Freshwater Day 12: The Monitor

Today started late. R. Kelly Hamilton, John Freshwater’s attorney, had a commitment in Columbus in the morning and was late getting to Mt. Vernon for the scheduled 11:30 start. As a result some expensive people spent an hour waiting in and around the hearing room.

Testimony today was from Debra Strouse, an Achievement Counselor and administrator at the Middle School. Strouse was assigned to monitor Freshwater’s classes starting April 23 after the problems became apparent, and monitored the classes through the end of the school year.

More below the fold

Debra Strouse Direct Examination

R. Kelly Hamilton, Freshwater’s attorney, conducted the direct examination.

Strouse was a long-time teacher – 27 years mostly in history – and has been an administrator for three years. In initial questioning she testified that she was apprehensive about testifying, mainly, she said, because last year was a difficult year for her with several different responsibilities spread across several buildings.

Hamilton asked if she had talked with the investigators. She had, to (at least) the male; she couldn’t recall if the female investigator was there. Asked if she’d talked with David Millstone, the Board’s attorney, she replied that she had done so last fall, and he advised her to tell the truth. Asked if she had talked with Dr. Linda Weston, Director of Teaching and Learning, she also replied that she had, and that Weston had told her to “Remember who you work for.” Strouse testified that she interpreted that to mean that she worked for the students.

As noted, Strouse was assigned to monitor Freshwater’s science classes in late spring of 2008. She testified that she did not hear talk about the Bible and religious talk, and saw nothing inappropriate. She did see “religious items” (her phrase) in the room, including the George Bush/Colin Powell poster with the Bile verse, a Fellowship of Christian Athletes symbol on a blackboard held by a magnet, a poster with “In God We Trust” and “With God All Things Are Possible” on it, and later she saw another Bible and a “Jesus of Nazareth” book on a lab table in the room. At one time she saw a bag with another Bible and a book called something like “Stories of God.” In a day or two that bag was gone from the room.

Hamilton asked what would make those items part of a “religious display.” She replied she never saw them used in any specific way, and that Freshwater did not draw attention to them.

Then there were some general questions: Did Freshwater teach to the curriculum? She replied he did. Did she check what was taught against lesson plans? She replied that wasn’t part of her assignment. Did Freshwater get a copy of her notes? She didn’t know – she was monitoring, not evaluating. (In an evaluation, under the master contract the teacher gets a copy of the evaluator’s findings.)

Returning to the religious items, Hamilton asked about the “In God We Trust” poster. Strouse testified that several years ago a quantity of them had appeared at the school, and teachers were advised of their availability and that they could post them if they wished. Strouse didn’t recall if there was a directive from the administration to do so. (“With God All Things Are Possible” is the state motto of Ohio which was passed under Robert Taft, one of the most ineffective governors Ohio has had in living memory.)

Hamilton asked what the Bible is, what religion is it? Strouse said she didn’t question it. Hamilton asked if it is automaticlly refers to a particular religion. Strouse replied that she knew Freshwater is a Christian, and the Bible is the Bible.

During the period she monitored Freshwater’s class she took 26 pages of type single-spaced notes, and those notes occupied a goodly part of her remaining direct examination. Parts were difficult for the gallery to follow since we did not have copies and sometimes questions were asked about “Is the last sentence accurate?” (for example) when the last sentence hadn’t been read aloud and we didn’t know what was being asked about. Many of these were questions of clarification – abbreviations, referents of pronouns lacking antecedents in the notes, and so on.

Hamilton asked about Freshwater’s handling of student questions. She replied that his practice was if a student asked a good question and was interested in something, Freshwater would tell them to research it, bring back the results of their research and share it for extra credit. Strouse was impressed by Freshwater’s ability to get students to ersearch questions of interest. She was also impressed by his ability to connect with students who needed attention.

