While in Atlanta for a conference, I took advantage of the opportunity to make a site visit. A couple of months before the trip, I had reached out to several adopters in the area. Very quickly, I had a positive response from Linda Williams at Sylvan Hills Middle School. We planned the visit for the morning of April 24 at 10:15 a.m.
Sylvan Hills Middle School is one of fifteen middle schools in the Atlanta Public Schools. Located about five miles southwest of the city center, the large and well-kept school building, rebuilt several years ago, is located in an urban neighborhood.
Led by Principal A. Portee, Sylvan Hills Middle School serves over 560 students in grades 6 to 8. Natural light streams through the sprawling modern building’s wide hallways. The walls feature a mix of brightly colored bulletin board displays, hand-painted posters, and an array of student work.
In its first year using The Walking Classroom, Sylvan Hills received its Walking Classroom materials through a grant in August of 2017. Ms. Williams, the literacy coach, administers the program, and Coaches Cecelia Wooten and George Sabb, the school’s health and physical education teachers, implement it.
A Warm (and Downright Cozy!) Welcome
After making the short drive from my hotel to the school, I exited my car, unprepared for the unseasonably cold morning temperature of 32 degrees (Fahrenheit!). Having brought no appropriate outerwear for the conditions, I hurried toward the building.
I rang the doorbell, got “buzzed” in, and entered the main office, a large room decorated in the school colors of gold and black. I was warmly greeted by the front desk staff, the sound of gentle music, and the image of a fireplace complete with fire blazing. As I was nearly twenty minutes early and Ms. Williams was busy on a phone call, I made myself comfortable.
A Visit to the Principal’s Office?!?
Once Ms. Williams finished her call, she informed me we’d be visiting the Principal’s Office, a thought that can strike fear in many! No need for concern here, as I was greeted by the friendly smiles of Principal Portee, Assistant Principals Blasingame and Cotton (and later, Assistant Principal Copeland). Ms. Williams had me share a bit of information about The Walking Classroom with the administrative team. Then we headed to the media center to greet the students.
The Program in Practice
As mentioned previously, Coaches Wooten and Sabb implement The Walking Classroom at Sylvan Hills. Students are separated by gender for health and physical education, and have these classes for a semester. While students normally walk later in the day, teachers allowed for a bit of a schedule change to accommodate my visit.
I spoke briefly to a group of seventh and eighth grade girls about the history of The Walking Classroom and asked them some questions about how they use the program. Typically, Ms. Williams selects the podcast to which they listen. The lesson – preview, podcast, follow-up discussion, and quiz – is carried out by Coach Wooten or Coach Sabb.
As the eighth graders had the most experience with the program, two of them remained after our chat to serve as pace cars for the seventh grade girls. Ms. Williams presented an overview of the podcast, “I Hear America Singing” (5-#66, Combined-#26). She asked what they thought the title meant. Then she posed some questions for the students to consider as they walked, listened, and learned.
Coach Wooten joined us, and we began our walk. Fortunately for me, we walked indoors due to the cold temperature! Navigating through the halls and cafeteria, we repeated our path a couple of times until the podcast concluded. We then made our way back to the media center, where Principal Portee joined us for the follow-up discussion, which would be led by Ms. Williams.
Ms. Williams referred back to the podcast title and what it meant. She used several of the discussion prompts and comprehension quiz questions from the Teacher Guide, displaying them on the SmartBoard so they would be easily visible.
Students were directed to talk to their “elbow partners” (for some, that meant Principal Portee!), and all were engaged. They talked about the different voices “singing” in the poem, as well as the voices “singing” in both the past and in the present day. Ms. Williams addressed the idea of democracy and the fact that it provides all with an equal opportunity to have their voices heard. She forged the connection to current events, and the students cited recent student-led protests against gun violence.
. . . and Time to Take to the Road!
The discussion wrapped up as students had to get to their next class. Before they left, I extended my appreciation for the schedule adjustment they had made for my visit. Then it was time for a group photo with Principal Portee, and the distribution of Walking Classroom swag for all.
I chatted briefly with Ms. Williams as she showed me a bit more of the school building. After signing out at the office, I headed outside to my car and began my journey back north to Chapel Hill!