NEW YORK — The subject is geography and the topic under discussion is "Animals Around the World." The second-graders in Annie Gregoire's class have been on the edge of their seats throughout the lesson, but as the focus shifts to dinosaurs and reptiles, their enthusiasm explodes with the abrupt force of a firecracker.
Suddenly all 16 children are on their feet, small arms waving in their air, each one eagerly shouting out that he or she wants to be next to contribute to the discussion. Their tiny classroom is reverberating with the din of their collective voices. Sister Annie (as the teacher is known at this unusual all-black private school) is doubled over laughing.
"Now, calm down," she tells them, trying to force her features back into a more serious expression. "I know you love the animals. But let's try this one at a time."
Spontane- ous enthusiasm is just one of many moods that may hold sway among Ms. Gregoire's students in the course of a day. In fact, it's hard to believe that these wildly swinging arms belong to the same children who, a few hours earlier, sat in orderly rows, focusing on a review for math and language arts exams with quiet intensity.
In an era when a traditional drill-and-test approach is being exalted in many educational circles, and progressive educators seem forced into a somewhat defensive corner, Sister Annie presents an interesting marriage of styles.
On the one hand, she teaches at an unabashedly standards-driven school and offers enough rigorous concentration on a core curriculum to satisfy even the most conservative back-to-basics critics. She also upholds stringent standards for behavior, and her manner is even a bit severe at moments.
Yet at the same time, Gregoire draws generously on the best of the more creative tenets of progressive education, allowing spontaneity, curiosity, and joy of learning to shape much of her classroom work.
"I'm neither a traditionalist nor a progressive," insists Gregoire, in discussing her teaching method. "They haven't invented a word yet that would define my style."
Gregoire never expected she'd be a teacher. A New York City native and daughter of Haitian immigrants, she studied romance languages in college and initially used her language skills working as an assistant to diplomats at the United Nations.
But she says she soon found the adult working world oppressive and felt drawn to teaching. She worked first as a substitute at all grade levels, then as a French teacher at a parochial high school, and later a teacher at a preschool before settling on second grade as the age at which she felt she could make the most impact.
Some of her methods are determined by the school at which she teaches. The Cush Campus Schools have been offering a low-tuition alternative to New York City's public schools since 1971. The three schools, which serve children from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, are located in the hard-edged Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights.
Although open to all applicants, all 150 students and most of the 16 faculty members are black, making the school one of only about 150 black secular private schools in the US.
"We are a standards-based school," says founder and executive director Ora Abdur-Razzaq. Students at Cush regularly outscore New York City public school children on national standardized tests. In 1997-98, 100 percent of Cush third-graders were working at or above grade level in both math and reading.
Organization and focus are clearly school-wide priorities. Every lesson begins with students copying into their notebooks an "essential question" that must be answered by the time the lesson is over.
Within the disciplined framework of Cush, Gregoire finds room for methods that draw on a variety of teaching styles.
In math, for instance, to help her students grasp the concepts of "greater than," "less than," and "equal to," she passes out sets of blocks and colored index cards with symbols written on them. As she writes a number of fairly challenging math problems on the board, the students' task is to practice addition by correctly grouping sets of blocks, and then to unite the groups with the proper symbols.
It's a method that draws on the visual, tactile, and auditory simultaneously. Some students wrestle with the tougher problems, but as the lesson progresses their answers reveal that they are indeed grasping the concepts involved.
Once the kids are comfortable working with small sums, Gregoire leaves the blocks behind and moves on to problems involving multidigit sums.
The students groan at first, but soon they are working with the larger numbers, and some more-advanced students demonstrate their ability to recognize and work with numbers up to a billion -a skill New York City academic standards don't require of students until the sixth grade.
In addition, Gregoire's students are able to maintain focus and concentration on the lesson for over an hour - an accomplishment even teachers of much older children might envy.
Gregoire says she loves the classroom and wants to remain in it for at least another decade, but ultimately dreams of taking time off to write her own textbooks and curriculum. American public education, she says, isn't sufficiently interdisciplinary, and shortchanges students in important areas such as geography.
Meanwhile, she uses her evenings to pursue a bachelor of science degree in elementary education and a master's in children's literature.
Perhaps the breadth of Gregoire's interests contributes to her unwillingness to fit into a particular teaching niche. "It's indefinable," says Ms. Abdur-Razzaq of Gregoire's style. "Nobody can describe exactly what a really good teacher does."
Nadine Munajj, mother of Rahman, one of Gregoire's students, says she's been pleased to see her son becoming "more confident, more comfortable in speaking up and finding the answers to questions," as a student in Gregoire's class. "Whatever it is she does," says Ms. Munajj, "it seems to be working with Rahman."
Michael Smith, another of Gregoire's charges, says he loves school and his teacher. It's a great class, he says, because "you learn." And then, eyes lighting up, he adds, "And sometimes you get to play."
Annie Gregoire on what it takes to be a good teacher
Working with children all day long requires a great deal of patience. If you're impatient, this is not the field to go into."
Today a lot of people are good at understanding themselves but they don't necessarily understand other people. A teacher needs to understand how other people think, what they need, and she needs to be able to work with learning styles that are different from her own."
You've got to be willing to give up a part of yourself. Some people are very much into control, and they are not as willing to be shaped by their experiences. You've got to be open. You're not always going to know what's going to happen the next moment. That's true not only about working with children but also with parents and even the entire faculty."
You have to have a lot of [creativity], especially to work with today's kids. They've been raised with technology and that's robbed them a bit of their own imaginations. It's important to help them develop their creative sides. As a teacher, you've got to be willing to do this, even if it means taking risks. There's always a way to overcome obstacles.
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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society