What Schools Can Do
George Hall Elementary School was recently the subject of an online discussion, which I write about this week in Huffington Post.
That prompted me to think about the first time I ever went to George Hall Elementary School in Mobile, Ala., when I stumbled onto its annual writing fair.
When I arrived, the hallways were filled with a timeline of events in American history. On the left side were essays about — among other things — Plymouth Rock, Paul Revere’s ride, westward migration, the Underground Railroad, and Thomas Edison. On the right side of the hallways were murals and other artwork illustrating the events detailed on the left side. Students, some in groups, were scattered throughout the hallways, waiting for visitors to come by so that they could declaim a short speech or read a short play.
There weren’t many visitors — a few parents, a couple of educators from the district office. But the unsupervised students waited patiently until called upon to perform.
Kindergarten essays were posted next to fifth-grade essays, which were posted near third-grade essays. This, the principal Terri Tomlinson told me, was so that younger students could see the kind of progress they could expect to make, and older students could see how far they had come.
I thought that this was what a school could do when it took the content of what kids should learn seriously. I wished my kids could have had the same experience.
In subsequent years I was lucky enough to see other George Hall writing fairs. There was the year when the 1940s was the central focus. World War II veterans were invited to speak, a tape recorder made to look like an old-time phonograph played “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B,” and students wrote book reports of the Diary of Anne Frank.
Then one year, to mix things up, the focus switched to science, and each grade produced essays and artwork about what they had learned in science that year — weather systems, human physiology, and astronomy. It was all there in appropriately elementary fashion.
They’ve given up the writing fair for now as the school struggles with severely decreased staffing (among other things, there is no longer a writing coach). But Principal Melissa Mitchell, who was the writing coach before she became principal, tells me she wants to get back to it because it was so much a part of George Hall. “It was my labor of love,” she told me.
I hope so, too, because I would love to see George Hall’s hallways covered once more with essays like the ones I read about the importance of Brown v. Board of Education, the Holocaust, and the human respiratory system.