Inside a Southwest Classroom

Behind the scenes at a kindergarten class at Whittier International Elementary School

Editor’s note: This feature is the first an occasional series spotlighting life for students and teachers at schools throughout Southwest.

Kindergarten teacher Kelly Pier, known simply as “Miss Pier,” scanned her classroom at Whittier International Elementary School to see if any of the children were dressed in yellow on a recent morning in early September.

A big pad of paper that’s noticeable when you sit down, mounted on a nearby table, read: “Good morning. Today, we will learn about what a risk-taker is. It is also a yellow day. Did you remember to wear yellow?”

Collectively, the children lifted their arms and waved their fists back and forth, a gesture that means, “No.” None of the children displayed any yellow clothing. Pier’s wardrobe was also yellow-free.

Altogether, they were dressed in as many shades as there are in a box of crayons.

They were directed to wear yellow (although it was optional) as a fun way to learn about the colors. Each day that week had a color associated with it.

Whittier International Elementary School is one of 49 elementary schools in Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS). It has 435 students, up from 280 three years ago, said Whittier Principal Armando Camacho. About 98 percent of the students are children of color.

The elementary school is on the path to becoming an International Baccalaureate/Primary Years Programme (IB/PYP) – an internationally recognized curriculum that stresses academic rigor and a worldly perspective.

If the school secures the special IB status, Whittier will be one of two IB elementary schools statewide with the program. St. Paul’s Highland Park Elementary School and 50 elementary schools across the country have the program.

The distinction would be quite a feat for Whittier, a school that has struggled in the past to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) under the federal No Child Left Behind requirements. In the past two years, however, the school has met the requirements.

Although IB is tougher than the regular curriculum, IB Coordinator Melissa Anderson said the theme-based lessons would be easier for children to understand.

Soon, a team of IB/PYP judges will evaluate the school’s implementation of the program. Results will be determined by January, Camacho said. Elizabeth Hall International Elementary School in North Minneapolis is also in the process of adopting the IB program.

Students can follow IB at Anwatin Middle School, 256 Upton Ave. S. and later, Southwest High School, 3414 W. 47th St.

Developing critical minds

Room 175 at Whittier Elementary School is bright with shiny vanilla-colored walls that reflect light from large windows overlooking a baseball field. Tables are pushed together cafeteria-style.

Posters with the months of the year, letters of the alphabet and numbers, are posted on the walls.

Featured are a toy kitchen set, fun mirror, Legos, art easel and book bins. The class gathered in a circle on a bright blue rug around Pier as she read to them a book called “Brave Irene.”

She paused to ask if Irene is a thinker? “Yes,” the children answered in unison.

“She’s being a risk-taker,” one student volunteered.

“Yes, she’s being a thinker and a risk-taker,” Pier agreed. “What else is she doing?”

“Inquiring!” the students exclaimed.

She wants them to be risk-takers, inquirers and thinkers – a few concepts that are woven into the IB curriculum all the way through high school. Students reflect on larger themes of self-identity, place, time, expression, organization, coexistence and function.

Snap, click glue sticks

After the “Brave Irene” reading, Pier instructed the class to pretend to be the wind.

The children spun, skipped, ran and made howling noises before being still again and reclaiming their chairs for the next activity.

They started composing artwork with cutouts of shapes they later glued to a sheet of paper with magenta-colored glue sticks. Pier demonstrated how to open and close the glue without making a mess. “See, like this. Snap, click,” she said. “While I’m passing them out, practice clicking.”

Everyone snapped and clicked together in a musical performance of opening and closing glue sticks. “My glue stick is putting on a show!” said one student with pink plastic glasses.

When they were finished gluing the shapes in various configurations, Pier helped each child title his or her piece. One boy called his the “The Maze of the Lost,” explaining that the green trapezoids formed a treacherous path while an isolated blue square stood for a person who was lost.

Others dubbed their creations “House,” “Arial,” “Jumpin’ Turtles,” “Flower,” “Glue Sticks,” “Art,” “Go Carts,” “Bus,” “Alien Cousin,” “Spaceship,” “The Giant Bug” and “China,” among others.


Anna Pratt can be reached at 436-4391 or [email protected].