Wednesday, July 11, 2001

High court case

Kids learn a lot from each other

        The U.S. Supreme Court must like to cause trouble in school.

        The nine justices are deciding a case whose outcome could drastically upset classroom routine.

        Students could be prohibited from grading each other's papers. Teachers could be kept from displaying their pupils' graded artwork on classroom walls.

        The case involves a mom from Oklahoma and her three kids.

        She sued her local school district claiming her children were embarrassed when classmates exchanged test papers, graded them and then called out the grades to the teacher.

Wheels of justice
        Rejected by a federal judge, upheld by a U.S. Court of Appeals and now in the lap of the Supreme Court, the suit centers on the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. This piece of legislation orders schools to have parents' written consent before releasing students' records.

        This “grade among yourselves” case could have far-reaching effects. Michael Simpson, National Education Association assistant general counsel, has said, “It can be read to cover any work.”

        That includes students reviewing their classmates' drawings and teachers hanging their classes' best works on art-room walls.

        Crayon drawings marked with a gold star, highly praised poster-paint portraits and grade-A colored-pencil still-lifes could soon disappear from a school near you.

Graphically challenged
        In school, I couldn't draw stick figures. Still can't. So, my art never made it to a classroom wall.

        But then, I went to school shortly after humans emerged from caves. So, I'm a little removed from how or why art is graded and displayed in schools today.

        To find out, I called Sarah Jane Bellamy. She teaches art at Sherwood Elementary in the Forest Hills School District.

        Ms. Bellamy knows art. The former head of Forest Hills' art department has 28 years experience teaching her subject to students from first grade through college.

        At Sherwood, she teaches grades one through six. After rigorous peer and teacher evaluations, she puts every sixth-grader's work on the wall.

        She also encourages students in grades one through five to evaluate each other's work. But in a positive way. No one's embarrassed. No letter grades are given.

        “We lay out their work on the floor and talk about what they like about each other's art,” she said.

        Peer praise goes more often to kids who fill the whole page and use lots of colors.

        “No one says you're dumb for using one color,” she noted.

        “But kids catch on fast. They see what their classmates are doing. Then they feel encouraged to use more colors next time.

        “They see how much better the projects are by children who work on their art at home and in school. They learn the value of hard work and self-discipline. They learn to take risks, to express themselves. That's what art is all about.”

        She added another lesson students learn from their classmates' evaluations.

        “They realize the importance of self-criticism and peer criticism. What's good and what's bad doesn't always have to come from an adult.”

        If only the Supreme Court justices could take a seat in Ms. Bellamy's classroom. She would teach them an essential truth. Children can also learn valuable lessons when adults butt out.

       Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.


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