The View from Sixth Grade

Ellen Berg
July 19, 2002

Ellen Berg, a sixth-grade language arts teacher in St. Louis, Missouri has been writing weekly on-line diary entries about her experiences for the past two school years, offering a detailed and personal look at her classroom struggles and successes.

Her diary on the MiddleWeb site pulls no punches when it comes to describing troubles with discipline, burnt-out colleagues, struggles with her principal, and challenging students. But it also reveals the joys and pleasures of working with children at the famously moody and mercurial age between childhood and adolescence.

Connect for Kids Editor Susan Phillips recently asked Berg about what she has learned in her years at Turner Middle School in St. Louis, Mo., where close to 90 percent of the students are African-American, and as many as 95 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

What makes middle school special, from a teacher's perspective?
My favorite thing about working with middle school students is helping them work from the concrete to the abstract. This fits in with an even larger issue, change. My kids are going through all sorts of changes, and I like the challenges and excitement.

They are weird (as they are supposed to be), I am weird (I never grew out of it), and so we mesh well.

What do you think your students need to find in your classroom and in their school? Are they finding it?
I think they need my patience, support, preparation, fairness, consistency, respect, high expectations. Middle school kids are always in a flux of love and hate—with the teacher, the subject area, their peers, themselves—and being a constant in their lives (even as they roll their eyes when you tell them to put their purses in their lockers or to stop passing notes) is important.

I think my kids get that from me most of the time. I am still struggling to keep some consistency—it is difficult not to change things midstream when you realize it isn't working.

As a school, I believe we have a long way to go. An assembly, a new procedure, even expectations concerning uniforms might be handed down five minutes before it's supposed to be implemented.

Just before you started your first year teaching at Turner, how did you imagine your ideal classroom?
You're going to laugh—in my mind, I had envisioned something out of Dangerous Minds [a movie in which Michelle Pfeiffer plays a teacher in a tough inner-city school] where I would bond strongly with my kids, win them over, and at the end we would all be singing campfire songs together. I thought that because I said something or valued it, my kids would automatically cleave to my passion and become star pupils. I just knew everyone would work quietly and behave nicely.

Now, after six years, when you imagine your ideal classroom, how is it different?
My ideal classroom is one where, on any given day, students are involved and on task. I see kids up, moving about, working in groups, working on computers, practicing lines in the hallway with minimal supervision. These are things I have witnessed many times in my classroom, but I have yet to recreate it daily. My ideal classroom is one in which, though we may not always agree with one another, we do respect each others' ideas. (Here is a diary entry for a day that came close.)

What is one key thing that you have learned about teaching and about students?
Never lower your expectations. All kids can achieve at high levels; the more I expect, the more I challenge them, the better work I get from them.

What kind of parental involvement do you have in your classroom?
I think this is my weakest area. Time is a rare commodity, and since I have not made parental involvement a priority, it is usually the last item on the list. I send a "Friday Folder" home each week with each student's general progress and behavior; I call home with concerns about discipline. I call each one of my parents at the beginning of the year to introduce myself. It is minimal at best.

I would like to get parents more involved; but I feel like I'm muddling through it all. That said, I do have a very good relationship with my parents. I have a reputation for being fair, holding high expectations, and treating their children well.

You've written in your diary about your doubts that a reform model will really make a difference in your school. What are the barriers to reform? What does reform take?
First of all, people who believe change is possible, not only in themselves and their lives, but in the children they teach. Second, is that people have to be willing to work. If you are someone who is falling asleep, copying ditto sheets, laughing and playing and telling dirty jokes, telling kids they are just going to go to jail or get pregnant, you are not working.

I think in order for real school reform to take place anywhere, but maybe especially in a school where kids come to us so far behind, EVERYONE must be fully involved and invested. The principal, teachers, teaching assistants, other support staff, janitors—everyone must be on the same page, hold the same expectations, and preach the same message.

Reform is really hard stuff. It is so much easier to go through the motions of the program and not embrace the spirit, then blame the kids for the failure. Or the parents.

As I wrote in one of my diary entries, I still hope that there may be enough of us at Turner who crave more to make it all worthwhile. If the committed staff members receive the assistance and work together in study groups and are able to see what a "good" school does, won't we all benefit? Won't our students be more successful? Won't some of us, at least, feel more nourished and invigorated?

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Susan Phillips is the former editor of Connect for Kids.


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