HARD LESSONS: A YEAR IN SCHOOL : SPECIAL REPORT / EDUCATION : PART 4: THE REFORMS : Lesson Plan Gives Priority to Self-Esteem

Preferred Activity and Advisory classes are the most unusual and controversial elements of the reforms at Northridge Middle School. A number of teachers said that although they favored reforms emphasizing team learning and theme teaching, they couldn't see what the twice-weekly PAC classes added to the curriculum.

One list of classes this past year included two in making lanyards, baseball card collecting, working jigsaw puzzles, crocheting, quilting, sewing, two classes playing board games and four classes in watching videos.

"Thirty years ago, I would have been fired if I did this," Frank Eichorn chuckled one day as he dragged out the tabletop games he made for his hockey-playing PAC.

Eichorn's is a successful PAC, but not all are hits with the students. Ed Bigenho, the instrumental music teacher, tried to do a PAC on ham radio, but the students didn't want to learn Morse code, and Bigenho got in trouble for trying to force it on them.

"His class went to the principal" and complained, Eichorn said.

"I was told ham radio was too cerebral," agreed Bigenho, a bespectacled man with a thin tie and a sharp, disciplinary jaw.

He switched to showing American musicals such as "Oklahoma!" which he popped into the VCR one day for an audience of 20 students.

"Poor Judd is dead," sang Rod Steiger, and Robert Smith, 12, didn't look too good himself as he sprawled in a metal folding chair.

"This is not really what I want to see," he said. "I signed up for movies made in the '80s and '90s."

Bigenho admits that the American musical is no more popular with the students than ham radio. Grouping students and teachers into teams has helped make the campus into a community.

Nobody had even signed up for the class. He only got these students because another teacher with a movie PAC was in the hospital.

"This is a waste of time," Bigenho said disgustedly as he popped a bag of popcorn into the microwave.

Tom Dunn, a large man with a round, kind face, disagreed. "I'm not sure we can teach traditionally in untraditional times," he said. Around him, 26 students worked with glue and paint in Dunn's model-building PAC.

"When I was growing up, I worried if I could hit a curveball," he said, helping a student with the model of a Soviet-made bomber he was building. "If our kids were the way we were 20 years ago, we wouldn't have a problem. But you can't stick your head in the sand and pretend these kids aren't bombarded by more problems."

Much less popular is the Advisory class, also held twice a week, which delves into family relationships, morality, self-esteem and other in loco parentis issues. Teachers complain that the lesson plans are juvenile and simplistic and the students just complain.

Even Beryl Ward participates in the Advisory program. A colleague one day asked how her class was. "Wonderful," she replied. "Today, everyone practiced knowing each other's names."

Each of the Advisory monthly plans had a theme. In March it was citizenship, in April it was values, in May conflict resolution, in June assertive behavior.

Bruce Faunce, the wood shop teacher, came up with his own creative way of teaching values. He asked his students to go home and hug someone and write up the reaction.

"I hugged my mom and she said, 'What's wrong with you?' and she rented me a game," said Javier's note.

Cynthia hugged her mother, who asked why she did that. "I said 'because it's a homework assignment, so I was forced to hug you.' "

Danny got an unexpected reaction when he hugged his sister. "My sister socked me, and I socked her back," he wrote.

"I hugged my mother, and she told me, 'I love you, darling,' " wrote Sandra Fuentes, a small girl with long, brown hair who had recently emigrated from El Salvador. "And she hugged me back. And she told me that she was very proud of me."

Sandra's mother appears to understand that building self-esteem in young people is important. Under the new philosophy, it has become a priority at Northridge. "Our purpose is to get them to high school with as much self-esteem as possible," said Assistant Principal Bob Coburn.

Some students who don't do very well in other areas of the curriculum seem to be excelling in self-esteem studies.

A few students in Eichorn's class were asked what they want to be. A girl who eagerly described herself as a "troublemaker" said she was going to be a doctor, or rather, "the surgery thing." Her friends said they planned on being lawyers and architects.

One boy who Don Betts couldn't get to run a lap or do a pushup planned on being a pro basketball player. Another was fully convinced he would be a future Michael Jordan, even though the tallest person in his family is 5-foot-5.

All these students had learned the joys of selfhood, but critics say they are not being told that feeling good about yourself is not enough.

"I think it's good to worry about self-esteem, but not to the destruction of education," said Lynn Norman, an English teacher. "Some of them in the eighth grade can't write a sentence."

Certainly, in the middle grades students often define themselves through their bravado. But critics of the philosophy at Northridge say it leads students down a primrose path because they will discover the world awaiting them is competitive.

Becky Galdos said Ward told the teachers not to worry about preparing kids for high school. Making them feel good about middle school is more important. "If I had a child here I would be irate," said Galdos, a physical education teacher. "What else are we preparing them for? To feel good?" she said, throwing her hands in the air.

Several teachers said former students have come back from high school with tears in their eyes, saying they were unprepared for the more demanding course of study.

Ward's opinion of these problems is that high schools need to reform themselves to follow Northridge's lead in making school more humane.

But experts such as Diane Ravitch, the author of several books including "The Troubled Crusade," a history of American education between 1945 and 1980, believe that Northridge's approach to building self-esteem is misguided and condescending. She said research has shown that minority students in particular often have unrealistic expectations because many well-meaning teachers have told them they are great and can be anything they want. But the authority figures have failed to also tell them that being successful requires hard work and discipline.

"You can be anything you want," said Ravitch, "but not by just saying it. You need tools and skills."

Whatever the critics say, said Frank Randa, the reforms have definitely improved the climate on campus. Grouping students and teachers into teams has helped make the campus into a community.

"Before, you would see different kids in every class," he said. "They could get lost."

The name of his team is the American Dreamers. The other teams are called the Knights of Justice, the Cosmic Eights and the Eagles. Teams not only go to class together, they hold regular assemblies to celebrate birthdays of team members, which the traditionalists complain takes still more time out of the academic day.

But Randa believes the middle school's primary goal is not education anyway. "The most important job in junior high is not subject matter, but morale," he said.*

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