Amazing Classrooms: Finding Their Voice
Narrator: Charles White Elementary serves the McArthur Park neighborhood of Los Angles, one of the most densely populated sections of the city. Because of the area’s large community of immigrants, one of the school’s most significant challenges is a lack of English proficiency. Eighty percent of the student body are English learners and many of the school’s fifth graders are two or more years behind grade level in reading. Despite these challenges, fourth-grade teacher Isabella Yukovetsky was rated a most effective teacher by the LA Times based on her students’ progress on California standards tests. On average, her students gained four percentile points in math and seven percentile points in English compared with other students at their grade level. Yurkovetsky refuses to accept the low level of performance that the system often expects from students of similar backgrounds. Instead, she feels a responsibility to push her students harder.
Yurkovetsky: Table number five, what are you guys working on? You are working on question number five? Every time I look up, there is a lot of socialization going around. Question number...table number one.
Student: We’re doing assessment three. Yurkovetsky: You’re starting assignment number three? You’re finished with your
questions, correct? Student: Yeah, I’m finished the questions.
Yurkovetsky (interview): My personal philosophy is if we set bar really low, the students are not going to rise to it. Like, I feel like, in a way, more parallel to physical therapy where you kind of have to be a little bit tough, and say I know it hurts, but you’ve got to make that step, because if you don’t make that step, you will never walk.
Yurkovetsky: So, how did she get hurt? I know you know. I know Angela knows. Yurkovetsky (interview): When I teach, I demand that everybody sit up and they have
their hands up and they look at me. I do not operate on fear, I operate on respect. Yurkovetsky: Let’s come in...let’s get busy...
Yurkovetsky (interview): I try to create a community. I just try to recognize every student and have them have a job, have a part, have a responsibility.
Yurkovetsky: Manuel is going to lead us to Mr. Crouder’s Shake Ten. Manuel: Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one...(repeat)
Yurkovetsky (interview): So they have ownership. This is their classroom and it might look a little crooked, not perfect, but this is...they made it. So, they take pride.
Audio: Bell rings.
Yurkovetsky: Hands and eyes. Okay, let’s go over the rules. Lift your right hand, lift your left hand. They’re both working, and we have the rules over there. Okay, what is our rule number two?
Students: Raise your hand.
Yurkovetsky: Okay, let’s do it. Raise your...
Students: Raise your hand for permission to speak.
Yurkovetsky: So, which habitat would we find this plant? Daniella.
Daniella: At the desert.
Yurkovetsky: In the...in the desert. You know, I think this calls for a little preposition...because I heard at the desert. Let’s all stand up. In! On!
Students: In! On! Yurkovetsky: In rooms, spaces, and lines. Students: In rooms, spaces, and lines. Yurkovetsky: We stayed on Maui. Students: We stayed on Maui. Yurkovetsky: They work in that room. Students: They work in that room. Yurkovetsky: Those pictures on the wall. Students: Those pictures on the wall. Yurkovetsky: In! On! Students: In! On! Yurkovetsky: In! On!
Yurkovetsky (interview): Most of my students are English language learners and in their first language they don’t have a rich vocabulary. My students just say give me that thing, give me that thing, so in class, a lot of times I try to find names for everything. At first I thought it was because they don’t know the English word for it...
Yurkovetsky: But first let’s go over some vocabulary. Yurkovetsky (interview): ...But then I overhear them speak in Spanish, and they call it
a thing in Spanish as well.
Yurkovetsky: What word do you see inside the dropper? What word do you see that you know? Emily.
Yurkovetsky: We see drop. Okay, what is this?
Yurkovetsky: What kind of spoon? Remember I told you?
Yurkovetsky: No...it’s a tea...spoon. Let’s give it some adjectives. What’s it made of? Alicia.
Alysia: Plastic. Yurkovetsky: Plastic. Excellent. So, listen to this. Max, in Russia, did you live in the
desert? (Russian) Max: (Russian)
Yurkovetsky: Slowly, slowly. Okay, so his mother bought the plant. And what happened then?
Yurkovetsky: So, she put gel in his tea. So, he drank and he got better.
Student: She squeezed the plant.
Yurkovetsky: Yes. My grandma had the same plant. But we did not live in the desert. It was really cold, lots of snow. But this plant is...(audio fade out)
Yurkovetsky (interview): Whatever we’re doing, I try to connect it. I try to...if we’re reading, I really try for students to make some connections with the text we are reading.
Tape player: “What?” I ask with a frown. Cali’s smile looks like it’s hiding a bad idea, and I’m not sure I want to know. “Let’s get the axe, and split a log for the fire,” she says.
Yurkovetsky (interview): Because our students do not see reading in their families, they kind of have this really weird concept of reading. They feel like reading is just saying words, and they don’t interact with the text.
Tape player: When I get to the door, Cali has the lantern lit, and is dragging the rocking chair over to the wall. “Don’t stand on that! It’s too tottery,” I...
Yurkovetsky: Why is she dragging the rocking chair to the wall? Why? Is the chair steady or is it wobbly?
Students: Wobbly. Yurkovetsky: What do you predict might happen.
Students: She might fall. Yurkovetsky: She might fall. What do you think Manuel T? Manuel T: She might fall and get cut. Yurkovetsky: All right, cut her, very good. Tape player: ...cry, and I run to hide the rocker while Cali climbs up... Yurkovetsky: Oh my God, oh my God, hold on a second. What kind of chair is it? Students: Rocking chair! Yurkovetsky: Was it a wise decision? Students: No! Yurkovetsky: All right.
