By Sue Kiesewetter
FAIRFIELD - David Pemberton crouched on the floor in front of an illuminated screen in the Fairfield Senior High School classroom.
An index finger of each hand was poised on either side of his head. Classmates Mary Burroughs and Emily Royce stood over him, holding scissors above his head with ferocious looks on their faces.
Fairfield High School teacher Allison Curran (center) with sophomores Mallory Beane (left) and Brittany Lyninger during World Studies and American Literature class at Fairfield High School.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
All three stood frozen while narrator Amy Patrick began: "The eager woman attempts to catch her prey with smooth and sharp knives."
The scene repeated itself a dozen times as groups of three or four students figured out how to become a human slide to illustrate one simple yet descriptive fact about life for Paleolithic man, who lived about 3000 B.C.
Activities like these are what students say make their combined World History and American Literature class come alive for them. Lectures are rare, group projects the norm and student-led discussions expected.
"We do more activities in this class than any other class," said Royce, 16. "It's fun. It's different."
Each day for 18 weeks, nearly 50 sophomores spend more than three hours of their day with English teacher Christene Alfonsi and social studies teacher Allison Curran.
The women have teamed up to teach the two subjects as one, using a themed approach.
Activities are centered on a central idea, which changes every three weeks. Lessons from both disciplines - English and social studies - are seamlessly woven into the class.
"I don't think the kids would be able to tell if we were doing English or social studies at any particular time," Alfonsi said. "We do five big units with themes and take historic examples and select literature to fit the theme. We ask the kids how it affects their world."
Others apparently are noticing. In October, the two were named to USA Today's 2003 All-USA Teacher Team for their innovative work.
Students say they like the approach because it's not all lecture or memorization. Educators say it helps students make connections to their everyday world.
"It makes us work together. We have to listen. We have to think. I'm doing better in this class because I'm not good at textbook things," said Jimmy Brooks, 15.
Superintendent Robert Farrell said teaching as a team and integrating subjects the way Alfonsi and Curran do is harder for the teachers but better for students. He'd like to see the approach incorporated even more.
"When we help students make connections - even on topics that on the surface seem unrelated - we accelerate their learning and they're able to make more connections to the real world," Farrell said.
To prepare the students for the semester-long class the teachers spend the first few days on group building and leadership skills. Several times a week the teachers give students a topic to think about. It is up to the students to lead the discussions and make sure everyone talks.
"I think I'll understand everything better," said Yasmin Dias, 15. "(But) I'm nervous. I've never had a class where they go together like this."
Before asking the students to write and act out the scene about Paleolithic man, Alfonsi and Curran prepared them by talking about senses.
"What would they see, touch? Think about all the tastes," Curran said before asking each student to write descriptively about something in Paleolithic life based on the previous day's readings.
"If you say he tasted berries, be specific. Say what they would taste like."
When the students had finished their independent writing, Alfonsi and Curran gave instructions on how the students should structure their scene as a group and then they modeled it for them.
"You are going to create slides," Curran said. "The objects in the picture are not moving. We want to learn what would have gone on in Paleolithic life."
Once prepared, students broke into groups and had five minutes to write their sentence, decide who would be the narrator and figure out how the remaining group members would illustrate the sentence without moving.
"I had to do something to look like an animal," Pemberton said.
"(Our teaching) mimics reality more than classes in a traditional day," Curran said. "You are readers, writers, citizens, every day, all day."
Added Alfonsi: "We try to make learning more accessible to kids. It's rare that we hear kids say, 'Why are we doing this?'"
For some, the thought of spending three hours with 45-50 teen-agers would seem daunting. But not Alfonsi and Curran.
"We like our sophomores," Curran said. "We feel like we provide a home for them within this big school.''
About the class
Teachers: Christene Alfonsi (American Literature), Allison Curran (World History).
Years taught: Five.
Why the class works: "You need to have two teachers who have the same philosophy and a good chemistry. Christene and Allison have that."- Paul Waller, Fairfield Senior High School principal.
What colleagues say: "They are the textbook teachers that use all kinds of teaching methods and make it work." - Kim Young, social studies teacher across the hall
Student quote: "They let us give our opinion and speak all the time. It makes me open my mind up more." - Mary Burroughs, 16, sophomore.
Themes covered: Environment, Foundational Values, Politics and Law, Reform or Revolution and War and Diplomacy.
This series spotlights a local classroom in which teachers are challenging students in bold, innovative ways. To nominate a class, e-mail email@example.com, fax (513) 768-8340 or write Bill Cieslewicz, Education Editor, The Cincinnati Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202. Please include your name, daytime phone, e-mail and school.
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