An hour before the 500-plus students fill up Vaughn Elementary School, Ms. Marci Cummings is already in her classroom, coffee in hand, sharpening pencils, getting supplies ready, taking mental notes about lesson plans, catching up on email.
In 45 minutes, Andrea and Kelsey and Taylor and 15 other first and second graders will join her in the mixed-age classroom, each looking for undivided attention with the books they are rewriting, with Minute Math 54, or with word spelling. And when they leave at 3:30, she will shift her attention to unit planning, work review, committees and curriculum activities. This hour before school is precious, maybe the only quiet time today.
“I feel like I’m going on stage,” Cummings says later. “Kids walk in and your adrenaline goes up, and when they leave your mind just goes pshshhhh.”
About 15 minutes before curtain call, soon to be announced by the crisp sound of the bell, students trickle in. Emily L. is among the first ones to arrive. She proceeds to quiz an adult visitor she’s never seen before. Who is this person visiting, she wants to know, so she throws out classmates’ names and after getting “no” to each one, she finally thinks hard and says, “Do you have a student in the class?”
Emily L.—not to be confused with Emily D.—gets another no and proceeds to her desk, the first mystery of the day yet unsolved.
A few minutes later during silent reading time, she settles for “Chrysanthemum,” while nearby, Tyler reads “Fire! Fire!” and Andrea pages through “Superbook of Horses.”
At a small table in the corner, Ms. Cummings pulls out freshly sharpened pencils and paper for four students she helps with phonetic word lists. As they work their way through frog-plug-flag-twigswim…., Emily L. is done reading “Chrysanthemum” and returns to the book rack for “Owen” and “Yum!”
Around 9:45 a.m., the hallway of Vaughn is long deserted, save for a collection of children’s work lining up the walls. Giant paper people, haiku verses, dinosaur facts, paper-made Native American cradle boards, and “human” figures displaying internal organs offer a passing glimpse at what may be happening inside the classrooms.
By now, Ms. Cummings’ class can be found deep in conversation that goes something like this:
“Good morning, Ms. Cummings!”
“Good morning, Brandon!”
“What did you do after you went home from work?”
“I watered all my flowers and then I made Thai curry. What did you do?”
“Uhm…I went skating.”
“Good morning, Ms. Cummings!”
“Good morning, Andrea!”
“Are those new shoes?”
“Well yes, thank you for noticing. Do you like them?”
In the next five minutes, after the backand-forth conversation with each student, everyone learns that Ms. Cummings had a hard-boiled egg for breakfast, had to clean up pine cones out of her yard, went home after school Monday and Tuesday so she had to stay late Wednesday to catch up on work—and yes, tonight is her volleyball game night. Six games at 7.
Ms. Cummings used to ask the questions during the daily conversations that take place as part of roll call. But by the end of April, the students are expected to do it—part of developing their conversation skills, Cummings says.
Much of the learning in the classroom takes place in a similar fashion, woven naturally into the day along with math word problems, singing, reading and investigating. In this theatrical production of life, the dramas and comedies are full of impromptu laughter, outtakes, serious scenes and frequent breaking into song.
The walls display some of the daily routine and expectations, rules like “Be polite” and “Take turns.” Occasionally, Ms. Cummings reminds her charges of certain rules, but for the most part these kids are well-behaved—which doesn’t escape the other adults, including teachers and the lunch ladies: The classroom door is decorated with nine “excellence in the lunchroom” certificates. A schedule, posted by the door, is meticulously followed, because, as Cummings notes, “We live by the bell.”
Other decorations tell stories of the classroom’s inhabitants: neon paper kites, at least six versions of the alphabet, a “Math zone,” a set of computers bought with a Gates Foundation grant, a “Star of the Week” poster with a student’s photos, and a plant named Harry. Harry has followed Ms. Cummings for about 12 years from classroom to classroom, though only last year Ms. Cummings’ fourth grade students felt the veteran plant needed a name.
Books by far make the biggest collection—as they do perhaps in every American classroom. Reading is the cornerstone for just about everything, from silent to end-of-day group reading, to the classroom project—like making a book of lullabies for Mrs. Ganisin next door, whose fourth-graders, also known as Ms. Cummings’ students “reading buddies,” are preparing a surprise shower. Mrs. Ganisin is expecting Baby Joey in a few weeks and so the three lullaby books have lately been the focus of project time—an idea, Cummings says, that came on the spur of the moment and was so brilliant that she changed the curriculum slightly to fit in the new theme.
From the minute students walk in and to the end of the day when they read Chapter 21 of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” reading is what it’s all about. And so there are plenty of books, some in plastic cradles labeled “Learn to read books,” “Predictable books,” and so on, others selfpublished, including class anthologies.
One such book, published with the other two mixed-age classes—Ms. Harrison’s and Ms. Selfors’—is titled “Advice for Mr. Benoit About Being a Principal at Vaughn and Other Things He May Need to Know.”
