Teacher makes first year terrific for new students

Posted: Sunday, September 14, 2003

Children swarm around the glass entryway at North Star Elementary School in Nikiski.

While a handful of parents stand back watching their children with a mix of excitement and separation anxiety, the kids chat with friends and check the class lists posted on the doors.

If there's one time the kids will be close to breaking down the doors to get into the school, this is it: the first day of classes.

The bell rings and the children rush into the building, bidding goodbye to their parents and lugging backpacks filled with school supplies down the long halls.

In her fourth-grade classroom at the end of the upper-grade wing, Kris Barnes waits with an excited apprehension that rivals that of the kids.

She's spent more than a week getting her classroom just right for this moment. The bulletin board is covered in stripes of red, orange and yellow crepe paper. The shelf in front of the bay window holds plants and a water fountain. Colorful Hawaiian sarongs create the ambiance of an extra window near her desk.

The children's desks are grouped together, ready for young bodies to take their seats. Laminated cards bear each student's name, and the day's schedule is written carefully in chalk on the blackboard.

"My daughter helped me decorate," Barnes said. "I know I like bright. I think it brings energy to the room."

Barnes is nothing if not energetic, and she wants her class to be the same: filled with a passion for learning.

As she stands outside her classroom door greeting her students and a few parents, a smile begins to brighten her face. It's a look not only of hospitality, but also of genuine joy.

Like many of her students, Barnes admits she had trouble sleeping the night before. But as the students rush into the room, hanging up their coats and loading their pencils into the small desks, her apprehension begins to disappear.


Students surround Barnes during a class project.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Barnes is marking a new era in her professional career: At 42, she is starting her first year as a full-time teacher with her own class of children.

And it's off to a perfect start.

Make no mistake Barnes is no stranger to education.

She remembers dreaming of a career in teaching as a small child.

"When I was a little girl, I liked playing teacher," she said. "And I had an aunt who was a teacher for more than 40 years."

As she got older, though, Barnes said she let the dream fall by the wayside. She got married to her husband, Willy, and had two children, Anna and Mikael.

As her children entered school in the family's previous hometown in northern California, though, the teaching bug returned.

"When my daughter was in third grade, she came home and said, 'Mommy, I want to be in the talent show, but only if you are the head of it.'"

She couldn't refuse.

She joined the parent-teacher association at the school and took over the show, which she produced for three years. She also began volunteering in other school activities and soon garnered the attention of the principal.


Kris Barnes decorates the walls of her North Star Elementary School classroom a week before classes commenced.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"The principal got excited about what I was doing and, the next thing I knew, I was making banners and doing the school newspaper. ... Then I was hired as a teacher's aide."

Barnes said the position offered her the best of both worlds.

"I got to be with my kids and do what I loved. I owe a lot to that principal. He really got me turned on to doing what I'm good at."

Barnes began taking classes at the California College of the Redwoods in pursuit of a teaching degree.

However, a family tragedy soon led the family to opt for a change of scenes.

"I wanted to move where there was less violence. The town was a 'going nowhere' place with a very, very poor economy," she said. "I wanted a better life for my kids, and for myself and my husband."

The family moved to Sterling, where Barnes and her husband still live. She completed her education through Kenai Peninsula College and began substitute teaching in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District in 1997.

"I worked really hard subbing. I rarely had a day off," she said. "I was fortunate to have several longterm subbing positions, in kindergarten, first and fifth grade."

While substituting, she also had the chance to witness the innovation of other teachers and begin collecting ideas for her own future classes while waiting for a job opening in the district and for her children to grow.

Last spring, her son Mikael, now 18, graduated from Skyview High School, and he recently left for Pima College in Tucson, Ariz., where he plays football. Anna, 19, is studying at KPC, where she earned a four-year scholarship, but plans to transfer to the Brooks Institute of Photography in California soon.

The timing was ripe for Barnes to move on with her career, and she landed one of the district's few open positions over the summer. Though the drive from her Sterling home to North Star is long, Barnes said she doesn't mind the commute. After all, she did her student teaching at North Star and already has come to call the place home and her colleagues, friends.


Kris Barnes loads desks with textbooks while preparing for the first day of school. Students arrived to a class decorated with colorful learning aids.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"All the teachers are coming to my room. They're very good about helping me, and I feel comfortable going to them for help," she said.

