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Veronica Weber

Kindergarten teacher Ginny Russell poses with some of the butterflies she raises with her students in a butterfly sanctuary set up in the Fairmeadow Elementary School classroom. After teaching at the school for 27 years, Russell is retiring.

I’m very sad about what’s happening to public education. “I should never complain, but this is heartbreaking.� Last summer Russell’s room, like all elementary classrooms in Palo Alto, was furnished with a Smart Board — a large, interactive whiteboard that displays a computer’s video output. Russell promptly covered hers over with a sheet of muslin onto which she pinned alphabet cards. She re-hung her maps, which had been displaced by the Smart Board, on a suspension system she rigged from wall-mounted L-hooks. Not far from the unplugged Smart Board rests Russell’s unused supply of “leveled readers.� “I won’t use them — it’s not appropriate in kindergarten,� Russell said. “I have kids who are already reading better than sixth-graders — my own daughter was like that. “But when you do leveled reading, kids know soon enough which ones are in the higher and which are in remedial. Why should we start that in kindergarten? Give them at least a year to learn social skills.� Russell believes passionately that kindergarten should be about play, imagination, building a child’s selfconfidence and sense of wonder. “To get through life’s many stresses, which we’re all going to have, they need to have those

things,� she said. “The way they’re packing the curriculum — and all teachers are frustrated by this — it puts more and more stress on the kids and stress on the teachers. And to what end?� Here she evokes author and homeschooling advocate John Holt: “Since we can’t know what knowledge will be most needed in the future it is senseless to try to teach it

‘No one’s said I can’t teach anymore, but they’re just making it harder and harder.’ —Ginny Russell, kindergarten teacher, Fairmeadow Elementary School in advance. Instead, we should try to turn out people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn whatever needs to be learned.� As for kindergartners using computers, said Russell, who has one in her classroom and one in her home, “that can wait until third grade because kids need to interact with the world. “Children need all their senses to learn, and the soft-touch on a screen takes that away,� she said. “When they’re learning to write, they need the drag of a pencil or crayon or chalk — it sends the message to the brain better.� In her class, kids absorb academ-

ics by sinking their hands into nature and art, she said. Symmetry can be understood through a butterfly art project, science through watching butterflies mate, lay eggs, unfurl their proboscises and sip nectar. Each year Russell’s students also make a full study of the silk-moth life cycle, from the egg to the larva to the pupa to the adult. Russell said she made her decision to retire in March after deciding she was unwilling to return in the fall to introduce leveled readers, connect her Smart Board and comply with what she views as an increasingly test-oriented culture. She still doesn’t know what she’ll do with herself after years of coming to her classroom seven days a week to care for the animals. “I wake up every morning and say, ‘This is not really happening, is it?’ I can’t believe there are only a few days of school left, and I don’t get to come here anymore to hear the children’s voices.� She fantasizes about a benefactor swooping in to transport her classroom, intact, to another space, where she can keep working. By the time they’ve grown up, the kids may not remember her name, Russell said, “but they’ll remember the butterflies hatching or the guinea pigs having babies or the silk moths or whatever — the wondrous things that happened in here that they got to be a part of.� N Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly. com.

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Palo Alto Weekly 06.01.2012 - Section 1  

Section 1 of the June 1, 2012 edition of the Palo Alto Weekly