Saturday, January 22, 2022

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Joe's Neighborhood

‘Yes, Ms. Griffin’


The school door swings open. A room. Just like any other schoolroom. That is, if your schoolroom was in Silicon Valley and was called Apple, or Google or Facebook.

“If I were going to sit down at a dinner with 10 people at the table and ask everybody to draw a picture of what you think a classroom look likes, nine out of 10 of those pictures are going to look pretty similar. But if I ask 10 people to draw a kitchen, they would draw something that they could use, that was tailored to their needs.”joes1

She’s tall. Soft eyes countered by a no-nonsense jaw. Strong hands. Sleeves rolled back. She is a force. Perhaps she is that teacher in 10th grade whom you accidentally called “mom” to the hilarity of your peers. Or perhaps she’s that nun, with only the oval of her face framed by her habit, for whom you drew hearts in second grade. I don’t know. It’s your fantasy. But, trust me, an archetype she is.

“We don’t treat our classrooms like kitchens. We first think about the curriculum, and we may not even think of the space. Changing the space changes how the curriculum is taught. It causes you not to stand and deliver. It causes you to design things kids can do together.”

Maureen Griffin smiles. She is at the end of her day. Tired. Too much going on. Of course there is. Ms. Griffin is the STEM Academy Director at Hoover High School, among other things. STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. STEM academies are our country’s response to the idea that we are not keeping up with technology while educating our kids. We’re falling behind. Someone’s going to land on the moon before us. So now we have an Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council, and Hoover High School is one of the few schools in Iowa with a STEM Academy.


And how best to train these rocket scientists is Maureen’s job. So, this gets us to her room. Right smack in the middle of Hoover High School. A room used by about 75 students and multiple teachers in the course of a day. And sometimes even the football team.

We walk around the room.

A giant interactive white board hangs against one wall with a projector shining on it from the ceiling. It is possible to project your computer screen onto the board and then overlay it with notes drawn on the white board. It is a group document in work — something out of a science fiction novel.

A large low table with chairs sits kitty-corner to the white board.

“This table allows you to write directly on the table.  I can bring my small group to this table.  I’m going to brainstorm here.  It allows the small group to interact on a shared idea.”

Across from the table is a more traditional TV screen.joes2

“This is the video conferencing area. We use it to Skype. But it does everything. You plug your computers to this connection, and you project it onto the TV.”

Strange green mushroom-shaped chairs surround the video area. Yup, they bounce when you sit on them. “A student favorite,” Maureen claims.

And then there’s the cushioned stairs, with computer connections spread at the base of each stair. And wide cloth chairs with swivel arms for your notes. And even a spot for a student to tinker on an idea isolated away from the group. Wow!

A schoolroom like none I’ve ever seen.

Ah, this is all well and good, but are acronyms and high technology the whole answer? Hmm…

Maureen and I walk the halls.

“Hoover is now one of the best schools in Des Moines. It was all hands on deck. We took control of everything. You screwed up, there was consequences. Now people are transferring here. We are doing things right. Our graduation rate is higher than anyone in the district. It’s all about individuals.”

Every 10 steps, I see what she means.

“Sarah, did you get that done? Do you need some help?”

“Yes, Nathan, come and speak to me later.”

“Olivia, what are you doing still here?”

Student after student is greeted, cajoled, confronted, mildly scolded, greatly praised, and certainly acknowledged. Maureen at work.

“Every time a kid comes into my office and has screwed up, or needs help with something, I draw a picture.”

Maureen starts drawing a time line on a white board, with me as her student.

“Joe, this is you born, right here. This is you dying. And this is you probably in high school. And I’ll call it out. You’re an African American. You’re going to die probably around 83 if you’re fortunate to live through this tumultuous time. You’re going to live to about 83.”

As Maureen draws the timeline, underscoring my birth and death with quick hash marks, I swallow self-consciously and start fidgeting.

“So you’ve been doing school your whole life. And I’ve got this really short window with you, four years. And I’m preparing you for the rest of this time. Because if you never see another teacher, if you never see another person in an environment where you have to be there from 7:40 to 3:10 every day, you’re on your own. I have this little window to help you. And you’re right here. And you are still screwing up, and I only have this much time left.”

Lord help me. I am right there. What am I going to do? How do I get a handle on this before it is all over? Yikes! I am screwing up.

“And so my theory is, if I get you for 6.5 hours a day, 180 days a year, if the only pleasure of your day is you coming to school and knowing that Ms. Griffin is going to be there or your teacher is going to be there and they’re going to welcome you, then I want them to feel welcome. I think it’s our duty to every kid. Don’t you think?”

I wipe my brow. “Yes, Ms. Griffin.”

And Ms. Griffin, perching her chin on her hand, gives me a mildly skeptical look. And then she heads out the door to take care of her next kid. CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog:

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