A Times Valley Edition Special Report : Chapter 4: The Reforms : New Lesson Plan's Goal Is to Boost Self-Esteem

Times Staff Writer

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 while 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. While some students began playing, banging the little wooden pucks back and forth with hand-held metal hockey sticks, several girls ignored the games and attended to their makeup, dabbing at their eyes and lips with birdlike gestures.

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. 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 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.

"Advisory is boring, this is boring, this is boring, this is boring," Alex Novek said one day when his class was asked to discuss whether fighting was an acceptable way to handle campus disputes.

Alex's family recently emigrated from the Chernobyl area of the Ukraine. A chunky blond boy who reads Shakespeare in class, he was ahead of the other students when he came to Northridge. He gets in trouble in some classes because he is so bored he gets up and wanders around the room talking when he finishes his work early.

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. Packets with pictures, games and questionnaires illustrate the theme. The citizenship packet, for instance, included a "What's Wrong With This Picture" exercise showing four panels depicting irresponsible behavior.

In one, two boys are writing graffiti on a wall. Then there is an image of two yuppies chatting while a feeble old woman waits at a crosswalk, seeming to imply that failing to help a woman across the street is as bad as vandalism. Another yuppie-as-villain panel shows a man and woman talking amiably and ignoring a tattered, apparently homeless woman with her hand out.

Some instructors are uncomfortable with the encounter group mentality of some of the lessons, things like Master Robot, which gives one person in the room temporary control over everyone else's 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.

Regina Ramirez, a young health teacher, had her students working on something called a "Personality Shield" one week as part of a "self-esteem unit."

The shield was cut out of construction paper in the design of something an Arthurian knight would have carried into battle. Students clipped pictures out of magazines and pasted them on the shields. The pictures, said Ramirez, were supposed to depict the students' future goals and things they liked about themselves.

Omar pasted on his shield a picture of a shark with bared teeth, and the Hollywood sign. Claudia chose pictures of a bicycle, cookies, a boombox, a car, a baby and the words mother, great and smart.

Ramirez said four days of class time had been consumed making the shields. She wasn't sure what the exercise accomplished, she said. "It's hard to measure self-esteem."

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 crowded around saying 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 a competitive one.

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.

One student who returned is Tiffany Burrell. Tiffany said she got Bs and Cs at Northridge. At Cleveland High School, she was getting Cs and Ds, and Susie Shapiro said Tiffany was thinking of dropping out.

"Everything is real fast there," said the freshman. "I'm still kind of behind. I was used to teachers talking to you and explaining things. Now the teacher keeps teaching."

Tiffany lives in a rented house in Canoga Park with her mother, who was recently laid off from her job as a grocery checker. She got U's for bad behavior on her last report card, which she blames on people talking to her. But she denies planning to drop out. Her plans, she said, are to become an engineer.

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 somehow 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."

One of the classes visitors are always shown when they come to Northridge to see how they do things differently is Gladys Kelly's eighth-grade English class in Room 110. As in other modern classrooms, colorful posters cover the walls. On the board is a phrase from Bart Simpson, "I will not bury the new kid."

Kelly, who has an autistic son and has operated a day-care center for the disabled, ran her class efficiently, with no time for disruptions. When she asked for papers to be passed forward, she counted to 10 as she waited, hurrying the students along.

She is a supporter of the middle school reforms. Still, even a booster such as Kelly is ambivalent about what is happening at Northridge, and what teachers face trying to educate disadvantaged students.

"This is demanding for a lot of our kids, but it's sad for those it's not demanding for," Kelly said. "When she visits me, even my daughter sees a difference in the classes," compared with her school in Simi Valley. "I'm not sure she would want to come here. I'm not sure I would want her to."

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 that 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.

Even discipline is handled by the community, rather than the individual. If Randa has a problem with a student, instead of sending him or her to the old referral room, which used to fill up every day with gum-chewers, motor-mouths and latecomers until it was closed, he now sends the miscreant to other team members to cool off.

More constant disciplinary problems are handled through a mediation process created by Ron Klemp, who runs the Practitioner Center that trains other teachers in middle school philosophy.

Susana, a sullen girl with bright pink lipstick, a teased, frothy mound of hair, dangling earrings and a Raider jacket, slouched in a chair one day for her mediation. Around her sat 12 adults, members of Judi Levin's team, who wanted to see if they could get her to stop disrupting her class.

Laurie Wada, the beginning ESL teacher, directed the conversation, asking what problems Susana was having. Talking, she said. Plus, she ditched Mr. Uchiek's class. Plus, she ignored a note from Wada ordering her to come and see her.

"Why don't you tell us how you're going to bring yourself up?" interjected Walt Uchiek, a sixth-grade English teacher who combs his white hair forward and wears shirts he sews himself, with bright sports cars and horses on them.

"Start again," mumbled Susana.

She was asked what changes she would make.

"Behave in class," the girl replied, hardly looking up from her lap.

"Would you like to change seats next to someone who says, 'Let's get to work'?" Wada asked, then added hastily, "Not like a nag." She didn't want to scare the girl away by saddling her with a bookworm.

After a few more monosyllabic responses, the girl was excused. She had said almost nothing and betrayed even less about her feelings. But the adults were delighted.

"I think we witnessed revolutionary education today," pronounced Ward, who sat in as an observer. "This process is pretty incredible."

It may not have looked like much, but the process can work, said Wada. "If they're on the borderline and you catch them quickly, it will work," she said.

What impressed Ward about it most was that the student was not hammered into submission.

At his last school, another junior high school in the Valley, Ron Klemp said there were 1,000 days of suspensions every year. At Northridge, however, suspensions have been going down steadily. There were some in-house suspensions this school year, but nobody was sent home, Klemp said.

"Once you build a spirit of community, there is less antisocial behavior," he said. "I haven't seen the teachers talking as negatively about the kids as they used to."

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