At Northridge Middle School, a leading school in California's middle-grade reform movement, teachers are becoming students to learn a different kind of mathematical theory.
When it comes to education, say the reformers, one is indeed the loneliest number.
Northridge has opened its own Practitioner Center, one of only four in the Los Angeles Unified School District, to train teachers in team learning--doing away with the classroom of old, where each student sat mutely while a chalk-smudged instructor lectured at the blackboard.
The Sage on a Stage is out. At Northridge, he or she is being replaced by the Tutor on a Scooter, who moves quickly around the room to encourage teams of students as they debate questions and seek answers together.
"We're trying to take away the idea that kids have of teachers as a threat," said Ron Klemp, one of two facilitators at the center. He wrote the $300,000 federal grant that led to the creation of all four practitioner centers at the start of this school year.
Klemp said the teaching reforms instituted at the Practitioner Center are a break from tradition and are based on the theory that adolescents want to feel connected to their peers and to adults.
"Kids at this age need to not be isolated," he said. "You can't manage (them) from behind a desk."
So far, nearly 120 teachers and principals from a half-dozen L.A. schools have attended the three-day training sessions at the Practitioner Center, in an unused classroom with a giant picture of Hulk Hogan on the wall. Teachers are divided into teams and participate in a series of exercises, such as ranking themselves in terms of creativity, sense of humor, enthusiasm and openness. The teams then learn how to accomplish tasks by calling on each member's individual skills.
The point, according to Klemp, is that people learn more in a cooperative, collegial setting than sitting by themselves trying to absorb knowledge handed from above.
Not everyone is convinced. Some teachers worry that there is not enough attention to educational basics, and some parents are concerned that their high-achieving children will be held back by slower team members, something Klemp denies.
Klemp and Susie Shapiro, the other facilitator at the center and a finalist last year in the state Teacher of the Year competition, say the training center works because it involves "teachers teaching teachers." The techniques don't come from a panel of impersonal experts but from people who have used them.
The opening of the Practitioner Center shows how far Northridge Middle School has moved to implement statewide reforms that began in 1987 with the publication of "Caught in the Middle," a report by a task force established by Bill Honig, who was state superintendent of public instruction.
That report focused on the "neglected" sixth through eighth grades and tailored a new curriculum for this age group. Although a number of Los Angeles schools have begun adopting pieces of the reform package, Northridge decided three years ago to implement the entire package at once.
The primary reforms reconfigured the old seventh- through ninth-grade junior high schools into sixth- to eighth-grade middle schools, and created special classes emphasizing social development and fun activities to increase the students' interest in coming to school. The hope was that fewer students would drop out.
For too long, says Northridge Middle School Principal Beryl Ward, junior high schools have been "mini-high schools," with students assigned to a variety of different teachers and different rooms. Middle school students need more nurturing, she said, so at Northridge, blocks of students are assigned to a single team of teachers that monitors each student's progress.
Putting students in small groups, or teams, is a fundamental part of the program. The teams then work on problems together, sharing their thoughts to come up with answers. Research shows that the students often retain information better by discussing it rather than simply hearing it during a lecture.
"They're going to talk anyway, so why not give them something to talk about?" Klemp said.
With the students engaged in discussion groups, teachers are free to do what Klemp calls "power-walk the floor. Within two or three minutes, teachers should establish eye contact, or pat the shoulder of every student." This, he said, prevents some students from drifting off and dropping out of the lesson, if not the school.
Besides teaming, the Practitioner Center encourages theme teaching. Thus, a theme of ancient civilizations could include a science unit on embalming in Egypt, while the English teacher might encourage students to write a fictional story about an Egyptian pyramid-builder.
At Northridge, even discipline is handled by the teacher team, which meets with misbehaving students in informal mediation sessions.
The success of the program, Ward said, is shown in the school's 98% attendance rate, highest among the 72 middle schools in the district.
"They're doing some good work at Northridge, it's exciting," said Judy Johnson, director of programs for the Los Angeles Educational Partnership, a nonprofit fund dedicated to innovation and reform in education. Shapiro's position is funded by an LAEP grant from the Stuart Foundation in San Francisco.
Cooperative learning also fits the demands of the modern workplace, said Shapiro.
"No one works in a cubicle alone," she said. "That is not the way of the world."