A journalist observes life in the far north.
At Mr. Brown’s first grade class recently, I sat on a yellow velour couch and watched as he led about 20 students in a lesson about story-telling.
The students had created a virtual world, involving businesses such as the “Lollipop Shop” and the “Fruit Zone.” Brown wanted them to write about a day in the life of their small-business-owning families.
With his gray beard and Hawaiian shirt, Brown, who plays in a Bluegrass band, looks a bit like an aging hippie. He has taught school for 23 years, starting in the tiny island village of Gambell in western Alaska.
Normally, he would have had 26 students in his class but a few were absent and others had done poorly on a math test and were sent down the hall to work with a math tutor.
Teaching first graders is like handling a box full of kittens. A boy wearing snowpants got up twice to choose a new pencil from a box lid full of pencils in the back of the room. A girl with curly hair repeatedly left her seat to throw things in the trash. A girl in a pink dress and tights kept bending over the side of her chair so that her head would touch the floor. Another girl sat staring into space, twisting her hair.
“Excuse me, can we get really quiet so we can hear what Mr. Brown is saying,” Brown told the class.
“OK, who is writing?” he asked.
A boy stood up to read his material out loud.
“If everyone would sit down and please raise their hand,” Brown said.
Earlier in the day, a secretary had told Brown that two more students were joining his class the following day. He groaned.
“Having 28 kids doesn’t make more work for me,” he said. “It reduces that one-on-one contact. I spend more time managing the class instead of teaching.”
Alaska’s high school dropout rate is twice the U.S. average and Brown thinks any serious effort to curb that rate should start in classrooms like his, where learning habits are first developed.
That is what compelled Brown to go before the school board one day and call for a return to smaller class sizes. He broke into tears as he talked about his school. Class sizes in the first grade increased this year after two first grade teachers retired and were not replaced.
Next door to Brown is Ms. Bolinger’s class, where things are not much better.
“It should be hands on. It should be busy,” she said. “But with 28 students … I’ve got kids in here that really need a lot of help.”
Bolinger said she gave out 38 detentions during the first quarter of school this year. That’s more detentions than she has given out the entire school term during previous years.
Last year, Bolinger’s first grade class baked once a month.
“We’re not doing that right now,” she said. “It’s just too much.”
Before Halloween, Bolinger had the kids carve pumpkins with the help of three parent volunteers. She doesn’t know if she’ll do something like that again.
“It was just very loud,” she said. “I don’t know if all of the kids were getting what they needed from it.”
Bolinger has a special education student who spends time in her classroom, but not as much time as the student needs to. Because of the number of students, it’s just too overwhelming. Bolinger lost her university intern for the same reason.
Carl Heidel is a parent volunteer next door in Brown’s classroom.
“It’s hard for the teacher to present things to the class and keep order,” he said. “They need a more focussed atmosphere. There’s only so much he can do. If he’s the classroom policeman all of the time, than he’s not teaching.”