Turning teaching upside down

16th May 2003 at 01:00

Dr Seuss's topsy-turvy school is a model at one Chicago primary. TES correspondents look at efforts across the globe to break free of the dead hand of standardised tests

When Chicago principal Eva Helwing explains her primary school's ethos to new teachers she draws on Diffendoofer Day!, Dr Seuss's exuberant cartoon celebration of classroom eccentricity.

In the story, teachers instruct while standing on their head or via tongue-twisting verse. The riotous cartoons fade to monochrome as the dull hand of standardised testing descends. But imaginative teaching carries the day and the kids ace the exam.

Similarly, Ms Helwing's Inter-American Magnet school staff do not let the current testing mania cramp their style, but still ensure that the 640 five to 13-year-old pupils get 50 per cent higher marks than peers in local schools.

They do this by turning the conventional approach to teaching an ethnic melting pot of children on its head. The school is 70 per cent Hispanic, with the remainder African-American and white In most US schools non-English speakers are segregated and given intensive English tuition. But here 80 per cent of lessons for all children, even English speakers, are taught in Spanish until pupils are 10, when it is cut to 60 per cent, then parity with English for 12 to 13-year-olds.

Through this "double immersion" technique, Spanish speakers can better grasp academic concepts, says teacher Maria Catalan.

For Anglo-speakers, another culture is opened up, not to mention a whole dimension of modern US life: Hispanics are the country's fastest-growing minority.

The aim is to catch children in early childhood when they acquire languages most easily. Staff say there is no fear that the children's English will stagnate because it is ubiquitous outside classrooms.

Since its inception in 1975, Inter-American has become a model for bilingual education, says Helwing, brandishing three recent PhD theses on the school. It is a magnet, or specialist, foreign language school and it is also a hit with parents.

The school is massively over-subscribed and places have to be apportioned by lottery.

At Inter-American each year of study has an overarching theme, based on one of North and South America's great cultures. Subjects are all woven into this.

For example, Jill Sontag dovetails science into her Inca lessons for eight-year-olds, studying how they moved boulders up mountainsides by reducing friction.

Such an approach also counters post-colonial bias in US history. At Inter-American, students only start studying "the encounter" with Europeans at 11.

Themes also lend themselves to fun assignments. As part of their Mayan project, a class of 10-year-olds emulates the cacophony of the Amazon rainforest. The din of trilling insects and birds chirruping segues into Mayan foot stomping and chanting. This is their second vocal workout of the day. Song is another teaching medium at Inter-American.

Earlier on, the children staged an impromptu rendition of Czech and Nigerian folk songs. At assembly they sing a Cuban anthem.

"We're the Diffendoofer family," says Helwing. "We do so many fun things.

But we expect the kids to do well in tests and they don't disappoint."

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