One Woman’s Impact on Elementary Education

“I have the greatest job in the world,” says Margaret Russell ’71. “I wake up every morning and can’t wait to get to work.” As a second-grade teacher at Chaparral Elementary School in Claremont, Russell finds her students a constant source of inspiration. She, in turn, inspires her students with her extraordinary dedication and creative teaching methods.

Teaching runs deep in Russell’s blood; back in the late 1800s, her great-grandmother was the first woman principal of a public high school in Chicago. Her grandmother was a high school English teacher, who, Russell remembers fondly, was still receiving letters from former students at her death at age 99. After graduating from Scripps with a degree in literature, Russell earned two teaching credentials from Cal State Los Angeles, one in special education with emphasis on the visually impaired and the other in elementary education. Her accomplishments in special education include implementing the first state preschool for the blind. After ten years in special education, she took some time off from teaching to stay home with her two children before returning to teaching at the elementary school her children attended.

Russell credits her Scripps education, particularly the Humanities Program, with training her to think in global terms, a perspective she carries with her into her second-grade classroom.

Russell is known at Chaparral for her dedication to integrating the visual and performing arts into her classroom, subjects that are regrettably being dropped by many school districts. Russell’s methods are validated by renowned Harvard neuropsychologist Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. Applied in the classroom, Gardner’s theories reinforce teaching through the arts. The arts in school, Russell adds, “are not just arts and crafts on Fridays.” While many teachers recognize intuitively that children have different styles of learning, Russell states that in order to take these ideas seriously, the public often needs a distinguished place such as Harvard to first propose or embrace them. Russell recently attended a one-week “Project Zero” institute co-directed by Gardner and David Perkins on multiple intelligences and learning through the arts.

In her own classroom, Russell features a different classical composer each month. Students listen to the composer’s music each day and also read stories about the composer’s life and historical milieu. Students also learn about artists ranging from Rembrandt to Paul Klee. Russell takes advantage of the proximity of The Claremont Colleges, leading her students on field trips to the college museums or to sketch on the Scripps campus. She also integrates poetry into the classroom by having children memorize a new poem each week.

Russell’s dedication to the arts has left a broad imprint on Chaparral’s educational program. As a parent volunteer, she developed the Picture Person program, in which parents present art lessons to individual classrooms and conduct a related activity. In order to further enhance her teaching skills, she has attended numerous workshops in the arts, including the J. Paul Getty Southern California Institute for Educators on the Visual Arts and the Los Angeles Music Center Education Division’s Institute for Educators. As a result of her efforts, her school was chosen as a “Bravo” school by The Music Center, an award for exemplary inclusion of the arts into the school curriculum. She also serves as co-chair of the district’s Visual and Performing Arts Curriculum Committee, which is currently working toward making Claremont one of the first school districts in the state to adopt a standards-based arts curriculum.

In her thirty years of teaching, Russell has seen a number of major changes in elementary education. She identifies two as being of particular importance. First, the integration of multicultural issues as part of teaching has made the classroom a richer environment. Her students come from many different cultures around the globe, all of which Russell strives to include and honor in the classroom. At the same time, this multicultural focus makes children realize that the world is small and “we have to take care of each other.” Second, the dissolution of the nuclear family and its consequences in family life have led teachers to take on much more of a parental role than in the past, teaching manners, safety, and other basic life skills formerly taught in the home. As a result of this trend, Russell is developing a teaching unit on values for her classroom, one which incorporates some of her favorite reading selections, such as Betty MacDonald’s Mrs. Piggle Wiggle series, E. B. White’s Stuart Little, Roald Dhal’s The BFG, and Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings.

Margo Tanenbaum
(Pomona ’82)