2000).
3. Crime, violence and gang participation decrease (Cushman, 1997).
4. Incidences of alcohol and tobacco abuse decrease.
5. Student attendance increases (Raywid, 1996).
6. Dropout rates decrease and graduation rates and postsecondary enrollment rates increase (Funk and Bailey, 1999).

Many strategies can be used to create a small learning environment. Some models include schools-within-a-school, career academies, houses, career clusters/pathways, and magnet schools.

Some of the design principles include personalization by creating settings where teachers and students can know each other well, and Adult World Immersion that situates students directly in the world beyond school. Other principles incorporate project-based learning, a project journal, and community service and internships, and student portfolios.

The ninth grade teams at South High School in Minneapolis are currently restructuring and creating small learning communities within the larger school centered on Darin Green's Unlimited Possibilities curriculum. Teachers will be attending a training and certification program in August. Ninth grade teams will also be operating on a four period block schedule within the regular six period day of the rest of the school. Ninth grade students in this small learning community will also have a separate lunch period from the rest of the school, and they will also have assigned electives supporting the technology base of this particular community. This program is designed to meet the needs of a diverse range of learners with varied interests. The belief is that through a more personal education including mentoring, community service, and the Unlimited Possibilities curriculum students will be more apt to engage in the community and develop strategies and self-discipline to achieve their post-secondary goals. This program is founded on the belief that all students can be successful in high school.

This new small learning community at South High is merely the beginning of a reform plan to increase student success, graduation rates, and reduce discipline issues in the classroom. As a member of this team and developing community, I hope achieve success with my students by the end of 2002. Not only have we changed and adapted curriculum, but we have also incorporated a two week orientation to high school including study skills, school policies, reading strategies, writing strategies, and team building activities. The hope is that these Òat-riskÓ students will engage in school and choose to stay and be a part of the community.

Cotton, K. (1996, December). Affective and Social Benefits of Small-Scale Schooling. ERIC Digest, Clearinghouse on Rural Education and small Schools. EDO-RC-96-5

Cushman, K. (1997, January). Why Small Schools Are Essential. Horace 3.

Funk, P., & Bailey, J. (1999, September). Small Schools, Big Results: Nebraska High School Completion and Postsecondary Enrollment Rates by Size of School District. Nebraska Alliance for Rural Education.

Raywid, M. (1999, January). Current Literature on Small Schools. ERIC Digest, Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools. EDO-RC-98-8.

Raywid, M. & Oshiyama, L. (2000 February). Musing in the Wake of Columbine: What Can Schools Do? Phi Delta Kappan, V81, N6, 444-449.

Adamsick, Marjorie. Special Education Teacher, South High School
Benson, Nancy. Math Teacher, South High School
Simons, Hannah. Social Studies Teacher, South High School
Hodge, Tanya. English Teacher, South High School
Kessel, Kay. Assistant Principal, South High School


Creative Writing

The Importance of Regularity in Writing

"I have to poop. . ." was the moan coming from the boy in the third row. "What?" I replied. "I have to poooooop, really bad" He said again, quite loudly. Taken aback, and a little stunned by his openness, I quickly filled out a small pink hall pass. I hadn't actually encountered this particular issue in my strategies class in college, but far be it from me to interfere with his body functioning the way nature intended.

I am a third year teacher at a Minneapolis urban high school. I student taught at this school and was hired at the end of my tour of duty as a student teacher. I also attended and graduated from a Minneapolis urban high school many years ago. While I thought that living in and attending an urban high school would prepare me for the challenges I would have to face as a teacher, I was wrong. Like any new teacher I graduated with my head full of ideas on how to teach Shakespeare, Dickens, and Arthur Miller. I had a whole list of strategies to employ if a behavior management crisis should occur. But, of course, these would not be necessary, because all of my students would be fully attentive and engaged. They would all have a desire to learn what I had to teach and would be on a personal quest for knowledge! Oh! I couldn't wait to start my new job!

