Classrooms can be plush or barren. Students can be highly gifted or dim-witted. Instructors can have state-of-the - art teaching materials or dog-earred textbooks. None of these things matter. If the teacher is good, students will learn.
In the past few months, the education spotlight has turned to teachers. Last fall the California Commission on the Teaching Profession issued a report that called for giving teachers more control over their profession. It also advocated career ladders to make it possible for veteran teachers to earn up to $57,000 a year.
Next Friday, the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy is scheduled to release the results of a yearlong study on teachers and teaching. The authors hope that the report will have as much impact as the landmark 1983 report "A Nation at Risk," the study many educators credit for launching the most recent wave of education reform measures.
Karen Lough, Karen Kohn and Joyce-Ruth Bunkin have earned the light-hearted moniker because of all the sacks and boxes they carry.
But they are not carting around their worldly possessions. Their bundles hold the tools of scientific discovery.
Almost every weekday for the past three years, the women have traveled to one or more of seven elementary schools in the Las Virgenes district to present 40-minute science classes to fourth- and fifth-graders.
Each class features a laboratory in which every student gets to perform an experiment--something quite unusual in elementary school science courses.
Because of the program's hands-on approach, the topics covered and the unusual practice of having the teachers shuttle between schools, this year the team was honored as one of the seven outstanding elementary science programs in California and given the state's Excellence in Science Award.
The traveling team was created after parents in this westernmost part of Los Angeles County asked district officials to strengthen the fourth- and fifth-grade science curriculum. With the help of the The Las Virgenes Education Foundation, a fund-raising parent support group, about $100,000 was raised to start a program.
Now totally funded by the district, the traveling team works with about 1,000 students a week. The same lesson is given to all students in the same week.
This year students verified basic chemistry principles by using litmus paper to test different fruit juices. A discussion on energy sources was brought to life when students built a simple electric circuit to power a flashlight. And last week students tested the sugar content of a variety of fruits.
Traveling teacher Bunkin introduced the sugar experiment to fourth-graders at Yerba Buena Elementary School through a question-and-answer session in which the student concluded that the body uses saliva to help break down food into a form of sugar. The students followed the process with the help of a side-view diagram of the mouth and the esophagus.
Divided Into Groups
The class then divided into groups of five or six. Each child, Bunkin explained, had been given a job that parallels the responsibilities of members of a typical scientific research team. The "material manager" obtained the equipment and materials for the experiment. The "principal investigator" conducted the experiment and made sure each member of the team got a chance to participate in the test.
The "data recorder" wrote down the results of the test and the "maintenance manager" was in charge of cleanup.
"Most elementary teachers don't have the time it takes to gather and prepare materials for regular use in science lessons," Bunkin said as she handed out trays with small slices of apples, oranges and grapefruit to the students.
"This way, all my time is devoted to the preparation and presentation of the science lesson. And we can make sure it's almost all a hands-on experience."