While she knows the first year is a challenge for any teacher, what with setting up a classroom, lesson plans and a teaching style, Barnes said she's excited about the coming months.

"I'm looking forward to seeing the look in kids' eyes when they catch on to something new, to watching them get excited about learning," she said.

Barnes is serious about education. She said she's well-versed in the importance of proper placement for students and of assessment testing, especially in the era of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation that focuses heavily on test scores. She also said her school is looking at a transition year, as nearby Nikiski Elementary School is slated to close at the end of the school year with teachers and students transferring to North Star next fall.

"It's going to be ... probably difficult for them closing a school, but at the same time, it's like opening a brand new school here. We're all starting together," she said, explaining that teachers from both elementary schools met before classes started to get to know each other and explore ways to make the transition easier for students.

But while Barnes is aware of the many taxing issues facing education these days, she also refuses to take her job or herself too seriously.

Learning should, first and foremost, be fun, she said.

And she's ready to make it fun for her students.

On the first day of school, after greeting her students, Barnes placed a bright, multicolored parrot atop her head a cloth hat named Carmen the Parrot and read an altered version of the children's book, "The Teacher From the Black Lagoon."


Kindergarten teacher Ruby Bingham hugs Kris Barnes in Barnes' classroom at North Star Elementary School the week before classes began. "It's so good to have you here," Bingham said.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The book was left in her class by a custodian who had replaced the nightmare teacher's name with "Mrs. Barnes" throughout the story, she explained.

"(The kids) expect me to do something goofy," she said.

And that's the least of her lively teaching style.

A week into school, her students already were full of praise for her exuberance.

"She's a really cool teacher," said 9-year-old Sallee McClure, who knew Barnes from her past substitute teaching stints. "I'm glad I have her this year."

"She makes school really fun," added Emily Rogers, also 9.

Among the students' favorite parts of Barnes' class were the numerous games she lets kids play.

"Bop It," for example, is an electronic game that gives players quick directions, such as "pull it, twist it and bop it," which they must act out with the handheld toy. Barnes has the students stand in a circle around the classroom, passing the game around at each turn. Those who make a mistake are "out" and must sit down for the remainder of the game.

The toy not only helps students learn listening and instruction-following skills, but also gives them a chance to get their "wigglies" out during the school day.

There also are more traditionally educational games, such as "Sparkle," a team spelling test. Students again stand in a circle, and Barnes calls out a word to spell. The class must spell out the word, one letter per student, and end by saying, "Sparkle." When a student makes a mistake, he or she is "out" and the team starts the word over.

The words are notoriously tricky parts of the English language, such as "you're" or "their," but they're all on Barnes' "No Excuse" list.

"She says there's no excuse if you can't spell them," Sallee explained.

Of course, a day in Barnes' class isn't all games. But, she said, she does want it all to be fun.

"I want to do a lot of hands-on projects," Barnes said.

A big fan of language arts, Barnes plans most of those projects to involve writing.

One of her most ambitious undertakings for the year will be a class newspaper. Students will interview people, write stories about their school and take pictures with a digital camera.

"I think it will get them more interested in what's going on around them and allow them to be more social in their community," she said.

She hopes to send the newspaper to fourth-graders at Nikiski Elementary School to help introduce them to the school they will attend next year.

She also wants her students to write stories to read to younger students and to practice lots of art.

"I love art, and I think kids need to be exposed to lots of it," she said.

In addition, social studies will be a central focus of the year with the curriculum focusing on geography.

Barnes plans to take some of what she learned through substitute teaching and apply it to her own social studies classes. For example, fifth-grade North Star teacher Linda Zimmerman has her students recite the names of U.S. presidents after the flag salute each morning. Barnes already has started her students reciting the state names in the order of their entry into the union.

"Hopefully, it will help them place them on a map quicker than I did," she said.

She also is interested in having kids act out historical events to learn more about the past in a first-hand way.

"I've saved a lot of things that I've seen done," Barnes said. "Almost everywhere I look I can find something teachable."

She said she knows her plans may change throughout the year; they always do.

But, she said, no matter what happens in her class, she hopes her students will love learning.

"I don't think there will be any, 'Ugh, we have to do that?!'" she said. "The kids will go home and jump up and down when they tell their parents what they did. I think the kids will love it."

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