2013-06-13 / News

Middle school kids surprise school board with Socratic seminar

Also, Rebecca Barkus wins $2,000 Stone Scholarship
By Nick Pereira

Lawn Avenue School fifthgraders presented a seminar to the School Committee at the board’s June 6 meeting. The students demonstrated to board members the skills they learned studying Socratic dialogue.

Nine students attended the meeting, and many came straight from the field, still dressed for baseball or soccer practice. Jamestown teacher Christine Bernardo led the students though the demonstration.

“They took this by the horns,” said Bernardo, discussing how the students dove into the project.

The fifth-graders took turns discussing genetically engineered foods, some in favor, others against. Bernardo specifically chose the topic because it’s been in the news recently.

“I think the topic is relevant,” she said.

“This is a pretty serious subject,” added Committeewoman Sarah Baines.

The students conducted a halfhour dialogue that covered a number of issues surrounding genetically engineered food. The discussion ebbed and flowed from religious concerns to farming benefits, from allergy worries to modifying genes.

Committee Chairwoman Cathy Kaiser commented on the students’ preparation and knowledge. “How many of you went home and educated your parents on this subject?” she asked.

The students conducted a Socratic dialogue, which in essence is a controlled discussion. Some students sat in an inner circle to discuss the topic. They shared their own opinions, but also supporting their position by citing other sources.

Other students sat in an outer circle and listened. Once a student in the inner circle spoke a few times, a student from the outer circle switched positions and the discussion carried on. This cyclical pattern was repeated numerous times.

Bernardo commented on the utility of a Socratic dialogue. “The students are working on so many different skills at once,” she said. Bernardo said the practice helps students develop their research, critical-thinking and oral-communication skills. Participants also learned how to take notes and highlight research. It was important that they focused on gathering the relevant information rather than trying to simply regurgitate facts they learned, she said.

Listening was one skill especially emphasized by Bernardo.

“Our culture is uncomfortable with silence,” she said, “but it gives us time to think.”

This was stressed because the students in the outer circle were prohibited from speaking.

A typical dialogue lasts 90 minutes and moves briskly, she said. The students never really debated each other. Instead, the exercise helped develop communication skills because it’s a collaborative effort.

Following the demonstration, the School Committee tackled a few items of business. First on the agenda was a vote to award the Elizabeth Stone Fund Scholarship to an island resident. After a brief discussion, the committee members voted unanimously to award the scholarship to Rebecca Barkus.

“It is clear this person is very deserving,” said Committeeman B.J. Whitehouse.

The scholarship is given each year to an incoming college freshman to offset expenses. Rebecca will receive $2,000 to help with her first year at the University of Rhode Island.

In other news, the School Committee rescinded nonrenewal notices for several teachers for the upcoming school year. The teachers were Stephanie Conrad, Cornelia Connelly, Julie Geary, Matthew Juhnowski, Bev Rudman and Glenn Scott. The budget passed by town voters last week allowed the school to ask back half a dozen teachers that may have been let go for financial reasons.

The board also approved appointments for the 2013-14 school year, including Michele Kennett- Fick as an elementary special education teacher, Sandra Reynolds as high school coordinator, Conrad as a technology coach, and Renie Sullivan as wellness coach.

Finally, the committee accepted the resignation of social worker Mark Allard effective at the end of the school year.

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