Russian education leaders tour Zaharis school
The Arizona Republic
Dec. 13, 2007

Ray Parker

First-grade students at Zaharis Elementary School were interrupted during their morning library research Monday by Russian educational leaders who wanted to find out about American classrooms.

Madeline Clarkson, 6, talked about her writing project on sea turtles: They're reptiles, lay one to 200 eggs at a time and come up for air.

All the school's classes revolve around a concept called inquiry-based learning, which, in short, involves student interests directing the focus of projects.
Chris Steele of Mesa said she wanted the foreign delegates to see what's possible in a public school. She's part of the Friendship Force, a local group hosting the Russians who will tour Arizona for 10 days.

The Open World Leadership Center at the Library of Congress organizes such trips to enhance understanding between the United States and Russia.

Principal Mike Oliver explained to the group that his teachers are given a wider net to teach than in traditional public schools.

For example, first-graders learn how to conduct library research along with different literary forms in subjects that interest them.

For 6-year-old Riley Drayna, great white sharks fascinate him, so he's writing a fictional story involving a baby shark, while including a non-fiction fact sheet on the animal.

But while they're learning about English, the youngsters could also mix in other subjects, such as math by comparing the sizes of animals.

"Teachers know the state standards but they're not covering this on Day 1 or that on Day 2," Oliver said. "The curriculum follows the children here."

The Russians asked several questions through interpreters as they toured the school, at 9410 E. McKellips Road, near Ellsworth Road, and nestled by its natural desert surroundings.

Question: How do the teachers know what the children want to learn?

Answer: Teachers watch the children, conduct workshops and talk with them.

Fifth-grade teacher Kris-Ann Florence explained why she likes the inquiry-based learning system at Zaharis, the only Mesa Public School to follow it.

"Instead of me telling them this is what you're going to learn, this is what's important, I ask questions to guide them, and as the year goes on, the students become better at asking questions," Florence said.

Home stays through the Friendship Force will allow the delegates to experience American family life. They will also take part in other cultural activities, such as touring the Heard Museum and the Grand Canyon.

Congress established Open World in 1999 and expanded it in 2003 to all post-Soviet states. About 12,000 political and civil leaders, from Russia, Moldova and Azerbaijan, among others, have experienced American society.

"Teaching education is outside the politics, so there's no significant difference as such," said Andrey Kornilin, an Ulyanovsk Region administrator. "The technology here is very good."