Referring to a bolded part of Strouse’s notes on one page, she testified that she bolded in her notes to flag something she wanted to come back to and check or pay attention to. That particular passage was about a time when Freshwater told the class that science says the universe is 5 billion years old (that’s not a typo; Strouse affirmed it in response to a followup question), and one student immediately said “Here!” There was no other verbal context and no reaction except that Freshwater gave what Strouse described as a look with pursed lips. She took it to indicate surprise. (Recall that one allegation is that Freshwater’s students were taught to say “Here!” whenever Freshwater told them something that he didn’t think was factual.)

Asked if teachers needed to get permission to use ‘outside’ materials like articles, Strouse said they did not need permission as long as the materials were consistent with the curriculum.

In response to another question about Freshwater’s teaching style, she said he had wonderful rapport with students, and knew not only the students but also their families, the sports they played, and so on. She saiad he believed in the kids., and that she was jealous. (Clearly in context she meant “envious” in the flattering sense, but Hamilton later picked up on the “jealous” to ask her if other teachers were “jealous” of Freshwater, his intonation clearly implying the pejorative sense of the word rather than the flattering envious sense.)

In response to another question, Strouse related several anecdotes that she used to illustrate how he used events as teaching stimuli to get across lessons. Asked if he was faking it, she said no. Asked if he makes every person feel important, she agreed he does. She testified that he is able to connect science concepts to the students’ lives. She testified that he has a knack of explaining concepts so students understand them. She said she learned a lot about science in his class.

She was asked again if Freshwater ever made reference to the Bible, and she said no.

One of Strouse’s administrative tasks is to evaluate new teachers. Hamilton asked her how Freshwater stood in relation to the teachers she evaluated. She was reluctant to make a judgment because new teachers don’t have the content knowledge he has gained through experience.

She testified that Freshwater encouraged students to take physics and chemistry in high school if they’re interested in science. (No, she didn’t mention biology.)

Once again Hamilton asked her if teachers could teach beyond the standards. She saiad they could go deeper. If what’s taught is in high school coursesm there has to be collaboration between middle school teachers and high school teachers to coordinate it. (Recall that Charles Adkins, an 8th grade teacher, made the same point in his testimony.) Asked if she know if Freshwater was told not to teach beyond the standards, she said she didn’t know.

Hamilton then raised the question of IEP (special ed) students in Freshwater’s classes. Strouse did not know how the number in his class compared with those in other classes. She was asked to infer from a folder of Ohio Achievement Scores for Freshwater’s students whether he more or fewer IEP students, and she declined, saying she couldn’t make a comparison from just his students’ scores. She testified that in addition to IEP students Freshwater also had a fair number of high average students. (She defined “high average” as being just below “gifted.”)

In 2008 there was a screw up at the state level,l so that some OAT tests were sent late to a number of districts, and the late tests were mainly for IEP students. That meant that those students ended their review for the test, but couldn’t take it for another week. She was asked if that unduly stressed or disadvantaged those students. She wasn’t sure.

In one sequence of questioning, Strouse related that Freshwater was teaching cell theory. Asked where cells come from, students answered other cells. Asked where the first cell came from, one student answered “a rock.” Asked (by Freshwater) if that means cell theory is wrong, the student answered ‘evolution means a rock made a cell,’ and ‘that should be a red flag.’ Freshwater then said that he’d love to spend more time on that, but they had to move on. The kids had no visible reaction. (A pretty darned close transcription of her testimony.) Strouse said she later reported to Principal White that this was an opportunity for Freshwater to go off on his religious beliefs, but he didn’t. (Of course, like 92.8% – i.e., most – non-science educated people, she didn’t seem to have the faintest idea that cell theory isn’t evolutionary theory.

With respect to that incident, Hamilton asked if it appeared that the students were holding back or protecting Freshwater. Strouse testified it didn’t appear to her that they were. Returning to the “Here!” she described above, she said the student who said it seemed surprised that no one else did.

