By Beatrice Schriever
in white shirts and black pants are already milling around the front door
when Peter Banhan pulls up to Amesbury Middle School shortly after eight
oíclock. He heads inside. Hundreds of paper doves are stuck on the wall in
the lobby: poems and messages about the terrorist attacks in the U.S. last
"Usually teachers get a grace period of about two weeks at the
beginning of the year," he says, "especially in a middle school.
The kids are new to the school and they want to please. That didnít happen
this year. Iím not sure why."
Banhan makes a quick stop in the office and then goes around the corner to
Room 107, where he teaches Grade 6. He snaps on the fluorescents, greets the
colleague across the way and consults with his partner Nicky Arrindell, with
whom he team-teaches 56 students. They talk quietly about the day: a lesson
on punctuation and a writing exercise, an introduction to the social studies
textbook, gym, a math test and a science class about flight.
Almost all the students at Amesbury come from six feeder schools serving
apartment buildings and subsidized housing further off. Their families are
part of the African diaspora, from the Caribbean, from East Asia or from
South America. Most of the 527 children here donít speak English at home,
even if they were born in Canada.
The school was built in the early 1950s and looks it. Classes 6A and 6B
share a double room that has seen better days. One window is broken and
patched with plywood; the rest are covered with ancient venetian blinds.
Banhanís side holds round tables with purple chairs. A TV and two old
overhead projectors on stands are shoved up against the windows. One PC and
one Mac sit by the double door.
The bell rings, and students clatter around their lockers and hustle into
class. Standing at his door, Banhan is unexpectedly thrust into a meeting
with a parent whose son has been slacking off. Mom thinks he has been doing
his homework. The boy joins the conversation and Banhan is firm about what
The two classes assemble, and Banhan teaches a lesson about the correct use
of commas and colons. Arrindell moves in with a question, "What number
does Michael Jordan wear?" Hands fly up, and she makes the transition
from the basketball starís shirt to his personal characteristics to their
own individual qualities. The assignment is to write interesting, correctly
punctuated sentences about themselves onto construction paper T-shirts.
Theyíre into it. Noisily.
One girl at the back seems bewildered. Banhan slips over to her desk,
listens carefully, and mentions an international cricket star. That makes
more sense to her, but she still looks mournful.
At 10:30, nowhere near finished, the students are interrupted by O Canada
Afterwards, Banhan dresses down four boys whose behaviour he found
"totally disgusting." A girl who had a nosebleed earlier in the
morning returns to pick up her stuff; her mom has given her permission to go
home, again. The children rush off to another class, and Banhan has 50
minutes to collate the afternoonís math test and talk about his work.
Peter Banhan has been a teacher for seven years. He credits his wife Wendy
ó also a teacher ó for getting him into the profession. "Iíd been
working with kids at Parks and Rec, and she encouraged me to apply to the
faculty of education. I tried it and liked it," he says.
He takes pleasure in the teaching, but dislikes the clerical tasks such as
assigning lockers and collecting money that are part of his job.
Administrative procedures at the school have changed this year, because the
principal and both vice-principals are new. "Administration is an
important factor in how you feel about your job. Itís a bit
daunting," he says.
year, on the lookout for techniques to promote co-operative learning, Banhan
became intrigued by team teaching. With the principalís support, he
approached Arrindell, then a first-time teacher. They take turns
instructing, keeping their directions short so students gain time for group
"My relationship with Nicky has changed. Last year I was mentoring her.
Now weíre partners," he says. "You have to know one another well
to team teach."
They admit they are still refining their approach.
At 11:20 Banhan heads to the gym. An even bigger horde of children is
wandering in and out of the change rooms. This is a triple class. Today,
since the weather is balmy, they go running outside. "They should have
phys ed every day," says Banhan, "to burn off some of that
In the staff room over lunch, he and Arrindell chat with friends and look
longingly at a slick brochure about specialized field trips for immigrant
kids. But mostly they debrief about the morning. Two of the children could
barely write; another had only managed "I am nice and good looking soft
skin." Banhan suggests they check the Ontario Student Records for these
Less than three weeks into the year, Banhan has recognized the kids to worry
about: the boy who isnít settling down; the girl with the nosebleeds; the
girl at the back who may need ESL testing; the four guys, disengaged since
the first day, who acted out all morning.
He speculates that the root problem is that these kids cannot really read
and plans to evaluate their reading and writing skills formally. If their
suspicions are borne out, Banhan and Arrindell will have to modify the
program, perhaps dropping social studies for some students and focusing
instead on teaching them to read. Outside help? After-school resources?
There arenít any.
After lunch, 6A and 6B are gearing up for a math test. Two years ago, Banhan
composed the Grade 6 math tests for everyone in the school; he reviewed the
curriculum, set out expectations for the teaching units, and wrote pre- and
post-tests for each. Today the students do the post-test on their first
unit; tomorrow they get the pre-test on the next one. They concentrate
While he supervises, Banhan notes the names of poor readers on his
At 2:20, papers are collected, and Banhan and Arrindell teach a science
lesson about flight. This is a lively activity, and the students
To close the day, they drop everything and read for 20 minutes. Usually the
students read silently. Today, however, Arrindell reads aloud. Weaving
together the kidsí comments about Michael Jordan and their behaviour in
gym class, she introduces a story about sportsmanship from Chicken Soup for
the Sports Fanís Soul. A jaded writer learns a poignant lesson from his
18-year old son, a competitive wrestler. The kids are spellbound.
The bell rings, and the kids are out the door. All the teachers patrol the
hall, saying good-bye and encouraging their charges to go straight home.
By 3:20 the building is quiet and staff drift into Banhanís room to watch
Banhan and Arrindell sit at her desk to vent and prepare. They must push
back tomorrowís lessons, because they didnít get through everything
today. Theyíll split up the marking of the math test, but not tonight.
Later, Banhan reflects on his studentsí difficulties reading and writing.
"I counted 14 extremely low readers in those two classes," he
says. "Even math is word-based. Itís not just arithmetic. During the
test today, I noticed that the same kids didnít complete some of the
Next week, the Grade 6 teachers at Amesbury are meeting to organize
assessments for those students whose literacy is poor. Using a practical
American text, Informal Reading Inventory, they will hold after-school
sessions to collect baseline data. "Then I want my kids to improve at
least two grade levels," says Banhan.
He seems constantly to be mulling, weighing and evaluating, aware that his
class will take the wide-ranging tests of the Education Quality and
Accountability Office in May.
"I donít understand how we have kids progressing through the school
system when they canít read," he says. Banhan believes we have become
an oral society, and knows that many of his students do not read at home, in
any language. He wishes books formed a greater part of childrenís culture.
But, he says, "The school system carries a burden too. Teachers are not
taught how to teach reading. The faculties just pay lip service and boards
expect teachers to take courses on how to teach reading on their own
time." He argues that lack of money is not the issue.
At 4 oíclock, when he walks out the door, itís raining heavily. Ah well,
better now than at 11:20 during the triple gym class.
Amesbury Middle School
Toronto District School Board
Grade 6, Phys Ed
Certified in 1996
Faculty of Education, York University