A Kindergarten Keyed to Reading

With books and projects, Lynn Cherkasky-Davis brings the world to an inner-city classroom

LYNN CHERKASKY-DAVIS prefers that visitors to her kindergarten classroom not come empty-handed.

The award-winning teacher asks visiting adults to bring their favorite children's book and read it to the class. She even wrote a letter to the mayor of Chicago inviting him to come read to her students. He wrote back saying that "pressing city business" prevented a visit.

But the burgeoning library in Room 2 at Dumas Elementary School is partly the result of Ms. Cherkasky-Davis's visitor-reading program. She diplomatically lets readers know that a donation of their book would be welcome.

"You never get more than you ask for," she says. "As long as it involves my kids, I ask."

Books are the currency of instruction in Cherkasky-Davis's class. Her kindergartners all read - at some level - and they even write and illustrate their own books. The school day begins and ends with reading, and every student chooses a book to take home for a bedtime story at night.

"There's never an excuse for them not to hear a bedtime story," Cherkasky-Davis says. Visitors are videotaped reading their books, and the class also has a collection of books on audiocassettes. Students who don't have anyone to read to them can check out a video or tape to take home with the book.

Cherkasky-Davis is working on getting a grant to install a voice-mail system at her school so that kids can call in and hear a bedtime story by phone. Some parents illiterate

"Some of my parents are literate, some are not," Cherkasky-Davis says, noting that a number of the mothers are teenagers and that some of her students are being raised by their grandmothers or other relatives.

Dumas Elementary School sits amid abandoned, burned-out buildings in Woodlawn, a tough inner-city district on the South Side. "You be careful around here, now," a worried taxi driver told this reporter before he left.

Cherkasky-Davis, a 20-year veteran teacher, has taught in Chicago Public Schools since 1979 and at Dumas Elementary for two years. She's been robbed five times, once at gunpoint, and had the battery stolen from her car - all while teaching at Chicago schools other than Dumas.

But she's determined to teach in the inner city. "It's where I want to be," she says. "I absolutely believe that this is what I need to do."

Although she's aware that many parents here are struggling under the strains of poverty, Cherkasky-Davis makes no excuses for them. "I expect a lot of my parents," she says. "I expect them to be a partner." Many of the parents - even those who were skeptical at first - volunteer their time in the classroom.

"At first I wasn't too interested," says Geraldine Nelson, whose daughter, Candace, is in the class. "But she was very persistent and had me participating so much that I started liking it."

Every student in Cherkasky-Davis's class is required to have a public library card. In past years, she took the class to the library to get the cards. But, she says, "my philosophy has evolved. Now, I want to make their parents get involved. I will give the parents bus fare or take them to the library. But they must do it."

Parents are also invited to read books to the class. One mother recently shared her family photo album with the students because she can't read.

In Cherkasky-Davis's classroom, everybody participates to the fullest extent possible. When students arrive in the morning, they take their own attendance by moving a laminated name tag - that they wrote themselves the first day of school - from one part of the bulletin board to another.

When it comes time to sign up for school pictures, they write their own names on the sheet. Remember, these are kindergartners. "It makes it a little messy," Cherkasky-Davis admits. "But I want them to be independent." Breaking all the rules

Cherkasky-Davis breaks all the rules when it comes to classroom design. She doesn't have a chalkboard - just bulletin boards chock-full of material. "All of the bulletin boards are done with the help of the kids," she points out. "I know it's kind of junky, but it's their work."

On one wall, commendations for the students are displayed alongside Cherkasky-Davis's many plaques and awards.

You won't see desks lined up in a row in this class: There aren't any desks - not even for the teacher. "I don't have room for a desk," Cherkasky-Davis says, pointing to a small table in the corner loaded with her papers.

This classroom is set up for the students, not for the teacher. "I believe that they need to use the classroom and the world as their research lab," she says.

Research materials line the walls. A visitor can hardly take it all in, but the students seem to know where everything is and why. When asked a question, they can almost always find the answer somewhere in the room.

"I'm a last resort [for answering questions]," Cherkasky-Davis says. The rule is "Ask three before me." The students end up learning from each other as much as from the teacher. "I don't want them to think the teacher is a magical person," she says.

All the students have their own mailboxes. "You know how in school they usually don't let you pass notes?" Cherkasky-Davis says. "I encourage it."

Workbooks and work sheets don't have any place in the curriculum here. "I want the curriculum to come from the children," Cherkasky-Davis says. All of her lessons are based on purposeful activities that relate to real life.

After lunch each day, for example, the class graphs their lunch menu, counting how often they have pizza or hamburgers and predicting what they might have the next day. They collect and sort soda-bottle tops and record the activity in their math journals. "Whatever they have in their environment can be used for learning," their teacher says.

Sylvia Peters, principal at Dumas, says Cherkasky-Davis "brings the real world inside so there's some connection between the place called 'school' and the world. I see the work that Lynn does as the beginning of the creative process for little people."

At the end of the day, these kindergartners' minds are well-exercised. "She gets me so tired with all of this," says Samantha Leonard, a typically outspoken Cherkasky-Davis student. "When we go home, you know one thing - we fall right asleep." Other articles in this series ran Nov. 4, Nov. 18, Dec. 2, Dec. 16, and Dec. 30.

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