Strouse described an exercise in which students generated a list of characteristics that differentiate living from non-living things, and then lit a (candle?) flame and asked if it is living or non-living. About half voted each way. He then had them go home with the list of characteristics and ssee what their parents, sibs, etc., said. In this context she testified that Freshwater told the students to “question the evolution theory that assumes that the first living things come from non-living things.” (Again, a pretty close quotation.)

Referring to the notes that Strouse took, Hamilton asked about one that mentioned that the Bible and Jesus of Nazareth books were still on the lab table. She testified that after classes were done for the year and the monitoring was over, Freshwater asked her if she knew where they came from. She replied that she did. He asked if she knew the difference between the Bible on his desk and the books from the library. She said her assumption was that Freshwater was in effect asking why those books were OK in the library but not his own Bible.

Another allegation that the Dennis family made was that Freshwater altered the group assignments for a field trip so that Zachary would be assigned to Freshwater’s group, and that they therefore did not allow Zachary to go. Strouse testified she didn’t know anything about that.

In another bit of testimony, Strouse related an incident where a astudent said something about going to the Escape Zone. Freshwater asked who goes to the Escape Zone. A student replied “It’s for weird Christian kids.” Strouse testified that Freshwater showed no visible reaction.

Asked if shse saw any debates, she testifiefd that there was back-and-forth discussion, but no formal debates.

As an end-of-year reward for performance, all the Team 8-1 students (roughly 90) went to see Narnia at the local theater. Strouse testified that she heard none draw the religious inferences Narnia has, but treated it as a fantasy. (I’m biting my tongue!)

Near the end of classes Strouse testified that Freshwater did an exercise with ripping telephone books in half. He apparently collects old phone books for this. After some theatrical introduction (“How many think I can rip this phone book in half in less than 5 seconds?”), he offered a deal to the students. If they kept the room clean for the few remaining days of classes, and were good in class, and if they promised that every time they see him, from now on as long as they live, they would holler at him “I love science, Mr. Freshwater!”, he would rip a phone book in half in less than 5 seconds on the last day of classes. Anyone who has been around knows how, so it was a safe bet on his part. She said that even former students, when they see him off school grounds, holler the mandated phrase.

Then there was an extended walk through her notes, asking whether this or that incident is consistent with the standards. I’m skipping all of that. For the most part, Strouse agreed they were consistent with the standards.

Hamilton asked Strouse if Freshwater’s activities in the classroom were what teachers should aspire to. She replied that he was very good.

Moving to policy questions, Hamilton asked if Strouse knows the district’s policy on religions. She wasn’t sure. Asked if she was familiar with the district’s policy on handling controversial issues, she said to use common sense, that some issues are better referred to the student’s parents. Asked if there had been teacher training on those policies she didn’t know.

Strouse testified that at least two teachers she knew of at least used to have Bibles on their desks, including Lori Miller and (inaudible). She testified when asked that she had once had a small Bible in her room when she was teaching history as part of an illustration of frontier life: “A rifle and a Bible.”

Asked if she was familiar with a Tesla coil, she said she had no knowledge of them.

Asked if she had ever heard any complaints about Freshwater, she testified that she had heard from other teachers that he went out of bounds with respect to religion. She testified that she didn’t know of any evidence that Freshwater’s students had to be retaught at the high school.

She was asked about how complaints are to be documented. After initially saying no, she elaborated, telling the hearing about some training with respect to documenting evaluations given to administrators. Asked if the training was due to the Freshwater situation, sher replied it was not, that it wa associated with a new evaluation tool the system had acquired.

As with other administrative witnesses, Hamilton hammered on the lack of documentation of the problems allegedly in progress for years.

When asked, she testified that she had been to just one FCA meeting, so “see what went on.” She thought Freshwater was there but wasn’t sure.

Asked if the investigator (HR On Call, Inc.) got a copy of her notes, she said yes, a partial copy since the investigation was going on while she was still monitoring Freshwater’s classroom.

Debra Strouse Cross Examination

Strouse was cross examined by David Millstone, the Board’s attorney.

