Puppets outnumber textbooks in Taffy Patton’s sixth-grade class. So do drawings, theater sets and any number of other student creations.
“I don’t use textbooks except for math because they’re boring,” said Patton, whose unconventional approach gets results.
Patton teaches at Vena Avenue Magnet School in Arleta, which is attended by gifted and high-achieving children. Last year, the school’s sixth grade--meaning Patton’s students, since hers is the only sixth-grade class--placed fifth in learning-assessment tests of sixth grades throughout the state.
This month, Patton won a Music Center Bravo Award for incorporating the arts into classroom lessons. It is easy to see why the 39-year-old teacher was selected.
For the coming school production of “Oliver Twist,” Patton’s students researched Victorian England so they could be authentic in matters such as the colors of costumes and the shape of street lamps. The sixth-graders are in charge of the musical. No adults are permitted backstage after the overture--a technique that builds leadership qualities, Patton said.
In a geography lesson, Patton had students draw an island of their own invention and name 40 of its features. The results included Big Hamburger, Car Bizarro Country and Doggie Island.
As part of their recent book reports, students took a character from the story, imagined what sort of animal he would be and made the animal out of cardboard, paint and glue.
“I picked a snake because the character was evil Erlic,” said Manuel Morales, who read “The Weird of the White Wolf” by Michael Moorcock.
Upcoming puppet shows feature scripts and puppets created by students. Sergio Lopez is making a hulking red-and-black figure called Taco. “He has my personality,” Sergio said. “He eats 40 times a day instead of three.”
The students are fascinated by mythical creatures, and many of the stories they write contain violence. Patton said she does not know whether the preoccupation with violence is a mirror of contemporary society or whether it simply is the result of children expressing fears and venting frustration.
“But I do know that it’s a heck of a lot better to build a puppet that fights another puppet than to beat up someone on the playground,” the Van Nuys resident said.
Many of the characteristics of Patton’s class would seem to invite anarchy. With several projects under way at once, and with students pursuing basic subjects at individual rates, the class often does not act en masse. One group might be outside practicing a dance while another group is making puppets and a few individuals are reading.
Yet Patton said it isn’t difficult to maintain control.
“The peer pressure here is strongly toward productivity,” she said. “It’s considered gauche to fool around too much.”
It helps that the children are bright. All attend Vena Avenue Magnet because of high IQs or high scores on comprehensive tests. The school shares a campus with Vena Avenue Elementary.
All of Patton’s students live in the San Fernando Valley and most are bused to school. They are of diverse ethnic backgrounds.
“That made it interesting when we had our debate on religions,” Patton said. “Everyone had to take a religion that’s different from their own and argue that their religion should be the religion of the whole world.”
Patton said the need for religious tolerance was the conclusion of the debate. Students were upset, she said, when the leadership of Iran condemned to death author Salman Rushdie for his book “The Satanic Verses.”
There are two Bravo Awards. One goes to an arts specialist and the other, which Patton won, to a classroom teacher who weaves the arts into all instruction. Patton said the arts and all learning are inextricable.
“I don’t think you can separate them,” she said. “To look at a geometric figure is a form of art. To understand Galileo, sketch some of his inventions. Kids don’t look at the world in segregated boxes. It’s all connected.
“There’s such a strong push on for basic education, sometimes the arts get shoved to the side,” she added. “But schools are competing with television now, and it’s fast-paced and colorful. Maybe if the curriculum in American schools was more fast-paced and colorful, which the arts add, the level of learning would be higher.”
Patton graduated from UCLA with a degree in theater and knocked around as a sign painter, carnival clown and waitress before trying teaching. She visited a gifted classroom at the suggestion of a friend and was struck by the children’s spontaneity and energy.
She sees teaching as a powerful job, saying, “You can decide what the whole atmosphere for children is going to be for five hours a day.” Patton seeks to diffuse some of that power by playing down her role in the classroom.
“We do a lot of team learning, where one kid sparks another,” she said, adding that it is a thrill when a shy student finds the confidence to help another.
Patton finds that math books useful but dispenses with standard texts in reading, spelling, grammar and language. “I’d rather have the kids read the real ‘Robinson Crusoe’ than an excerpt of ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ ” she said.
Patton lets the class decide much of its business democratically, and she gets only one vote. In the puppet project, for example, she thought that scripts for each show should have no more than three characters. Otherwise children working behind the puppet stage--which is nothing more than a small booth--would be too crowded.
The class outvoted Patton and set the limit at five.
Patton believes that the spirit of equality is important.
“If you’re supposed to treat everyone with respect, then there’s no reason to treat me with more respect,” she said. “Having different rules for children and adults has never made sense to me.”
One result of the camaraderie is a sense of class pride. Once a “Niner” (the class’s room number), always a “Niner.” At the spring play, alumni are admitted without tickets.
‘I’m a Niner’
“We have big men coming back from college and saying, ‘I’m a Niner,’ and getting in,” said Patton, who has been teaching nine years.
“Oliver Twist” will have an 80-member cast, which is half the magnet school’s student body. Patton and fellow teacher Liz Seligman organized the play, but most of the directing is done by Patton’s students. Much of the action takes place in the theater’s aisles.
“It’s more direct that way,” Patton said. “We give nine performances and the community can come. Some children in this neighborhood have never seen theater.”
Evening performances of the play will be Tuesday to March 30.
Patton said it was exciting to win the Bravo Award and gives her students much of the credit. The judges visited the classroom on several occasions, with the students showing them around and explaining the class’s various projects.
“We were all excited to win,” Patton said, “but I just wish there were many, many more of these awards. Teachers need recognition. We get a lot of bad press, but there are many teachers who are very good. Sometimes you wonder if people know that.”