Sample: In A Coulee
This is becoming a habit; these early morning drives into the sun up the Columbia. I sip my tea as I wander northeast in search of Palisades, a place of sagebrush and ranch hidden in a coulee. I had seen a sign for it in my last searchings down this highway, a sign pointing off to the left up a small valley lined with vertical basalt walls. I turn now up this asphalt strip, winding my way through cattle grazing with heads over fences tasting the forbidden grass on the other side. I pass through a pod of orchards and notice one field of apple trees has been left to drop its fruit. The times are hard. I keep driving.
At last, I spot a weather-beaten wooden sign, Palisades Elementary School. I pull into the gravel parking lot beside a small brick building with a brightly colored sign on the front door inviting me to come to a Book Fair. A basalt cliff towers over the back yard where a maple drops its golden leaves on play equipment. The clipped grass of the playing field beyond wears a coat of frost. Chilled, I run into the building and am greeted by Charlotte Billingsley, Superintendent and Principal of Palisades. Her smile warms me, the stranger, as she walks me on a short tour. She herself has been there since 1969, a stable force, when they had only 12 students. Now they serve approximately 50 kids, 90% of whom are Latino from families who work the orchards. With four teachers, Americorp volunteers and bilingual aides, this rural school provides a quality education to these 50 students hidden in this valley. They have a secret: class size and devotion to the learning process.
Surrounded by computers, fish tanks, artwork, multi-colored blinds, maps, life-sized human anatomy drawings, ten 4thand 5th graders focus on Mrs. Osborne as she discusses their group reading on grizzly bears. They sit crammed together around a kidney-shaped table with workbooks splayed open, questions flying. “One person at a time, please,” she says as the excitement level increases as the discussion soars to new heights. Hands go up, desperately waving, knowing the answer. With a firm hand and yet a sparkle in her eye and a wise-alec grin, she mimics a grizzly bear hibernating to illustrate an exercise on fact vs. fiction in their workbooks. Not once does anyone wander or seem detached from the lively interaction. Everyone, working together, participates whole-heartedly. I feel drawn into the circle by their rapt attention. It’s contagious. She’s got them captured. They sing. They chant spelling words in unison. They leave the table to do individual work as she calls up students who need a bit more; a different path.
I walk into Mrs.Brook’s room where sixteen 2nd & 3rd graders diligently, on pads, scribble their Daily Oral Language assignment projected up on the white board. Some pencils move quickly, others seem gripped so tightly that fingers turn white. It’s excruciating to watch. “Is everyone finished?” Mrs. Brooks asks. When a majority raises their hands, she stands up front and begins going over the grammar lesson. Eager hands fly into the air as they talk about why, ‘he has went’ should become, ‘he has gone’. Some scratch their heads, others can hear the correct language. For many, English is not their native tongue. One child is monolingual in Spanish, but those around her assist. “I really like how these kids help each other out,” Mrs. Brooks comments as she watches one child explaining directions to another. They are all learning together, a cooperative effort.
Posted in every room, the Palisades Elementary School Code of Conduct exemplifies what I have witnessed here today:
I am respectful
I am safe.
I am prepared.
I am responsible.
Whether through the laughter, the brightness of eyes, the attention to task, or the helping hand, I have seen nothing but respect for each other and for learning. I have seen class sizes where everyone can matter. I have seen teachers who care deeply for their students and for their craft. I have seen curiosity encouraged. I have seen vitality and hope in a stark coulee back beyond where only a school, a post office and a defunct grange hall stand amid the sagebrush. Palisades, I applaud your commitment to quality education!