County's Enrichment Program challenges students

Photo By Dave Boyd Ashlee Whitten, of Hunter Elementary, and Lyra Helms, of Little Milligan, squeegee film dry after developing it in the Enrichment ProgramÕs photography class at Hunter Elementary School.

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
Within the Carter County School System are a number of students who not only like a challenge, but at times, are quite a challenge themselves. They're bright. They want to know everything about everything. And their incessant questions can drive a teacher to distraction.
To help meet the needs of those students, Carter County implemented an Enrichment Program, conducted four days a week at Hunter Elementary School by Pamela Smith, gifted coordinator, who began working with students last year.
Smith says she likes the challenge of working with the enrichment children. "I learn from them as much as they learn from me. Oftentimes, I think, we overlook the brighter students. I feel like they should be given every opportunity to excel, because you never know when one of these students may be our next president or a Pulitzer Prize winner, or someone who finds a cure for disease.
"They are inquisitive. They are very inquisitive," Smith said. "They want to know how the world works; they want to know why. They're never satisfied with one answer, so they continually investigate their environment."
For this reason, she said, they need to be given outside activities beyond the regular academic classroom, "cultural arts programs and things that will develop their areas of expertise and empower them to go on to be doctors, lawyers, and things of that nature." Girls, especially, need to be inspired to go into non-traditional fields such as mathematics, architecture, and engineering, she said.
Because of their insatiable desire for knowledge, it's not difficult for these students to veer off course in their line of thought. Teaching them, sometimes, is like "standing on the shore of a beach. Before you know it, it's like the sands and the tide. They pull you out to sea," Smith said.
They also have a natural propensity for putting the cart before the horse. "Sometimes you have to pull them back in and tell them, 'Just because you know the answer doesn't mean you don't have to follow a step-by-step process to get to the answer,' " she said.
Smith and her gifted students also have some things in common. They like to think "outside the box." They love a challenge, and they like to do things the hard way.
"Sometimes they don't look before they leap. They like to jump into things and go for the finish line, and then they have to back up and see how things start -- and that's how it was with the darkroom," she said.
Last year, Smith's gifted students struck up a conversation about photography and ended with the thought, "We want a darkroom." From that point, "we had to work backward and get all of the components together," she said.
"It's so easy and convenient to drop your film off at the one-hour photo and have it developed and not know the process it goes through. So if they have to slow down and figure out the process that it takes and do things the hard way, then it makes them appreciate being able to do things the easy way," Smith said.
The darkroom was a challenge to incorporate into the classroom. "At first we had to do the research. We were just going to have a little curtain over in the corner, and then the more research we did, we found out we needed walls and the room needed to be really dark," Smith said.
She began asking for donations of lumber and Service Master of Johnson City came to her aid. She then began looking into the chemicals needed to develop film.
"We had Mr. Joe Sluder come in from Coleman's Studios and he gave a lecture. Coleman's Studios donated chemicals and helped us get started. I had never developed a picture before in my life," Smith said.
Her seventh grade students helped her nail up the walls and paint the interior black. They then set up shelves and organized the darkroom so they would know where things were in the dark.
"They have it labeled and they know when they put the equipment back that it has to go into that area or they're going to have a mess when they go back into the darkroom the next time," she said. "They know that the equipment is very expensive and that they need to take care of it. They have ownership of the darkroom. It teaches responsibility."
Students learned about the science of the chemicals used, pH scale, and what is involved in a chemical reaction. They also learned that sometimes the first step is the most difficult, such as taking the film out of the cartridge and then rerolling it onto a spool to be placed into a canister to which chemicals are then added -- all accomplished in compete darkness.
Smith came up with a teaching technique to help them along. "We take the students outside the darkroom, and first we show them how, then we put a blindfold on them and another student assists, and they have to sit there and roll until they get a feel for doing it in total darkness," she said.
Last year, students and teacher learned by trial and error. "We learned what underprocessed film was like, what overprocessed film looked like. At times they wanted to give up, but I would pull them back out and I would say, 'OK, let's re-read the directions. Let's look at what we're doing.'
"That was when we discovered that maybe the room was too light, or maybe we didn't have the right ratio or proportion of chemicals ... maybe the TMAX 400 film only went with the TMAX chemicals and we couldn't just mix things any way we wanted to.
"This year, they're walking in there and they're teaching the other class how to put the film on the roll and how to mix the chemicals together. They're excited about being in a teaching position themselves, sharing what they've learned, and showing their leadership roll in the community," Smith said.
Photography probably is the more "fun" portion of the day. Enrichment students also must solve challenging algebraic problems and complete tough language exercises.
"Everything we do, I try to bump up and challenge them in some way. If they're at a certain grade level, I may go up a level with their writing. We're working on nailing thesis statements in the fifth grade, incorporating three paragraphs and a conclusion -- something that fifth graders normally do not do -- which they're doing very well at," Smith said.
Students also are learning to debate. "They have to have backup statistics, they have to have quotes, phrases. They can't just say, 'Because I like so-and-so, it should be this way.' They have to give me the backup research before I can give it merit," she said.
Enrichment students also are learning to speak Spanish. ""Of course, we are not going to be able to speak the entire language, but I want them to have a basic knowledge and fluency," Smith said.
"Before you can get a teaching certificate, you have to be certified in a language. So the earlier we start Spanish, German, or any language with these students, the better advantage they're going to have with their careers and future opportunities."
Smith's 27 students currently range from third to eighth grades. Students are screened according to TCAP scores, which must be in the 90th percentile or better. They also must score high on teacher's and creativity checklists. If they meet those three criteria, they are given a psychological evaluation, with parents' permission.
"If the psychological falls within a certain category, and the other three components of the checklist are met, then we write up an individualized educational plan for the student," Smith said.
This year, rather than receiving a progress report at the end of each semester, students will be assigned a grade, which will appear on their report card. Smith said she believes this will give the program more merit and will allow parents to see where the student falls.