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Dose of ASU is prescription for sixth-graders' classroom improvement

May 18, 2010

Many of the parents are looking for work.  A pair of prominent gangs call the surrounding neighborhood home.  A food donation program helps students and their families stretch the budget.  These challenges are not unique to Palomino Intermediate School in the Paradise Valley Unified School District, but they are real.

“It is difficult to teach students about fractions when they are constantly worried about other serious issues,” says Shannon Woodard, a 2007 graduate of Arizona State University’s College of Teacher Education and Leadership (now the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College) who now stands at the head of a sixth-grade classroom at Palomino Intermediate.  “Our students have a lot to face in their everyday lives.  If we can give them something positive to believe in, they are able to forget their troubles, if only for six hours, and have some fun.”

The prescription Woodard has hit upon is a healthy dose of ASU in her classroom of 34 students.  From “Sparky” mascot pennants and posters to t-shirts, and from a trip to an ASU football game at Sun Devil Stadium to the university fight song, her students are bathed in maroon and gold and the promise of a college education.

The program she created, with collaboration from co-worker Nicole Clark, is a result of a 2009 Turn Around Schools seminar that focused on promoting higher education to at-risk students.  The conference shared with attendees the positive effects of higher education symbolism in the classroom – seen in college flags and banners hung on doors, felt through the partnerships forged between classrooms and universities, and heard in the college chants and fight songs that echo around home room settings.  Woodard and Clark, a graduate of the University of Arizona, returned from the conference and went to work.

“I chose ASU as our university because I graduated from the West campus, and I felt that I would be able to promote ASU as a great place to learn and advance and follow your dreams,” says Woodard, who received her B.A. in elementary education in 2007.  “Nicole was going to adopt U of A, so we thought it would help the program if we had a healthy rivalry among our classes to kick it off.”

Through different connections and the individual efforts from a number of ASU faculty and staff, Sparky-branded materials began to flow into Woodard’s classroom.  The topper was t-shirts and a trip to Sun Devil Stadium to watch the Sun Devils challenge Pac-10 Conference foe University of Washington.  The combo contribution was courtesy of ASU President’s Professor José Náñez, a New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences faculty member at the West campus and executive director of the university’s community outreach efforts.

“Three weeks after we received our t-shirts, our students beat their previous spelling goals,” says Woodard, who includes “college readiness” in every one of her daily classroom motivational presentations.  “Then ASU won the game against Washington and, of course, that means our t-shirts made it all happen.”

Woodard, who joined the faculty at Palomino Intermediate a month after receiving her teaching degree, uses ASU facts, figures and trivia in her vocabulary lessons.  She has taught her students the ASU fight song, and ASU posters and pennants wallpaper her classroom.

“ASU has truly become a driving force in our students’ minds,” she says.  “I explain to my students that they represent ASU when they are at school and at home.  They know that if they misbehave or act without integrity, they are not representing ASU well.  I have had less behavior problems and much more honesty in my classroom.

“I believe our adoption of ASU has been a big part of the positive behavior I have witnessed in my classroom.”

Evidence of ASU is everywhere in Room 108 at Palomino Intermediate, located in the northeast corner of Phoenix.  Recently, as the class prepared for AIMS testing, students created a Sparky and surrounded it with paper pitchforks, each one containing a testing tip.  The students asked Woodard if they could cover the walls in maroon and gold paper to help focus on assignments and classroom lessons.  A book, “Sparky Goes to College,” is a student favorite during silent reading time, and the ASU fight song was committed to memory before the end of the first week of school.  “Fight Devils Down the Field,” is sung by all at the end of each school day.

The students are hooked and dive into their assignments enthusiastically, especially when the subject matter focuses of ASU.  In one instance, Woodard asked students to take pencil and paper and write about ASU’s impact in their classroom.

“I like ASU because it’s the best university you can go to, and it teaches you a lot,” wrote Paola Gonzalez, who also noted, “I have learned in Ms. Woodard’s class that it is very important to attend a university.  To become someone, you have to follow your dreams and that there are no excuses not to go to college.”

Another student, Erika Miranda, turned in her assignment after writing, “I know that ASU will help me get to where I want to go and what I want to be,” while Diana Valenzuela, who says she likes math “because it turns you smarter,” wrote, “I will never forget the experience that we had with ASU.  It is the best university ever.”

Woodard has expanded the college promotion program at her school.  She has 27 colleges and universities providing supporting materials to Palomino Intermediate’s fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms.  Another five have expressed an interest in participating next year.

“I can’t express in words how this has changed my students’ lives,” she says.  “They are seeing the future in a completely different way, which is difficult to do in these hard economic times.”