(The essay was originally published in the South Coast Insider as: “Fifth Grade Classrooms Gap, Separated by Two Generations,” August, 2012.)
I do not remember having a poetry recital in Ms. Macaluso’s 5th grade class in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey, to which my parents (and grandparents) were invited. Back in 1959 we certainly read poetry in English class—although I remember more clearly the long division arithmetic and, of course, my crush on the teacher—but the school never invited parents (let alone grandparents) to a planned event.
Not so in Portsmouth in June of last year. As our granddaughter, Mary Jane Milici, was completing 5th grade at Portsmouth Middle School, we attended what I thought would be a rather short “poetry recital.” Perhaps I was (again) not listening to my wife, Geri, closely enough, because what I experienced that day was much more than a recital. I had a classroom experience which in physical layout, in teaching format, and in technological sophistication, was dramatically different than what I experienced as a 5th grader, 52 years ago.
The first difference was that Mary Jane attended 5th grade not as member of a particular teacher’s class, but as part of Learning Center B4. I attended Euclid School and was in Ms. Macaluso’s class. She owned it. I do remember Mr. Tobin, the French teacher, instructing us once or twice per week. Aside from him, I remember all other instruction coming strictly from Ms. Macaluso.
Not so with Mary Jane and the other students. She was taught by a “team’ of teachers. Ms. Cindy Jilling served as her homeroom and science teacher. A native of Westerly, Cindy arrived in Portsmouth 36 years ago, started her teaching at Melville School, but has spent most of her 22-year teaching career at Portsmouth Middle School. In speaking to Cindy, I quickly realized there was no single principal teacher; there was a team of teachers teaching my granddaughter.
I made it a point to meet the other teachers. Lori Stone, the social studies teacher, is home grown, actually attended Portsmouth Middle School, and lives in Portsmouth. She has spent her entire 11-year career in Portsmouth, teaching Social Studies, English Language Arts, and Science.
A native of Worcester, Massachusetts, Amy Guertin was Mary Jane’s English Language Arts (ELA) teacher. Now living in Bristol, Amy has been teaching for eleven years, her subjects including ELA, Social Studies, and Science. Amy is the teacher who assigned the Self-Portrait Assignment to write an “I am” poem. This led to the poetry recital part of this experience.
The fourth member of the teaching team was Jeanne Kane, a case manager and special education teacher. A native of Meriden, Connecticut, she now lives in Newport and has been teaching for 24 years. She has taught a range of subjects over her career at several Newport County schools, including Coggeshall, Kennedy, Elmhurst, and now Portsmouth Middle. Karen Heller, the Math teacher, was the final member of the team.
In good old Ms. Macaluso’s class, we sat in individual desks (that still had inkwells) aligned in columns facing forward. Not so now. In fact, this was my first impression last June when I sat down at Mary Jane’s circular table and gazed at the other students and parents of that table. (A table normally had five-six students.) This was profoundly different than sitting at individual desks with our heads always facing the teacher. As an educator myself, I had two reactions. First, such a layout shifts the focus from the teacher to the other students at the table. Second, this should promote cooperation among the students, allowing students to teach students, but it also might increase student distraction and chatter.
My final and lasting impression was the level of technological sophistication in the classroom. I vaguely remember my teacher back in 1959 using an overhead projector back. The technology was primitive and owned exclusively by the school—chalk, blackboard, and overhead projector. Not only is today’s technology owned also by the students, the students may indeed have greater facility with it than the teachers. Cindy Jilling admitted that many of her students “know more than I do” about today’s classroom technology, a comment that probably applies to many teachers at the Middle School. The teaching team indicated to me that each teacher now has a laptop that can be connected to an Elmo Projector, allowing the projection of such things as assignments, student work, and internet sites. Teachers also post homework assignments on their classroom webpages for students and parents. Finally, teacher grade books are now online, allowing parent access. Amy Guertin indicated “there are no surprises when the quarter ends.
As I sat at the round table with Mary Jane, my wife, my daughter Nicole, and my son-in-law Marc, playing a dice game of PIG, and watching a student at the next table projecting his Power Point on planet Jupiter to a white board, I had a sense of true wonderment about the changes in the 5th grade learning experience over these five decades.