We're Learning Here!

Oliver Wendell Holmes Elementary School
A project by: Amika Kemmler-Ernst

The Holmes Elementary School sits inside a triangle of one-way streets in a residential area of Dorchester not far from Franklin Park. Beautiful tiles adorn the walls of the first floor corridor featuring children’s names and drawings from 1991, when the school was renovated. The Holmes serves 326 students, the overwhelming majority being Black or Latino.

Children with a variety of special needs, who make up about 20% of the student population, are integrated in all classes at the Holmes. Low class sizes and two adults in each room make this possible. Pictures on each side of primary classroom doors show students whether to push or pull to open the door – perhaps designed for children with special needs, but surely helpful to many more. Behavior specialist Tracey Williams is starting a program to bring therapy dogs into the school on a regular basis!

Science teacher Andrew Sirois asked his kindergarteners to touch a large piece of fleece, eliciting descriptive language as he explained that something so soft was made from hard plastic. Students were going to make scarves from the fleece, integrating a learning activity with a service to children who may not always have warm clothes on these cold winter days!

In other classes teachers were reading stories aloud and leading guided reading lessons. A sign in Nadine James’ third grade classroom listed “Text Talker” sentence starters to model effective discussions. Students working with the new Expeditionary Learning language arts curriculum were reading from a workbook and then answering questions, which made me wonder how this is different from Reading Street or other packaged programs BPS has adopted in the past.

Paraprofessional Cassandra Santos was helping fourth graders as they worked in pairs and small groups to write about the lives of poets. Computers are available in classrooms and the library, where Paula Pickett has students do research projects such as learning about schools around the world. Second graders in Joseph Ryan’s class used jellybeans to engage students in a math activity, while fifth graders were learning how to use exponents. Karen Wood used a pair of scissors to demonstrate how an astrolabe works, as her students read their Social Studies Alive! textbook and discussed the instruments used by 15th century explorers.

In a crowded basement room, exuberant music teacher Clifford Tetle coaxed reluctant fifth graders to vocalize and identify different notes as he played them. After his lesson, students rushed to keyboards and computers to practice what they’d learned.

When I asked staff members what they like best about the Holmes, first-year teachers as well as veterans expressed appreciation for the teamwork and professionalism of their colleagues – something that we rarely, if ever, hear from “education reformers” or policy makers. Let’s spread the word about what BPS teachers and students are doing well – please invite me to visit YOUR school!