Mr. Benoit, who will start as the school’s new principal in the fall following the retirement this year of Mr. Shurick, will indeed learn just about everything important about his new school from this book. For example, Bo lives in the library and is fed mice. The library is a cool place because it has a lot of fun books. No skipping in the hallway. If he joins the Running Club at recess, he can get a punch for each lap and get his exercise. He will also learn about special Husky recess, that a good principal knows how to jump rope and will come outside to play kickball, that there are very nice kids at Vaughn, that they like to laugh and do puzzles, that learning makes you smarter and that for some reason he shouldn’t get the hamburgers or the hot dogs.
There is encouragement: “You are going to be the best principal in the entire world.”
Then there is this advice: “Feel free for us to ask questions. We use questions a lot here at Vaughn. Questions are needed so much here, it might annoy you sorry. We learn when we ask questions.”
And so questions are everywhere. During the literary arts session, when Ms. Cummings reads “The Stranger,” is the time to ask many questions. As Ms. Cummings reads page by page, she pauses for the questions. The book, she explains later, was selected to encourage specific reading strategies.
In the computer lab about an hour later, the questions go from what folder to save in to how to type in the box. Windows 2000 is tricky enough for some adults to figure out, but many of these 7- and 8-year-olds go through the “Save As” etc etc steps without a flinch. They work their way through typing into Microsoft Publisher their stories about the not so fun birthday party, the seed that transported someone to a place where people can fly, the swimming pool that would be so cool to buy some day, planting roses and sunflowers, or ponies.
Ms. Cummings had previously read each of the books and asked some authors to rewrite for publication. Some youngsters are nearly at the end of their typing while others just managed to type the name of the book and the author—but speed is not an issue. Instruction is individualized as much as possible.
Most of the day, the students navigate through their problems and mysteries independently while Cummings is there to steer them, check their work, and spend the time with those who need extra help. At the beginning of the year, Cummings’ lessons were much heavier on directions, but toward the end she likes to give her students the chance to use their problemsolving skills and take more ownership of their learning—it makes the kids feel empowered, she says.
At lunchtime, the questions come again.
More trivial perhaps but just as urgent.
“Ms. Cummings, can I go to Runners Club?”
“Ms. Cummings, can I go to the library?”
“Ms. Cummings, can I do cartwheels?”
“Ms. Cummings, can I not eat my pickles?”
Ms. Cummings spends her intermission lunching with the kids, who carried their trays outside. It’s a beautiful, sunny end-of- April Thursday—just perfect for the main entree of the biscuit and gravy, apparently a favorite. The teacher takes a little breather, chatting briefly with adults. She longs for professional discussions, the type of networking with colleagues that allows for collaboration and ideas to bloom. There is no time for that during the day, except during the district-wide in-services. After school, there is hardly time for that either. Curriculum training, committees, planning, grading—she already takes “homework” home every night and spends a few hours Sunday doing work.
In November, March and June her homework stack is especially high: It’s report card time. Cummings, who holds a master’s degree in education, says she used to be consumed by work but has learned to make time for other things.
It’s easy to be consumed: Curriculum requirements are getting tougher and bigger every year. Class size has shrunk from 26 or so, but away went the instructional aides. Still, she loves Vaughn and its sense of community—a feeling she didn’t experience as a child since the family followed her father’s military assignments around the country and overseas.
Having taught several elementary ages, Cummings likes the K-2 grades the best. “You can see the learning happening. The excitement is really contagious,” she says.
Perhaps it’s not surprising then to hear Andrea say, in between her counting at afternoon math, that, “We always pretend we are teachers.” Andrea and Emily D. share other adventure stories about pretending while using connectable one inch plastic cubes to measure calculator tape the length of their jumps. The exercise, part of a new curriculum called Investigations, adopted last year, calls for regular hands-on applications.
Emily D. goes for the rainbow look, 12 red, four orange, two yellow, 18 purple—her favorite color—and so on. She lines up her cube-made “stick” with the tape, concludes, “One more, I think,” then ends it with another purple. “Seventy-seven,” she says after counting, and records the result. Writing, just like reading, is everywhere, part of every assignment.
As the day winds down, the questions continue. “Can I go get my reading buddy?” “Can we read outside?” Reading always wraps up the day, and today is just the day for outside reading, as it turns out—a great bonus.
Emily L.’s table gets another bonus: They put their names in a jar for later prize drawings, an honor earned for good work today. At 3:15, chairs go back up, backpacks are scooped up, and the students line up to go outside, where they gather around Ms. Cummings to hear about Violet turning into a blueberry—only because she didn’t listen to Mr. Wonka, who warned her something bad would happen.
At 3:30, the bell declares that school is over, and the students move for the busloading or parent-pickup zones.
“Good bye, Ms. Cummings,” Emily L. says, heading back inside toward parent pickup.
“Good bye, Emily L.”
Ms. Cummings, left to her new pig unit planning and other “homework,” pauses for a moment before rising from her chair, as if reviewing the day’s performance after the curtain falls.