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Working From the Ground Up

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By John Ettorre

Dr. Susan Turben -John Carroll Alumni Journal

A New 'Institute Without Walls' Plunges into Urban-School Problems

Antonio's mother studies the monitor intently, watching a tape of herself playing with her son, as she and two professors discuss strategies for better encouraging him to learn thought play.

"The more you can engage him to talk, to express what he's doing, the better his language skills will get a workout," Susan Turben tells her, as Kathy Roskos nods in agreement.

The session unfolds at Giddings Elementary, a Cleveland public school that educates children from kindergarten through third grade. The school, located on E. 71st near Cedar Rd., was rebuilt 22 years ago after a fire destroyed its predecessor on the same site. Though it now sits in a poor ghetto, the airy design of the newer building, complete with generous skylights, provides plenty of light even on a cloudy late-winter day.

Dr. Turben, an expert on early-childhood development and Dr. Roskos, a specialist in language and literacy, bring their own form of illumination to this school each week under the auspices of the year-old Institute for Educational Renewal, a joint project of John Carroll and Ursuline College dedicated to improving primary education. During the school year, teachers are the focus for 15 weeks of discussion about teaching strategies. In the summer, the professors will follow up these videotaped play sessions with parents-where selected play props are used to enhance symbolic thinking-with home visits.

Next year, student teachers will follow in the path of their professors, "What we learn from urban schools, we can take and begin to apply more directly in teacher preparation," says Dr. Roskos. "There are wonderful teachers in the Cleveland Public Schools who have much to teach us. I would like to tap into that." The program will eventually expand to other schools, using a pool of consultants, some of whom are expected to be ordinary teachers, like those here at Giddings, who have already become familiar with the institute's concepts.

"In the back of my little mind," says Dr. Roskos, "I think we will make pioneers out of everyone in this building. Because if we do our job right, then essentially all of the instructors here should be able to go out, into another school, as an extension teacher, and to get other teachers to see this whole approach."

Eventually, this "institute without walls" hopes to become a local clearinghouse for information on child development.

As the debate over American Public education roars across the country-and nowhere more vigorously than in old manufacturing centers like Cleveland - the focus of contention often rests on elected school boards, teacher contracts and philosophical approaches to school-choice, such as voucher systems. The Institute, though, would like to retreat to less politically charged individual classrooms, to closely examine how to improve the conditions under which teachers teach and children learn.

From there, the researchers swill try to replicate these ideal learning environments and approaches in the home, enabling families to become full partners in reinforcing classroom lessons.

"We're trying to find learning concepts that move from schools to homes," says Dr. Roskos, a long-time public school teacher and administrator in her native Wisconsin and in Conneaut, Ohio, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on literacy behavior in play.

The thrust of the Institute, established last July and housed at John Carroll's Education Department, is "to have children actively engaged in learning," says Dr. Roskos. "The whole goal is to develop a kind of learning community that goes really beyond the school walls."

Ask Dr. Susan