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Spring 2004
Beyond Rhetoric
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New teachers emerging from UCLA's Graduate School of Education & Information Studies are being trained to hit the ground running in some of Los Angeles County's toughest school settings

Illuminating Young Minds
An Eager Student
Classroom Education

WHEN VANESSA MORRIS arrived at Locke High School in South Los Angeles to teach freshman biology, she found a curriculum that was inconsistent from class to class, inadequate texts that were little more than disjointed collections of articles, poorly equipped labs and limited opportunities for students to conduct meaningful experiments.

Walking into such a situation might have been daunting for some freshly minted teachers, but Morris '00, M.Ed. '01 was not deterred. She just kept pushing, collaborating with other science teachers to lead a drive to standardize lesson plans and acquire appropriate equipment like test tubes and protective goggles.

"Every little thing took so much time and an enormous amount of energy to get accomplished," she says. "Nothing was easy."

On top of that, their efforts were not always warmly received. While the administration was generally supportive of her desire to make improvements — "I think we were flying under the radar as far as they were concerned, and they weren't paying too much attention to what we were doing," she says — the reaction of many of her colleagues in other departments was "very negative." It was as if they thought "we were trying to overthrow the system," she says. "I think a lot of them felt very threatened by what we were doing."

But Morris and her fellow science teachers persevered, and today, all freshman students at Locke enroll in biology, where they have appropriate standardized textbooks, dissect squid, observe cells through new microscopes and conduct other experiments that teach them the essence of scientific inquiry.

"We fought really hard to change the curriculum because it wasn't very rigorous; it wasn't preparing the students for college-level classes," says Morris, who now heads the science department at Locke, and whose methods have become a model for other departments wanting to make improvements. "We wanted to make instruction hands-on and inquiry-based, to make it so that students wouldn't be bored in the classroom and could receive the best education we could offer to them, not something second-rate. We wanted our students to learn by doing."

Doing is exactly what it's about for Morris and others emerging from UCLA's Teacher Education Program. Like Morris, many of those teachers — trained specifically to work in urban school settings and advocate reform — head directly to assignments with K-12 campuses in poor neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles County.

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