Twenty-seven years after she walked into her first teaching job,
Susan Pulford still finds herself awake late at night trying to
figure out ways to get the best out of her third-graders.
"It's a lot of work," she says. "I always worry that I'm not
meeting all their needs. But I have to keep trying."
Grading at John Jacob Astor Elementary School, situated in a
middle- to lower-middle class neighborhood in Portland, Ore., is
gentler than traditional letter assignments. There are no scarlet
D's or F's. Instead, the lowest grade is a 3, presented as "needs
further work." A grade of 1 means the student has "mastered" his or
her lessons. A grade of 2 is described as "developing."
For several weeks, Ms. Pulford pores over her 26 students' work
to determine each one's grade. She covers all the disciplines.
Reading. Handwriting. Math. Spelling. Science. Personal growth.
Work habits. Physical education.
Effort counts. A student capable of good work, who doesn't try
hard, may get a lower grade than students who turn in lower-quality
work but give it their best. Pulford takes the whole child - and
his or her background - into account. It's especially important in
a class with students of widely varying capabilities.
"If we don't do anything else, we want them to take pride in
their work," Pulford says. "I expect everything they give me to be
Even in the third grade there are no shortcuts. Attendance is
crucial. So much is crammed into that benchmark school year that no
day is inconsequential. They must be more independent, and they are
expected to use their time wisely.
For some students, the new demands can be taxing. Eight-year-old
Erik Hill, for example, can't read. Yet he has an uncanny knack for
numbers. He scores in the 98th percentile in math achievement
tests. Though unable to write down words, he absorbs every one he
A gangly boy with an unkempt charm, Erik's booming voice bounces
off the brightly decorated walls. One day not long ago, he returned
from his special-education class and announced, "Guess what! I've
gone from kindergarten reading level to first grade."
The class cheered. "We all shared in it," Pulford says.
The veteran teacher often reads questions aloud to him. He
recently scored 100 percent on a quiz about deserts of the United
States. But a classmate, stumped by some questions, complains about
special treatment. "How come you help Erik?" he asks Pulford.
"That's not fair."
Pulford explains that she was only reading the questions - the
answers are Erik's.
"Is he the smartest person in the class?" the boy asks.
The question sparks the attention of other students - and Erik,
who struggles for self-esteem. Pulford chooses her words carefully.
"In a way," she says, "he is. He has a gift for remembering
everything he hears. …