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Leopold teachers invested in more than education

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This poster displays a thinking map, a concept Leopold teachers use across a variety of subjects. Photo by Lew Friedland, Madison Commons

A group of about 16 second graders sit in a circle on the carpet looking toward Kristin Pellerin waiting to begin their morning welcome time, where students greet one another and prepare for a day of learning.

“(The welcome time) gets kids emotionally settled,” Pellerin says. “I get a chance to get to know the kids … I get to see them the most as themselves,” she added.

Caring not just for the educational, but also the emotional needs of each student, is a priority for Aldo Leopold Elementary School teachers. Without first fulfilling each child’s basic needs, they will not be ready to learn, Pellerin says.

During the morning welcome time, a student finishes up her breakfast the school provided at a table behind the carpet and apart from the rest of her classmates. All students at Leopold are given free breakfast and lunch because the school is a part of the district’s Community Eligibility Program grant.

Pellerin says some teachers have disagreed about allowing students to finish eating in the classroom, but Pellerin says she does not have a problem with it.

“My opinion is if they don’t have basic needs met, how do we expect them to learn?” she says.

Pellerin has been teaching for 11 years with four of them as a full-time teacher at Leopold. She recognizes that with 73 percent of students who are low-income and 40 percent who are English Language Learners, she faces a challenging learning environment because of specific attention many students need.

Behind the classroom activities and school schedule, is a complex structure consisting of Individual Education Plans and What I Need blocks for each grade level. Teachers and staff also record data about each student, including class progress and discipline information, to appropriately place students in the best small group for them.

At 8 a.m., Pellerin has more energy than can be attributed to a strong cup of coffee alone. She engages her diverse group of students, re-capturing their attention when their focus wanders as can only be expected of second-graders.

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Thinking maps, a teaching and learning strategy, are used widely throughout Leopold’s curriculum. Photo by Silke Schmidt, Madison Commons

She leads them through a writing exercise using a “thinking map” as an organizing tool. This thinking method is used school-wide in a variety of subjects.

One student, sits outside the circle at a computer with special headphones that allow him to listen to Gospel music as well as hear Pellerin, which is part of his individual education plan. Two other students with disabilities have an additional instructor with them to keep them engaged in the classwork.

Pellerin describes her day as “emotionally draining.”

“I am constantly invested in these kids,” Pellerin says, which makes it difficult to pass them on to the third grade in June.

Third-grade teacher Becky Brown describes the challenges she faces with her students as “soul-crushing” at times but says she fell in love with the school and is dedicated to her students.

“It all boils down to building relationships and making connections with the kids,” Brown says. “If you have that, you’re able to take them places.”

“I work really hard on being genuine with my students, coming down to their level, and trying not to make assumptions, which is really hard,” she continues.

Brown says her smaller class size has been helpful and that she has seen improvement with her students since the beginning of the school year when the classroom dynamic was “explosive” but now is more effective for learning.

“It started out rocky. These are kids with a lot of baggage,” Brown says. “Some kids would yell and throw things at the beginning of the year.”

Teachers face challenges and limitations in any classroom setting and the same goes for educators at Leopold. Pellerin says that about 20 percent of her class acts out and that problems at home often trigger disruptive behaviors.

But these are barriers that teachers can’t solve, although they work to break them down within the school. And sometimes, teachers have to work around the behavior problems to reach students who are present.

“There’s so much I can’t control,” Pellerin says. “You have to ignore the behavior and get through for the kids that are ready to learn,” she continued.

Leopold as a school has made improvements, and Pellerin says the school is headed in the right direction but needs more money and more staff to be even more effective.

Although Pellerin says, “If I got paid in hugs, I’d be rich.”

Jen Gragg and Silke Schmidt contributed to the report.

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