Twenty-seven years after she walked into her first teaching job, Susan Pulford still finds herself awake late at night trying to figure out ways to get the best out of her third-graders.
"It's a lot of work," she says. "I always worry that I'm not meeting all their needs. But I have to keep trying."
Grading at John Jacob Astor Elementary School, situated in a middle- to lower-middle class neighborhood in Portland, Ore., is gentler than traditional letter assignments. There are no scarlet D's or F's. Instead, the lowest grade is a 3, presented as "needs further work." A grade of 1 means the student has "mastered" his or her lessons. A grade of 2 is described as "developing."
For several weeks, Ms. Pulford pores over her 26 students' work to determine each one's grade. She covers all the disciplines. Reading. Handwriting. Math. Spelling. Science. Personal growth. Work habits. Physical education.
Effort counts. A student capable of good work, who doesn't try hard, may get a lower grade than students who turn in lower-quality work but give it their best. Pulford takes the whole child - and his or her background - into account. It's especially important in a class with students of widely varying capabilities.
"If we don't do anything else, we want them to take pride in their work,'' Pulford says. "I expect everything they give me to be their best."
Even in the third grade there are no shortcuts. Attendance is crucial. So much is crammed into that benchmark school year that no day is inconsequential. They must be more independent, and they are expected to use their time wisely.
For some students, the new demands can be taxing. Eight-year-old Erik Hill, for example, can't read. Yet he has an uncanny knack for numbers. He scores in the 98th percentile in math achievement tests. Though unable to write down words, he absorbs every one he hears.
A gangly boy with an unkempt charm, Erik's booming voice bounces off the brightly decorated walls. One day not long ago, he returned from his special-education class and announced, "Guess what! I've gone from kindergarten reading level to first grade."
The class cheered. "We all shared in it," Pulford says.
The veteran teacher often reads questions aloud to him. He recently scored 100 percent on a quiz about deserts of the United States. But a classmate, stumped by some questions, complains about special treatment. "How come you help Erik?" he asks Pulford. "That's not fair."
Pulford explains that she was only reading the questions - the answers are Erik's.
"Is he the smartest person in the class?" the boy asks.
The question sparks the attention of other students - and Erik, who struggles for self-esteem. Pulford chooses her words carefully. "In a way," she says, "he is. He has a gift for remembering everything he hears."
"You know," Erik pipes up, "I'm just like Albert Einstein. I'm brilliant, but I have a learning disability. Albert Einstein never combed his hair, and I never comb my hair.''
Astor's students aren't given marks during the first grading period. Instead, they have conferences with their parents in the classroom, with Pulford looking on. Much of their academic success depends on their parents, she says.
Sherisa Davis is a good example. She was the only student in Pulford's class to earn perfect grades in the second marking period. She comes to school eager for work, unafraid to ask questions when she doesn't understand. Her classmates' antics cannot distract her.
But Sherisa isn't some self-absorbed wonder kid. She's as kind as she is bright, consistently helping her classmates with their lessons. If the class were to elect a president, Sherisa would probably get every vote, Pulford says.
Pulford doesn't take much credit. A lot of what Sherisa carries to the classroom, she brings from home, Pulford says. Her mother, Sherry Davis, raised Sherisa and her sister to work out problems on their own, and not to be ashamed to ask questions when they need help.
Ms. Davis allows that Sherisa would probably be a good student without Pulford. But she insists she probably wouldn't be a great student. And she wouldn't enjoy school so much.
"Sherisa comes home every day with a smile on her face," Davis says. "She talks about Ms. Pulford all the time. She just adores her.
"Students know," she says. "They just know when teachers care."
The state checks performance
For the last half of the school year, Pulford's students are put through a battery of tests. It is the state's way of measuring how much they have learned and how well Pulford has taught them. Her class took a writing test in February. The other subjects - math, literature and reading - are in April. The school district began this year to require some tests more frequently.
As a result, Pulford finds herself "teaching to the test." In years past, she and her students would read literature and simply enjoy the tales. Now she finds herself stopping midstory and picking the work apart. She must point out such things as similes and adjectives, which they must understand for the next battery of tests.
"When I have to rush like that I don't feel like I'm spending enough time, giving them enough repetitions," she says. "I don't feel like the quality is there."
Pulford believes that the forthcoming tests, and her emphasis on them, actually cut into her kids' learning. They absorb more when they are having fun.
"I hated school when I was a kid," she says. "I woke up every day with a nervous stomach. I don't want the kids to feel that way. I want it to be as positive as possible."