Yurkovetsky (interview): So, when I started I started this connecting. Connecting what they’re reading about to something that happened to them, connecting it maybe to another story, or maybe connecting it to...something else they saw, but mostly connecting it to themselves.
Yurkovetsky: And you’re mom...if it’s red and it’s burning, she’s probably saying, ‘don’t cry, it’s gonna feel better.’ So Maisy is doing exactly the same thing.
Ricardo: Ms. Yurkovetsky? Can I make a connection? Yurkovetsky: Okay, go ahead.
Ricardo: Is it because, like, my mom told me a story that...when she was in Guatemala...her brother, um, her brother was at college and he was wearing cowboy boots and he was walking down the stairs and he slipped and he twisted his ankle and, um, he was talking to him...pulled the leg.
Yurkovetsky: Oh, he set it. Yeah, sometimes...yeah. Okay, so we all have a connection. Aldear has a connection. Aldear?
Aldear: I broke my arm and I said I was fine and when I got home I couldn’t feel my arm anymore and I couldn’t move it, and so the next day it got...when I went to school, I couldn’t write or anything so they...
Yurkovetsky: It was swollen, right? Aldear: Yeah.
Yurkovetsky: Okay. So, when you went to get it fixed, did they talk to you while they were fixing it? They always do that, right? So you don’t think [about] what they’re doing. Anthony. Do you have a connection.
Anthony: Yes. Um...I seen this movie where they... Yurkovetsky: Okay, so hold on a second. Athony now is making a connection to
something... Students: Else! Yurkovetsky: Else. A movie or a story. Okay, go ahead.
Anthony: I seen this movie where this girl...um, they were driving in a truck, and they got crashed, then a zombie came and ate her leg...ate her leg...then she went to the hospital. And then, there was a war of zombies.
Yurkovetsky: Oh, I know. You were watching Grindhouse. Okay, you have to be thirteen to watch that. So, were they talking to her when they were fixing her leg? All right. Okay.
Yurkovetsky (interview): The teachable moment; that’s what we want to have all the time. it doesn’t happen all the time, but [a] teachable moment [is] when you have a hundred and ten percent...when they made a connection, they’re interested in the topic, and they really want to know all about it. (pause) There is a fad in our school. Students are making these little origami things called spinners, and they are really disruptive. But they love it, they love holding them and they spin them and...um...they’re crazy about them, they collect them. I have my own collection of confiscated spinners.
Yurkovetsky: I’m going to have an art collection. Yurkovetsky (interview): So, am I going to fight the spinners? No. While they’re all
really into it, I’ll take the spinners, I’ll turn them into a vocabulary activity.
Yurkovetsky: Okay, okay. I had them the same and then I did them different. Okay.
Yurkovetsky (interview): Even if it’s something I did not plan to teach, I got everybody.
Yurkovetsky: I need help! (pause) And we’re going to write our vocabulary words. What vocabularly words are we writing? Enchained...
Student: Compromise, education, especially, and celebrated.
Yurkovetsky (interview): I mean, I want to get their attention, I want to get their engagement. [A] teachable moment is when they’re all engaged. And you never really know what is going to trigger it.
Yurkovetsky: California was part of what country? Students: Mexico. Yurkovetsky: Mexico. Good. And Mexico was part of what country. Anthony: Cali...california. No, Spain!
Yurkovetsky: Okay. So, look at the maps of our neighborhood and find some names that are Spanish. Highlight them. Highlight the streets that are Spanish. What names do you think are Spanish? Corendele, that sounds Spanish to me as well. Okay, share with your groups, share with your groups.
Student: No, because...it’s part of Spanish.
Yurkovetsky: All right, all right. So...why? And I want you to find out on your own who was Alvarado, and who was Coronado. They were real people. Yes? Yes?...And who were they?
Student: They were Spanish people.
Yurkovetsky: So, why do we have Spanish names in California?
Anthony: Because it’s part of Spain?
Yurkovetsky: Because California...
Students: Because California is part of Mexico and Mexico is part of Spain.
Yurkovetsky: Excellent. Give us a pat on the back. Okay...
Yurkovetsky (interview): Chomsky said that language develops when we play games, because we have to interact with each other.
Audio: Timer rings.
Yurkovetsky: And, hands and eyes. People that have finished their math test are going to practice their addition, subtraction, place value things...playing games. Still bored, Manuel? All right. You have to wait until I finish the sentence.
Yurkovetsky (interview): They learn to interact turn-taking, being polite, reading directions. They’re like, oh, that’s why I have to learn to read. So I can read the directions to play the game.
Anthony: If the fraction is not one tenth or one twelfth, take a peace from the jar. If you get one fifth peaces, you get three points.
Yurkovetsky: Who is reading the directions? There are directions...games have rules.
Yurkovetsky (interview): We have rules, but nobody tells us what to say, whereas computer games, somebody already programmed what’s happening, and it occurs naturally. And...they love it.
Audio: Bell rings. Yurkovetsky: Let’s clean up. Students: (groaning)
Yurkovetsky (interview): I came to the United States when I was fifteen, and nobody spoke my language, so people automatically assume that I was not very intelligent, so I am always cogniscient of how they feel, of this powerlessness, of not having a voice. I’m just always giving them the benefit of the doubt, that maybe they cannot express themselves because they do not have the language.