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Today's word on journalism

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Grammatically Speaking:

"We owe much to our mother tongue. It is through speech and writing that we understand each other and can attend to our needs and differences. If we don't respect and honor the rules of English, we lose our ability to communicate clearly and well. In short, we invite mayhem, misery, madness, and inevitably even more bad things that start with letters other than M."

--Martha Brockenbrough, grammarian and founder, National Grammar Day

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USU honors grad now making a difference at inner-city Baltimore school

VERNAL MEETS BALTIMORE: Katherine Shakespeare poses with some of her students. / Photo courtesty of Katherine Shakespeare

By Cameron Salony

January 28, 2008 | While a 30-minute commute may be a pain to many individuals, Katherine Shakespeare treasures it.

It includes a long stretch of 33rd Street, which has a wide, grassy median with many trees that shelter Baltimore's ill-kept roads. She cuts through a calm golf course before entering the "sketchier region." As she jostles to and fro, she listens to National Public Radio until the barrage of world news gets too daunting for her. She cranks up the classical station and finishes her drive through Baltimore listening to the soaring strings of Elgar, Dvorak and Stravinsky. It settles her after her too-late night and too-early morning.

Shakespeare is one of 155 individuals teaching in Baltimore for Teach For America (TFA). TFA is a national organization that recruits college graduates and professionals of all academic majors and career interests to commit two years to teach in urban and rural public schools. TFA's mission is to "enlist [the] nation's most promising future leaders in the movement to eliminate educational inequality."

According to a 2006 study by the Manhattan Institute, each of the nation's 10 largest public high school districts (which enroll more than 8 percent of the nation's public school student population) failed to graduate more than 60 percent of its students. The study also identified an 18-percent disparity in national public high school graduation rates between white and minority students. TFA works to ensure that more students growing up in America's lowest-income communities are given the educational opportunities they deserve.

In 2007, Shakespeare graduated with honors from Utah State with a degree in interdisciplinary studies, with emphases in literary studies and classical languages. She worked as an honors student adviser for four years and an honors course manager for two years. She was referred to TFA by USU's honors director, Dr. Christie Fox.

So what prepared Shakespeare the most to teach in an underprivileged, urban elementary? Perhaps it was her traveling tour as a "prop mistress" of the musical play Forever Plaid, her experience as an editor of a literary magazine, or her time as a reading tutor at Adams Elementary in Logan. Or perhaps it was when she taught herself a semester of Greek over winter break. Shakespeare believes it was a combination of all her experiences.

"I don't take small bites," she said, "I always take on more than I should."

Shakespeare first received TFA training at Temple University in Philadelphia. Five weeks of Shakespeare's life there consisted of 20-hour days, filled with teaching summer school, planning lessons, attending workshops and preparing for potential in-class situations.

Shakespeare now teaches fifth-grade science, social studies and health in northeastern Baltimore. The school is an open space environment, meaning no doors and few walls.

"Classes are clusters of desks scattered among pillars in corners," she said. At first, the upstairs was off-limits. Someone had broken into the school, piled the furniture together, and set it on fire. Some say this is a frequent occurrence and others say it is a gang initiation rite.

Before her first day of teaching, advice from her instructors in Philadelphia reverberates within her head: "If you don't have a plan for the students, they'll have a plan for you!" She finds out that her cultural upbringing in Vernal sets her apart from her students. She welcomes them and pours over the attendance role: Jaquan, Laquwan, Raekwon, Malik, Shekinah, Dalontae, Damonte, Amonte, Shamirre, Tykira, Tyreek, Kilil, Mohamed and Mawa. Her one and only white child won't arrive until October.

Shakespeare has done her part to overcome differences on her way to educating her students, but it has not been easy.

"My children have their ups and downs," she said. After a month of teaching Shakespeare had settled into a routine of suspending students, breaking up fights and losing her voice from shouting over rowdy children.

Shakespeare called a student's grandmother partly to introduce herself, and partly to squeeze minor misbehavior. "He's been out of sorts lately," the grandma said, "His mother just got out of prison and is back to what she was doing before."

Shakespeare then had a one-on-one talk with another disruptive student. After a talk with him she writes home: "There is so much deep and incisive thinking in him, but he is walking a very fine line between setting himself up for continued poverty and a broken home, and utilizing that intellect to become a professor or attorney. I keep telling my boys that something like 75% of the black males in this city don't graduate from high school and that I come to school every day to keep them from being part of that 75%, but it's so difficult to make them care."

After an inappropriate remark Shakespeare was forced to reprimand the class, "I don't ever want to hear racist, sexist, discriminatory statements in my classroom. If I ever hear one, it's straight to the office. These are the kinds of attitudes that leave people dead in the streets and in war." However, the rebuke evolved into a positive, culture-building discussion. Eager hands raised high for a discussion about Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and the segregation of Baltimore.

Then a student shows up with a research article he printed off all by himself. The article was about dinosaurs. He begs to stand next to Shakespeare in line whenever they go anywhere.

"He just needs to tell the teacher some stuff," Shakespeare said, "usually about the latest Discovery Channel show." Shakespeare smiles at his excitement when she tells him that she grew up right next to an active dinosaur quarry. These infrequent rays of light succor her.

Shakespeare sums up her experience thus far:"I'm excited about how much I've learned about shaping young minds in productive classrooms." She has more than 18 months of this left, but she now blends into the Baltimore milieu a little more.

On her better days, Shakespeare now examines the Charm City with a different eye. A white-bearded, Middle-Eastern man is surrounded by dozens of pigeons while he casts bread crumbs from a bag outside his corner-grocery store. At a busy intersection a burly, dreadlocked dad sends his mini look-alike running with his flapping backpack over the crosswalk. Dad waves, shouts good-bye, and walks back toward home. Uniformed high school students meet at every city bus-stop. Some are smoking; all are waiting for the bus to pick them up for school.

As Shakespeare pulls into her school's parking lot the Canadian geese honk and flutter across the playground. The ever-chirping cicadas echo their day's activity.

"I love Baltimore this morning," Shakespeare says as she walks through the school corridor while praying that the copy machine is working today.



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