LOS ANGELES CITY SCHOOLS
Teaching Science in California.
Memories from my first year of teaching.
Irene Baron: www.irenebaron.com
The day I arrived at Alexander Fleming Junior High School in Lomita CA back in 1960, the office staff told me I had the highest recommendation they had ever seen written by the man in charge of district hiring and with whom I interviewed in Pennsylvania. That was nice to know.
With over 1,000-students, the main building was being remodeled. My portable classroom held 35-desks and had one a 30”-wide counter along one side wall. The standard, large, black demonstration desk had access to water and gas. Two-thirds of the front wall was chalk board. The other third was a floor to ceiling bulletin board I couldn’t wait to use. Every weekend from then on I spent most of my weekend creating 3-D art scenes depicting whatever we were going to study that week. Students and visiting teachers were always impressed with the educational displays. My exhibits were so complex I arrived at school at 6:00 AM each Monday to assemble them. Having intensely studied art at the Zanesville Art Center for 10-years beginning at age 8, I had become quite versed in many aspects of design, color, line art, construction and creativity and enjoyed spending time figuring out how to manifest scientific ideas. Outside of school I lived art!
My assignment was to teach Earth Science to 8th graders. The Los Angeles City School provided me with two binders containing excellent lesson plans for each day of the school year with supplemental materials. If I needed 35-microscopes or other equipment, I just called the supply office. The equipment would be delivered when needed and picked up when I was finished with it. The well-thought-out system allowed the district to supply teachers without stockpiling expensive equipment at every school.
Since the district suggested animals be kept in science classrooms, I accepted king snakes, mice, rabbits and other safe critters from students to place in animal cages or terrariums kept on the wall counter. Students and I provided food, water and cared for them. Students with written permission and a parent to pick them up on Friday after school were allowed to take the animal and cage home for the weekend. In addition, students bringing in food were permitted to feed their selected animals during class. They learned much about predator/prey relationships through class observations. That age group enjoyed ghastly events and looked forward to mice brought for the snakes. The constrictor king snakes let the mice roam until tired. When the snake reacted, it was so fast students couldn’t follow the action. In less than a millisecond the snake being fed would wrap its body around the mouse to squeeze until the mouse died. After being eaten, the mouse lump would be visible for days during digestion. Mice and our white rats were allowed to be handled during class. Students were advised to pick up a paper towel for messes and not disturb class when one occurred. Five minutes before class ended animals had to be securely returned to their cages.
Our white rabbit was fed by me. Each time before treats/feeding I would click my fingernails together. Like Pavlov’s dog, it learned the fingernail click meant food. The rabbit was allowed to hop around the classroom and loved to be cuddled by students. Five minutes before the bell I would click my fingernails together while finishing up the lesson. The students didn’t hear the soft clicking. The rabbit did. It would run to me so I could put it in his cage. Students were always amazed the rabbit knew when the period was almost over. When asked how the rabbit knew to come to me at the end of class, I teased and told them our rabbit was very brilliant. Until now, I never told them what happened. I don’t think they ever figured it out.
During one period each day I had to leave the room for the “Leadership” class where selected students wearing their thick, colored, diagonal, sashes learned leadership. A sashed student issuing an order for student conduct had to be obeyed or the defying student would experience consequences by the staff. In a school of 1,000+ students, having 35-sashed leaders in each grade and throughout the hallways helping monitor students was pure genius. Leadership students gained valuable knowledge and helped make the school a better place. Student leaders were highly respected by students and staff as excellent role models. Other students aspired to become a student leader.
One day, I was in the portable library when I heard my name being frantically called. I knew a snake must have escaped. When I went to the classroom the petrified teacher was against the farthest corner. I felt like joining her. Two boys were holding down the trash can which securing a king snake. King snakes are so friendly, I didn’t dare let students know I was petrified of them. I asked, “Does anyone know how to hold a snake?” Many hands went up. I chose two boys to hold the snake once the waste can was removed. They did a marvelous job and returned the snake to its large, counter habitat. That wasn’t the last snake to get loose during that particular period. I never did catch the culprit that removed the top netting over the snake habitats to let them out.
My students achieved at all levels. Each day was different with exciting demonstrations and/or laboratory situations. One student never worked and earned a failing grade. I went to the records office and asked if I could see his records. The staff said I was the first teacher in their history to want to see a student’s records. They couldn’t help me enough. I learned the young boy in question had an IQ of 167! The next day I took him aside at the beginning of his science class. While students were preparing for the lesson, I discussed with this boy what I had learned about his background. With his permission, and later his parents, I put him to work doing independent study in astronomy and sent him to the library. He was also allowed to bring his project work to sit in the back of class to work. His first assigned topic was the Sun. The next grading period his report card with all “F’s” climbed quickly to all “A’s & B’s. Working with his grateful parents, I was able to excite him about learning and take him to level where he was finally earning “A’s in every subject.” I left California after that year and always wondered what happened to the child. I hope he grew up to be an astronomer.
My Principal told me during my evaluation at the end of the first school year he was disappointed I had never utilized my gigantic bulletin board. The artist in me was flabbergasted by his erroneous statement. When I told tell him about the weekly detailed, ornate and expensive floor-to-ceiling displays, the man didn’t believe me. Unfortunately, he had never been in my classroom during the week. He looked in only during weekends when the luxurious displays had been disassembled and the bulletin board cleaned for Monday’s new display. His office staff explained he spent most every day downtown trying to get a position in the district office.
California teaching was a fulfilling experience. The fantastic lesson plans I received helped me prepare for the rest of my teaching career. When I left CA and moved to Ohio, the lower socio-economic students in my Newark, Ohio classroom went from being the lowest in the city in 9th grade science to the highest on the Iowa Basic Skills Test in science. The Superintendent called to congratulate me and ask what I was doing. The "elite" school science teachers were dismayed they were outclassed by such high scores by my students. I totally attribute that fine teaching to the lesson plans given me by the Los Angeles City School District.