Teacher's Focus Is the Written Word

Times Staff Writer

Teacher Marion Nordberg looked over her sprawling classroom in Fullerton's Orangethorpe School and smiled.

"One man told me that this was the most organized disorganized class he'd ever seen," Nordberg said. "Someone else once called this 'warehouse education.' "

But the room doesn't look like a warehouse. It's more like an extra-large, carpeted family room for Nordberg's kindergarten through third-grade students.

Sixty-one students, ages 5 to 8, sit in clusters on the cocoa-colored carpet. There are no desks, just work areas.

The regular subjects of elementary school are taught here. But the emphasis is on writing, writing and writing. For instance:

- Bobby Frenzel, 7, recently completed a long, detailed story about the U.S. bombing of Libya and the division of American opinion on the raid. "Bobby reads the newspaper a lot," Nordberg noted.

- Courtney Linsenbard, 6, wrote a story in class Thursday about cystic fibrosis. The story was fictional, but it was based on facts Courtney learned from a television movie about the disease. Her story began: "There is a little girl, and she is suffering from a disease called cystic fibrosis, and there is almost no hope." All words were correctly spelled.

- Sarah Ericksen, 7, carefully printed a story Thursday about her grandfather's recent death and how her family was mourning. "Writing is also a form of therapy," noted Carol Avis, one of the classroom's six parent volunteers, as she proofread Sarah's work.

The students in this special class are best described as "ordinary kids"--they are not hand-selected for special abilities.

What sets these students apart is their concentration on writing and their unusual learning environment--the unstructured classroom that Nordberg devised.

"This is a very unique class," Avis said. "Miss Nordberg has done this on her own. And she insists that the children write, but the focus is on free expression. If they draw something, they are supposed to then write a story about it. One of us (adults) will then proofread it. Miss Nordberg's a stickler for quality in their writing."

The class is not grouped by age or ability. Nordberg, in fact, says she devised the open classroom to get away from skill groupings, such as those based on reading ability.

"I went to a workshop many years ago, and it made a lasting impression on me," Nordberg said. "The speaker said that, unfortunately, it can be determined fairly early the children who will become school dropouts. He said that almost always when school dropouts are interviewed, they say that they knew in the first grade they weren't going to make it in school because they were put in a slow-readers' group."

Nordberg said she vowed to abolish any pecking order in her classes. "The most important thing for a child is to feel good about himself," she said. "When a child feels good about himself, then the academics come easily."

Duncan Johnson, superintendent of the Fullerton School District, said he knows of no other elementary school program in the county like the one devised by Nordberg at Orangethorpe School. Because of the class's popularity, a similar one will be started next fall in Rolling Hills School, Johnson said. That combined class will be grades one through three, but not kindergarten.

She is "a magnificent teacher," Johnson said of Nordberg, who began her teaching career in 1947. Nordberg's class is so popular that there is usually a waiting list, Johnson added, and the classroom is frequently visited by study groups and student teachers.

More Planning

He said it is a misnomer to call this an "unstructured" class because it requires more planning and supervision than most other classes.

That supervision comes from Tom Cope, who shares teaching duties with Nordberg, teacher's aide Arlene Bowen and a cadre of parent volunteers--six or seven are there each day.

"I come here to help because it's fun," one father, Ken Salzman, said. "It's fun helping these kids and seeing them grow." His daughter, Rebecca, said, "I like being in this class because it's so different from a regular class."

Teachers and volunteers move from group to group as they instruct the children, answer questions and proofread the never-ending writing assignments. "We write about everything, including math," Nordberg said.

Own Dictionaries

The children have their own dictionaries, which they frequently consult for spelling. When a parent volunteer or teacher spots a spelling error, the letters "SP" are written under the misspelled word. It is the child's duty to look up the word and correct it.

The words used by the children are often very adult ones, such as Bobby Frenzel's references in his story to Col. Moammar Kadafi, and Sarah Ericksen's story on cystic fibrosis, and the story on Beethoven's life by Marisa Anderson, age 8.

But the children's writing also includes the normal interests of youngsters 5 to 8. Jennifer Burris, 5, on Thursday wrote this story to accompany her drawing: "This is a rabbit. He is hopping in my house."

Wendy Bement, 8, wrote: "This is my brother Brian. He is my best friend, and I love him because he is my brother. Sometimes I get mad, but I still love him."

Teacher Cope was working with students at two personal computers. "They also write stories on these," said Cope. "Sometimes they will compose a picture on the screen, and then they have to write a story (on the computer) to go with it."

Computer Printouts

He pointed to computer printouts of recent student-written stories. One showed a box-like drawing with this story beneath it: "This is a TV screen, and Daddy likes to watch it, and my Mommy thinks it gives you mush brain."

Cope said the computers "are just a high-tech version of the kind of writing we teach." He said the children like to type on the computers and quickly learn the skills for this form of writing.

The classroom has many potted plants and flowers and an assortment of pets, ranging from a king snake to a canary. Adam Scott, 8, wrote a "true story" on Thursday about how the snake once escaped. "The snake ate my lizard," he wrote. "I did not want it to be ate, but she ate it anyway."

Nordberg said that the snake's predatory instincts have naturally led the children to discuss life cycles. Death, she told them, is part of life.

"The death of Sarah's grandfather is one reason I read today's storybook to the children," Nordberg said. The story, which she read aloud as the children sat around her chair, was about a little boy whose grandmother died.

Teaching Clusters

After the story, the children quickly formed teaching clusters on the floor again. More writing assignments were under way.

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