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One for the team – Lyman Gilmore Academy students learn value of collaboration


You won’t find many pencils in this classroom. Textbooks, the great staple of instruction since the days of Horace Mann, are also in scarce supply.

What you do find in the nooks and crannies of Dave Lawell’s classroom at Lyman Gilmore Middle School are the tools most frequently used by old-school shop teachers: planks of misshapen wooden studs, a few hammers, chisels and an electric pencil sharpener that hasn’t worked since last Tuesday.

When it’s time for the eighth-graders in Lawell’s class to get serious, a group of them trudge outside and perform an exercise seemingly ripped from the pages of a summer camp counselor’s notebook. With their arms linked together, one poor soul after another free-falls from an elevated perch into the arms of their confident classmates two feet below.

It’s a team-building exercise that, in the mind of at least one former camp counselor, works magically.

“If you can learn to give these students a strong sense of self-esteem, you can really give them the tools they’ll need for high school,” said Lawell, who spent years as director of Camp Augusta, a summer day camp for teens near Grass Valley before taking the helm of the Lyman Gilmore Academy this year.

“The teamwork games are an investment in making better students.”

With his buzz-cut and rough-hewn approach (“I learn to say ‘no’ a lot,” he admitted recently), Lawell seems appropriate to teach this group of students.

Each comes recommended for this class by teachers, administrators or parents. Unlike mainstream programs at Gilmore, the students in the academy are here for every period of the day, except physical education and lunch periods and an elective class.

They are here, Lawell says, so that they can receive positive reinforcement and learn the interpersonal dynamics needed in a high school classroom.

They’re learning life skills here that aren’t traditionally touched on in a rudimentary math, English or science class anywhere else on campus.

And while they may not have their heads buried in math texts explaining the finer points of the Pythagorean Theorem, the students learn plenty of the three R’s the state says they must before enrolling in high school.

A detailed list of a series of geometric angles is posted on the wax board, instructing students how many right and acute angles each team of students must use in constructing Popsicle-and-wood glue bridges.

“For the majority of the time, we’re doing academics,” Lawell said. “The teamwork games are simply an investment in making better students.”

While they work together, students are learning to trust each other, too.

On the ballfields, a knot of classmates gather to practice the “trust fall” exercise. Lawell goes first, climbing on a table before making like petrified deadwood, his arms clasped rigidly to his chest. “Ready!” he bellows, and the students, five to a side, flex their forearms in anticipation of the crash.

In an instant, he’s free-falling from the table into a prepubescent mosh pit. They pass him down the line, holding him steady until he’s able to pull himself up again.

Students shriek at notion of copying their teacher.

Eighth-grader Thomas Robinson, whom the students call “Chooch” for his resemblance to the train in so many children’s videos, is one of the first to try. His wiry body, all 90 pounds, almost bounces off his classmates as he sinks into their arms.

“It just feels like you’re going to hit the ground,” he said.

Jacob Gonzales called the experience “really trippy.”

“That was scary,” said Rhianna Grogan. “Scarier than a roller-coaster. I’m not doing that again.”

Asked if it was scarier to catch people or fall, Grogan said she felt more comfortable providing a safe landing pad.

“You’re not the one who might get hurt,” she said.

Inside, a second group of students is busy chiseling letters onto handmade wooden nameplates. It’s an exercise that keeps Ryan Kelly’s brain sharp.

“I don’t really like studying that much,” he admitted.

Students don’t need a craftsman’s acumen for this project, said assistant Dennis Hack. They just need the ability to exercise their curious minds in a way that textbooks and lectures can’t.

Aaron Adams spends most of his days in the classroom doing odd jobs for his teacher and others at Gilmore. Wednesday, he picked apart a balky electric pencil sharpener for teacher Nordis Ostrom.

Adams has helped his father rebuild engines, transmissions and replace spark plugs, so the pencil sharpener seemed like an easy job. It still wasn’t fixed by lunchtime Wednesday.

Adams said he’d like to pursue a job as a heavy equipment operator for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. He used to play with big plastic earthmovers as a child. Those are just collectibles at his grandfather’s house now, reminders of a job Aaron hopes to do someday.

This class isn’t for everyone, Lawell admits. Students are given points for such deeds as complimenting others on a job well done, for their teamwork efforts, for compliments received by other teachers on campus, even for wearing buttoned-down shirts or having overall neat appearance. Points can be docked for failing to do work on time, for rudeness, even if a student utters one or more of several forbidden phrases such as “I forgot,” “whatever,” “I don’t get it,” or “you’re being a lawyer.” The list is tacked to the classroom wall.

Who knows? Maybe in a few years some of these students will find themselves “being a lawyer” – and this time being praised for it.

“I just hope they have enough confidence and pride to do well in whatever they want to do,” Lawell said.

“It’s possible for everyone in here.”

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