Friday, January 16, 2009

Inside John Freshwater’s Classroom

The controversy surrounding John Freshwater prompted school officials to post a “room monitor” in his classroom. A family that, at the time, remained anonymous had made allegations against him of teaching religion and burning a student during a science demonstration.

Freshwater has maintained that the only thing he is guilty of is having his personal Bible on his classroom desk. His attorney was so confident of this fact that he called the room monitor, Deborah Strouse, as a witness for the defense.

(Freshwater taught science for 21 years at Mount Vernon Middle School.)

Strouse’s testimony at Thursday’s hearing sounded like she was endorsing Freshwater for teacher-of-the-year. This despite admitting being prepped by the school board’s attorney, David Millstone, in preparation for her testimony.

Upon questioning by Freshwater’s attorney, Kelly Hamilton, Strouse explained an incident where she was told to “remember who you work for.” Strouse had expressed anxiety about testifying to Dr. Lynda Weston, director of teaching and learning. Weston’s response, according to Strouse, was to “remember who you work for.” Strouse took this to mean she was to remember that she was “working” for the students.

While a monitor in Freshwater’s classroom, Strouse said that she did not hear him speak or do anything that was inappropriate. There was no mention of religion. She did see some religious items in the classroom: several Bibles, a Colin Powell poster, and a bag with some religious items concealed inside. Strouse said that Freshwater never drew attention to the items.

During the six weeks that Strouse was in Freshwater’s classroom, she typed 26 pages of notes onto her notebook computer.

She detailed everyday activities in the classroom. How Freshwater greeted students as they came to class. His handling of a problem student or one that needed, in her words, “TLC”—tender loving care. The way in which he made sure to follow up with any student who did not know an answer to an in-class question. And how he managed to get students to say, “I love science.”

Strouse said that she was even learning a lot of science in Freshwater’s class—and that it was not just because she was in class with him five periods every day. She talked at length praising Freshwater’s abilities as a science teacher. Her enthusiasm over the things she was learning during those six weeks spilled over into her conversations with her husband. “What did Mr. Science teach you today?” Strouse’s husband would ask her.

During a class on cell theory, a student brought up the subject of evolution. The student said, about what they were discussing, “This raises a red flag about evolution.”

Freshwater guided the conversation away from that topic. “I would love to spend some more time on that one, but we are moving on,” Freshwater said, according to Strouse.

Strouse said that she later mentioned this incident to Bill White, middle school principal. She expressed to him that she thought that this “red flag” would have been an opportunity for Freshwater to express his religious beliefs.

None of the students had a reaction to Freshwater’s moving on, nothing to indicate that they were not expecting that response from him, Strouse said.

Hamilton’s questioning of Strouse also attempted to tackle one of the more puzzling reasons the school board is attempting to fire Freshwater: Freshwater taught too much to the students.

When the school board voted unanimously last summer to start the process of firing Freshwater, one of the reasons they gave was that he taught additional material that was not part of the eighth-grade content standards. This teaching that went beyond the grade level was “including, but not limited to, thermo dynamics, the periodic table, the big bang theory and the creation of the universe.”

Hamilton asked Strouse to read aloud the school’s mission statement.

Mission Statement: The Mission of the Mount Vernon City School District is to provide, in cooperation with the larger community, a quality education for all students while upholding a standard of excellence in curriculum, staff, facilities, achievement and conduct, and to graduate individuals empowered to be self-motivated, lifelong learners and responsible citizens.”

Hamilton asked Strouse if teaching that went beyond preparing students for the OAT test was prohibited anywhere in the school’s mission statement. Strouse said no.

One of the things Strouse had put in her 26 pages of notes was that Freshwater gave a lesson on metals and alloys involving a “penny experiment.” This lesson would have been part of the sixth grade content standards. She gave it special emphasis because the OAT test was over by that day and the students would not benefit from any additional teaching on it—at least not on a test.

She described the “penny experiment” as something that helped the students become engaged in science. But she also questioned its worth since it was no longer testable information. Under further questioning by Hamilton, Strouse decided there was nothing wrong with Freshwater doing the “penny experiment.”

Hamilton asked Strouse what was the best method for knowing the effectiveness of a teacher. “The best method to know how well they were taught is the OAT test,” Strouse said. Freshwater’s class had a passing rate of 77 percent on last year’s OAT test, Strouse said.

(According to Bill Oxenford, who testified earlier, Freshwater’s class scored higher than any of the other eighth grade science classes at the Mount Vernon middle school.)

(The Freshwater termination hearing is taking place in the Knox County Service Center.)

Additional statements by Strouse include:

· No knowledge that any of Freshwater’s students had to be re-taught.

· During the 07-08 school year no one was required to submit lesson plans.

· Eighth grade teachers are required to teach everything on the “sixth-eighth grade band” because of the OAT test.

· The poster with the words “In God We Trust/ With God All Things Are Possible” was encouraged to be displayed by the school—and thus was permissible.

· The “Living Bible” on Freshwater’s desk was not clearly visible; Strouse had to look for it to find it.

· Teachers do sometimes bring in materials that are not supplied by the school.

· Freshwater never referred to the Bible on his desk to his class.

· When she wrote “Bible on display” in her notes, she only meant that the Bible was present, not that Freshwater drew attention to it.

· Freshwater asked her what the difference was between having his personal Bible on his desk and having the Bible from the school’s library in the room.

· She had no knowledge of the Tesla coil experiment.

· Knows of only hearsay complaints against Freshwater.

Strouse said that as a teacher, she was jealous of Freshwater. He made every person feel important. He was able to connect a science concept to the things the students would bring up in class. Strouse said that students will work harder if they know the teacher believes in them.

For more on the controversy, read “Shame on The Columbus Dispatch.”


Jane said...

Thanks for sharing this Sam. It is very informative.

Philip Thrift said...

Thanks. That makes some headway in answering the question I had about the specific version he has, but it is (now) unresolved whether "Living Bible" (referred to by the witness) is The Living Bible or New Living Translation.

Sam Stickle (mountvernon1805) said...

The Wikipedia article says that the New Living Bible was completed in 1996—John Freshwater has stated that, “I’ve had my Bible on my desk for 21 years”, so it must be the older version. I found what appears to be a picture of his Bible on his official website (at the top of the page):

Philip Thrift said...

David Otis Fuller is rolling over in his tomb!

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