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A Times Valley Edition Special Report : Chapter 4: The Reforms : New Lesson Plan's Goal Is to Boost Self-Esteem

September 19, 1993|JOHN JOHNSON | Times Staff Writer

Preferred Activity and Advisory classes are the most unusual and controversial elements of the reforms at Northridge Middle School. A number of teachers said that while they favored reforms emphasizing team learning and theme teaching, they couldn't see what the twice-weekly PAC classes added to the curriculum.

One list of classes this past year included two in making lanyards, baseball card collecting, working jigsaw puzzles, crocheting, quilting, sewing, two classes playing board games and four classes in watching videos.

"Thirty years ago, I would have been fired if I did this," Frank Eichorn chuckled one day as he dragged out the tabletop games he made for his hockey-playing PAC. While some students began playing, banging the little wooden pucks back and forth with hand-held metal hockey sticks, several girls ignored the games and attended to their makeup, dabbing at their eyes and lips with birdlike gestures.

Eichorn's is a successful PAC, but not all are hits with the students. Ed Bigenho, the instrumental music teacher, tried to do a PAC on ham radio, but the students didn't want to learn Morse code, and Bigenho got in trouble for trying to force it on them.

"His class went to the principal" and complained, Eichorn said.

"I was told ham radio was too cerebral," agreed Bigenho, a bespectacled man with a thin tie and a sharp, disciplinary jaw.

He switched to showing American musicals such as "Oklahoma!" which he popped into the VCR one day for an audience of 20 students.

"Poor Judd is dead," sang Rod Steiger, and Robert Smith, 12, didn't look too good himself as he sprawled in a metal folding chair.

"This is not really what I want to see," he said. "I signed up for movies made in the '80s and '90s."

Bigenho admits that the American musical is no more popular with the students than ham radio. Nobody had even signed up for the class. He only got these students because another teacher with a movie PAC was in the hospital.

"This is a waste of time," Bigenho said disgustedly as he popped a bag of popcorn into the microwave.

Tom Dunn, a large man with a round, kind face, disagreed. "I'm not sure we can teach traditionally in untraditional times," he said. Around him, 26 students worked with glue and paint in Dunn's model-building PAC.

"When I was growing up, I worried if I could hit a curveball," he said, helping a student with the Soviet-made bomber he was building. "If our kids were the way we were 20 years ago, we wouldn't have a problem. But you can't stick your head in the sand and pretend these kids aren't bombarded by more problems."

Much less popular is the Advisory class, also held twice a week, which delves into family relationships, morality, self-esteem and other in loco parentis issues. Teachers complain that the lesson plans are juvenile and simplistic and the students just complain.

"Advisory is boring, this is boring, this is boring, this is boring," Alex Novek said one day when his class was asked to discuss whether fighting was an acceptable way to handle campus disputes.

Alex's family recently emigrated from the Chernobyl area of the Ukraine. A chunky blond boy who reads Shakespeare in class, he was ahead of the other students when he came to Northridge. He gets in trouble in some classes because he is so bored he gets up and wanders around the room talking when he finishes his work early.

Even Beryl Ward participates in the Advisory program. A colleague one day asked how her class was. "Wonderful," she replied. "Today, everyone practiced knowing each other's names."

Each of the Advisory monthly plans had a theme. In March it was citizenship, in April it was values, in May conflict resolution, in June assertive behavior. Packets with pictures, games and questionnaires illustrate the theme. The citizenship packet, for instance, included a "What's Wrong With This Picture" exercise showing four panels depicting irresponsible behavior.

In one, two boys are writing graffiti on a wall. Then there is an image of two yuppies chatting while a feeble old woman waits at a crosswalk, seeming to imply that failing to help a woman across the street is as bad as vandalism. Another yuppie-as-villain panel shows a man and woman talking amiably and ignoring a tattered, apparently homeless woman with her hand out.

Some instructors are uncomfortable with the encounter group mentality of some of the lessons, things like Master Robot, which gives one person in the room temporary control over everyone else's behavior.

Bruce Faunce, the wood shop teacher, came up with his own creative way of teaching values. He asked his students to go home and hug someone and write up the reaction.

"I hugged my mom and she said, 'What's wrong with you?' and she rented me a game," said Javier's note.

Cynthia hugged her mother, who asked why she did that. "I said 'because it's a homework assignment, so I was forced to hug you.' "

Danny got an unexpected reaction when he hugged his sister. "My sister socked me, and I socked her back," he wrote.

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