Laurie Aguirre, center, works with students Aedyn Orundo and Braedyn Perez as they give a class presentation. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

Of the Keizertimes

Abigail Marzolf, Holly Provost and Isabella Rodriguez lead me around the Forest Ridge Elementary School naturescape showing off their favorite spots, talking about the macroinvertebrates they find in the two ponds and listing the various birds they’ve spotted in the space right outside their classroom door.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen the naturescape, but it is the first time I’ve seen it through such young eyes. The girls’ enthusiasm for showing off what they know and willingness to stop mid-sentence and turn over a rock to see if they find anything new is infectious.

Even in kids that are born with such traits, it takes constant cultivation to keep them involved at such a high level. In this case, teacher Laurie Aguirre deserves a lot of the credit.

“I begin with sharing. Students that wish to tell about, read, or show something they have been working on get the spotlight with the others. It’s a natural progression to then work together with others with a common interest to teach the rest of the class about what they are excited about,” Aguirre said.

Aguirre’s role in the classroom is as much that of a mentor as teacher. She tries as much as possible to let the students lead lessons in learning numbers, body parts, planets and months of the year. Even when students arrive in her class at varying levels of competence, all of them take turns leading the others through class content.

Aguirre will correct behavior when needed, but she focuses her efforts on guiding students past misconceptions, which is miles apart from simply telling students they got an answer incorrect. Her goal is to inspire within each of her young charges a “disposition to learn.”

“Especially during the last 15 years, students come to me from the digital world. Their brains are wired to quick response to a structure or device that created a world for them,” she said. “They have become less spatial, less creative, and less able to construct and manipulate the physical world. I try to reconnect them to the real world and re-wire to allow them to think for themselves, to wonder, to question, and to discover their own patterns of thought and behavior.”

Aguirre discovered her fire for teaching 27 years ago after taking education courses while exploring the demands of architecture and engineering at Southern Oregon University, but it was fueled by growing up a tomboy in the country with animals surrounding her and the freedom to roam.

“It connected me to the earth and all the life on it,” she said. “All children have an innate sense of curiosity and need to experience the natural world, it’s my passion and joy to introduce them to it and relate it all back to core standards in reading, writing, math and science.”

All those goals are met when the students devise and develop projects from within the classroom on their own terms. When they got excited about seeing birds flock to the naturescape, Aguirre helped them through the process of developing informational brochures on each of the different species they spotted. Many are available at the school’s front desk for visitors looking to assign a name to what they find in the naturescape.

By cultivating innate curiosities, Aguirre often discovers students continue to pursue them well past the time they spend in her classroom. She recently received a book on birds produced by a former student, Garrett Wampler. His enthusiasm for the feathered set made him want to do more. He saved money for a camera to take pictures and wrote informational passages about all the birds he was seeing.

While Aguirre has a finely honed sense of what she wants to accomplish with her students, pressures from outside the classroom take an increasing toll. Aguirre’s second grade class is capped at 26 and should be maxed out at 22. U.S. students also have less facetime with teachers, the country is ranked lowest in number of student contact days, Oregon is ranked lowest in the U.S., and the Salem-Keizer School District is ranked lowest in the state. Coupled with students at widely varying levels achievement, a lack of trained para-professionals who can fill in the gaps and fewer resources all around, the job of teaching can seem not only thankless, but unforgiving.

To teach effectively, she said, teachers must have passion for the human condition and their students, commitment to improving that condition, the professionalism that comes with being well-educated, understanding of what is and is not developmentally appropriate, and the critical thinking skills that will prevent them from becoming “fad” followers.

On first impression, it may seem odd that her students are the ones doing much of the teaching, but you can’t leave Aguirre’s classroom without understanding that they are learning most from her example.

“Good teachers have to be life-long learners because that’s our mission for students,” she said.