Column: Ann Macari Healey

The key to good teaching: Knowing when to dance and when to push

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Editor’s note: This is the second of an occasional series about Judy Racine, who will retire at the end of this school year after 40 years of teaching.

Six stations are carefully laid out on the low tables in the classroom:

Hammers, nails and a board.

Rulers, pencils and measuring instructions.

Saws and work gloves.

A power drill, screwdrivers and goggles.

Handmade, paper dictionaries for simple machine-related words.

Wooden pinball machines.

The 25 second- and third-graders circled on the rug around their teacher, Judy Racine, punch their arms excitedly into the air to answer the question she poses: “Who can tell me what our learning target is today?”

Jasmine: “I can practice using different tools safely.”

“So what would that look like if you’re successful?” Judy asks.

Dawson: “Not cutting off your hand with a saw.”

Jasmine: “Not throwing tools around.”

Simon: “Don’t get so panicked you accidentally throw it.”

******

The project, this time, is simple machines.

The books on the shelves, the vocabulary words on the walls, the geometry placards on the windows and the questions tacked around the classroom all come back to simple machines.

The end product — the meaningful outcome of about six weeks of study — is a wooden pinball machine built by students in groups of three, which will be demonstrated to family and friends in a formal presentation and then given to several charity organizations.

Judy Racine, just months away from her last day of teaching after 40 years in the classroom, always thinks about the end result to her lessons.

“I really have to make sure everything I do is meaningful and has purpose with the kids . . . so they see the purpose behind what they’re doing,” she says. “Learning has to be meaningful, purposeful and authentic.”

In the case of simple machines, that means students are “understanding how force in motion is either a push or pull. . . . They may not see it at that moment. But we bring in the language all the time, keep the end product always in mind.”

She knows she’s done a good job when curiosity spurs students to ask questions — probing questions. Or when parents tell her how their children couldn’t stop talking at the dinner table about what they’d done in class that day.

“They’re transferring what they’re doing in the classroom to a bigger world,” Judy says.

Judy, who turns 65 on April 1, has taught for the past 20 years at the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning in South Denver. Supported by five school districts — Aurora, Cherry Creek, Denver, Douglas County and Littleton — and the nonprofit Public Education and Business Coalition, the school incorporates principles of Outward Bound into its curriculum. It’s built around multidisciplinary learning expeditions that take students at least once a week on in-depth field trips and culminate in projects that pull all the learning together.

Those expeditions into the real world, and the project that is shared with the community — allowing them to be “experts” in that particular area — are key ingredients in a recipe for successful learning, Judy says.

“Learning has to be active as well as challenging,” she says. “Students have to be pushed out of their comfort zone. And when they know that they’re learning is public — that they have an audience . . . ,” the motivation to learn steps up a notch.

Jos can’t wait for exhibition night to show off the pinball machine her group will have built.

“We learn how to build simple machines,” she says, as she searches for an explanation of the word axle in a book, then writes her own definition in her dictionary.

“The world,” her partner Lucy notes, “is made up of simple machines.”

“We are,” Jos adds matter-of-factly, “kind of simple machines.”

******

“Fridays for Judy” started at the beginning of the school year:

Tickets to see one of her favorite bands and “The Nutcracker” ballet.

A bottle of wine.

Flowers.

Gift cards for coffee, to restaurants, to the movies.

Dinners to bring home.

Letters of gratitude.

A teacher who worked with Judy but is now at another school suggested the idea as a way for the community to celebrate Judy all year long. The gifts arrive just about every week.

“In August, we sent out emails to all families and staff and made an online signup . . . so people could choose how to thank Judy in their own style,” parent Jennifer Eure said.

Eure’s son, Gavin, is in Judy’s class now. Her older son also had her as a teacher. She is grateful, Eure says, for that good fortune.

“Judy has inspired both of my children to enjoy reading, to ask questions and think more deeply,” she says. “She creates a structured and joyful classroom environment where all of her students feel safe to be themselves, to push themselves and take risks in their learning.”

Amy Weisbrot, a learning specialist who has worked with Judy for five years, believes her most important quality as a teacher is her ability to let kids be kids.

“She is so passionate about the importance of play in the classroom and letting kids learn through their own self discovery,” Weisbrot said. “She helped me realize how important it is to let kids have time to create, to be creative and really dream big . . . and then to believe in their big dreams.”

The education world today sometimes forgets that big dream, Judy says — the recognition that learning shouldn’t be dissected into isolated pieces of standards that should be taught here and objectives that should be met there.

Those are important and necessary components to guiding the teaching experience. But in the intense push for performance and evaluative metrics, she says, the big picture, the “wholeness” of a child is often overshadowed.

Take, for instance, reading. The guiding goal, Judy says, should simply be: “Children should become strong learners who love to read and adore books for a lifetime.”

Good teaching is instinctive, too.

“You have to know when to turn off the lights and put everything away and have a dance party,” Judy says — “or know when to push it.”

Ah, the dance parties.

During snack time after recess, it’s not uncommon to walk into Judy’s room and find kids taking turns at deejay and Judy in the middle of the pack, dancing to Bob Marley, String Cheese Incident or the Beatles, which many of her students have come to love.

“It’s my favorite time to walk into Judy’s room,” Weisbrot says, “so I can join in on the boogie.”

******

Groups of students huddle around the various tables, focused on the task before them. Every 10 minutes they switch to a new station. They hammer nails and turn screws and saw notches into boards. They measure and ask questions and exclaim in surprise. A current of purpose and curiosity pulses through the room.

“This is really cool,” says Ainsley, a blue cap on her head, as she tries out the pinball machine, a larger version of what she is working on. “I like that we’re going to be building our own. Playing with them is pretty awesome.”

Across the room, Judy helps Ryder steady the power drill, then blows away the shavings on the board.

“Wow,” she says, rubbing her fingers across the hole, “that’s great.”

Over on a rug, Jos is working on her dictionary.

She is talking about why she likes her class.

“I love Judy,” she says. “I wish she wouldn’t retire. She finds out how to have fun while learning.”

Jos pauses. Then: “We are kids.”

And, as Judy would say, that’s the most essential ingredient to remember.

Ann Macari Healey’s award-winning column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at ahealey@coloradocommunitymedia.com or 303-566-4109.

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