With all my strategies tucked safely away in a glass case that read, "In case of emergency, break glass", I held my head high and plunged into the abyss head first. What I failed to take into account was just how brilliant and savvy these young people are. Perhaps not brilliant in their interpretation of "Twelfth Night" or even To Kill A Mockingbird, but brilliant in their survival skills. So I really was quite unprepared for the "I Have To Poop" moan. For you see, it took me awhile, but I discovered that if they said they had to use the restroom, and made it clear they had to move their bowels, they then felt they had bought themselves a little more time to visit the vending machines. Isn't that clever? I would never have come up with that logic on my own, and I have to give some creative credit, because it does make some sense. And, of course, with any group of adolescents, the disease quickly spreads. If one is in need of a bowel cleansing, then you can be pretty sure that nature will be calling others as well.

So as a result of my students getting the right amount of fiber in their diets, my class now has a poop theme. Because the minute one student brings up poop, the whole concept takes on a life of its own. One student claims he has to poop, and within seconds another student says, "Hey! I saw on the discovery channel that you can actually eat your own poop and survive!" Really! This was a new discovery for me. Who knew?! And suddenly, every student had a poop story. Students who hadn't muttered a word all year were suddenly inspired to share their experiences. There are no class or race distinctions when it comes to poop. . ..everyone has personal experiences to draw from.

After finally settling them down to do some writing, one student simply slumped his shoulders, slid down in his chair and said, "Ms. Woldum, I just don't like to write." I suddenly had an epiphany! A true teaching moment! So I decided to run with the poop theme. I explained to them that if they really think hard about it that writing is a lot like pooping. It can be time consuming, often difficult, and can sometimes cause a great deal of discomfort, and let's face it, It's just not pretty. Of course, there are those who are gifted, and for whom writing or pooping comes easily. But those, in general, are few. For the vast majority of us, we can often find ourselves a little "blocked", a little short on ideas, and in need of a breakthrough. But what would happen to you if you didn't poop? You would die. It's that simple. So, to stay alive and healthy, it is best to poop everyday, sometimes twice a day! As with writing, it's best to write at least once a day, and if you really want to stay mentally healthy, maybe even twice a day! It is very important to maintain regularity, especially during the teen years when ideas are just forming. We need to make it part of our daily routine. So now when someone needs to poop, I take it as a sign that it must be time to write.


My Childhood Friend

A friend of mine called me to say she had found some kittens that had been abandoned in an old barn out in rural Wisconsin. She was calling everyone she knew trying to find homes for the three kittens because she didn't think they could survive the winter alone. At first I had said no, that we had enough animals in our zoo. A few hours later she called back, excited because she had found homes for two of the three, and she only had the calico kitten left.

I suddenly remembered a girl I once knew when I was very young. She had brown hair, freckles, and a smile that could light up the sky. I was suddenly taken back to hot summer nights, June bugs on strings, swing sets, monkey bars, and concoctions of berries, ketchup, orange juice, grape jelly, and mud that we would dare the boys in the neighborhood to drink. I remembered my first sleep over, climbing trees, and a bond that two little girls shared. I remember finding out my family was moving to Minnesota and running straight across the street to tell her first, and vowing to still be best friends.

After moving we still kept in touch, as much as two young girls really could. We would go "back home" every summer and visit. I anticipated the visit all year and couldn't wait. One summer when I was around eight we arrived in the afternoon at my Memaw's house. The first thing I thought of was calling her. My Memaw's phone was a large, black, rotary dial phone. The receiver was so heavy I could barely lift it. I picked it up and slowly dialed the number, waiting impatiently as the disk slowly receded, making a loud clicking sound. In my hastiness I accidentally mis-dialed and had to start over. Finally, the line was ringing and her mother answered. I was so excited and quickly asked to speak to her. There was a long pause on the other end, and then her mother quietly said that she had died. In my immaturity I could only reply with, "Ok, bye" and hung up. I felt lost. She had died from a disease called leukemia, something my eight year-old mind had never had never encountered. It had never occurred to me that I would never see her again. My childhood friend had a cat that was the most beautiful animal I had ever seen. She was a calico cat, and her name was, "Calico."

I suddenly found myself asking for the kitten, and thinking, "what's a little more cat litter?" And my heart was telling me that this new kitten would be the perfect Christmas gift for my daughter.

I think of my friend as I watch my daughter grow up with her best friend. I watch them holding hands and running down the sidewalk, catching bugs, jumping rope, and making their own concoctions of goop. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of my childhood friend in my daughter and take comfort in believing that perhaps a little bit of her spirit lives on in my little girl. I will always remember my friend as a happy, funny, brave, and vibrant young girl, and I will cherish the memories we shared.

Calico died April 21, 1999