Millstone first referred to an Assessment Map for 8th grade. An Assessment Map is a document that relates curricular items to specific benchmarks and indicators from the Academic Content Standards, and basically lays out who teaches what, when, and in what grade. It was developed locally by teams of middle school teachers in the several content areas. It was in effect in 2007-8.

Millstone asked if Freshwater taught the topic areas (indicators) specified in the Assessment Map during the period she was in his class, referring specifically to five indicators, two on genetics and three on evolutionary theory that were scheduled by the Map for the period she was in his class. Strouse testified that he taught the two genetic indicators, but did not teach the three evolutionary theory indicators.

Referring to her testimony in direct examination that she had a talk with Freshwater after classes were over about the Bible and book on the lab table, she testified that it was Freshwater who raised the question of differences between them and his own Bible.

Going back to the cell theory testimony (red flag), Millstone asked if the indicators call for questioning evolution. She said no.

Debra Strouse Redirect

Hamilton asked what kinds of materials teachers are allowed to bring in as class resources. She said whatever they think will help students learn the indicators and standards. She was uncertain about videos, and said that if it’s controversial, she as a teacher would check on it to make sure it’s OK. In earlier testimony she had related an incident when Freshwater was talking about genetic defects, and the next day a student brought in a picture of a male with female-like breasts. He checked with her to see if it was OK to use in class. Hamilton pointed out that in that instance at least, Freshwater had checked on a potentially controversial outside resource. She noted that it was the student who brought it, not the teacher.

In the context of Strouse saying that it was very important in the district to teach to the standards, benchmarks, and indicators, Hamilton read the district’s mission statement to her:

The mission of the Mt. Vernon Middle School is to provide our students with the opportunity, resources and community environment to be life-long learners and productive responsible citizens in a changing, global society.

Note: I didn’t transcribe that, since I knew it was on the school website. However, it turns out there may be another mission statement, so I’m not sure the one I’ve quoted is the one Hamilton read. In any case, Strouse testified that Freshwater’s teaching was consistent with it, whichever it was.

Hamilton asked if the three evolution indicators she had testified weren’t taught might have been taught before she was assigned to monitor. She responded she didn’t know.

Hamilton then read some text from the Grade 7 Assessment Map having to do with “Analyze alternative scientific theories …”. It was a fast reading and I couldn’t transcribe it. I’ll get a copy, if for no other reason than it sounds suspiciously like the “critically analyze” language the intelligent design creationists had jammed into the state standards for a while. This Assessment Map was developed while that language was hanging around.

Anyway, she said he did that.

In testimony about an indicator having to do with “scientific inquiry,” Strouse basically conceded that Freshwater’s treatment of cell theory was consistent with it.

When asked if evolution is a controversial scientific theory, Strouse testified that “it is controversial in science, but it’s supposed to be in 6th, 7th, and 8th grades.”

Later in Recross examination, referring to her “controversial” statement, she said evolutionary theory was controversial because there was creation and intelligent design and evolution and “we don’t know.” If that’s what she learned in Freshwater’s class it’s pretty damning.

Debra Strouse Recross

Millstone asked if the Assessment Maps were in effect for the 2007-8 school year. They were, she said.

Millstone then asked what “alternative scientific theories” Freshwater had taught in order to be consistent with the standard she’d said he was. She didn’t know. Pressed, she conceded that it was inconsistent with the standards. Were any offered? She said she can’t say - she’s not a scientist.

Millstone then asked about the “controversial” statement regarding evolution. Her response is just above in Redirect.

Asked if she knows if how life began is part of evolutionary theory, she first said yes, and then amended her answer to say no, it’s not. (By this time she had been testifying for 3.5 hours with a 10-minute break, and it was showing.)

That ended her testimony.

We resume tomorrow morning, and then will recess until February 20, with three days schedule in Feb abd three in late March. This is beginning to seem like a life sentence!