One of the 3rd graders in Sara Boucek’s English class at Field-Stevenson Elementary School looked up from the sheet of paper he was drawing on and said, “Look, he was on the trampoline and got stuck.” The student and a classmate were doing their best to illustrate an explanation of the idiom “stuck in a pickle” (the pair drew a stick figure that got its head stuck to the top of a giant pickle after bouncing off of a trampoline).

The in-class exercise was part of the reworked Push-In program, which aims to increase new and, sometimes, unorthodox lesson plans as a way to help kids grasp what they’re being taught. Katherine Valleau, a veteran teacher, heads the program and she works with teachers on an individual basis, once weekly, to custom-tailor their lesson plans. She might work outside the class with them, or participate in lessons, as she did with Boucek’s class.

Part of the idea is to pinpoint different ways to teach students – i.e. interpreting idioms through illustration – but it is likewise intended to strengthen the ability of teachers to do just that, to “run with it,” as Valleau said.

“No two brains work alike,” Valleau said. “That’s a trap that we can fall into, is assuming that they do.”

 The current Push-In program – it’s been around for about a decade – is, by and large, Valleau’s baby. The older version of the program, District 91’s educators said, did not provide the teachers the freedom to weave it into their curriculum.

Dawn Schreiner, who has taught 3rd grade English at Field-Stevenson for seven years, explained, in an email: “Teachers have a lot more input into the program this year. The program can be tailored to each teacher’s and classroom’s need. Before … lesson plans … may not have always fit into what children were learning for the year. They were fun projects but had little to do with the rest of the curriculum for the grade levels.”

Presently, the program is available to 3rd to 5th graders at Field-Stevenson, but Valleau will take it to Grant White Elementary – she also teaches Latin there – for the second half of the year. Eventually, she wants the program to be available throughout the district.

In 2009, Valleau, a former teacher at Betsy Ross, was hired by D91 as the Push-In instructor – the program gets its name, because, either literally or figuratively, the Push-In instructor is “in” classrooms – but after about a year of working under the old program she felt a change was necessary.

Previously, Valleau parachuted into classrooms periodically to give crash courses on life skills, critical thinking and problem solving. All important skills, Valleau said, but, again, unrelated to what teachers were teaching, and, sometimes disruptive to students’ learning.

In the spring of 2010, after getting the OK from Superintendent Lou Cavallo and Field-Stevenson Principal Bob Giovannoni, Valleau unveiled the new Push-In program. Cavallo did not return calls or an email for comment on this story.

“Now they [teachers] can use me anyway they want,” said Valleau. “It’s organic … it’s not static anymore.”

To exemplify how innovative, fluid, and even incorporative, the program is, Valleau mentioned Peggy Perry’s 4th grade social studies class at Field-Stevenson. The students are currently studying the American Southwest and the cultures of the Navajo and Hopi tribes. So, Perry and Valleau powwowed (no pun intended) to formulate a lesson plan. Valleau said that Perry noticed several students were interested in music, so they decided to have the kids read up on tribal dances, learn them in music class and then perform once Valleau visited the class.

“I went to Katherine and told her that I wanted to bring some art into these lessons,” Perry wrote in an email. “Together, she and I looked through some of the lifestyles of these groups … We plan to learn a dance, create some jewelry and make a Navajo rug to display in our hallway.”

“It’s about making a connection,” Valleau said.

And Valleau has made that connection – with students and teachers alike. Her enthusiasm is constantly on display; ask her about the program, and she’s off – talking a mile a minute.

“You didn’t know what you were getting yourself into,” she told this reporter, jokingly, during an interview.

With her outgoing personality and booming voice, Valleau had most of Sara Boucek’s 3rd graders hanging on her every word, when she visited the class last week to participate in the lesson on idioms. 

“An idiom is a group of words that means one thing and says another,” she said, and then asked for an example.

One student’s hand shot sky-high.

“It’s raining cats and dogs,” said the little girl.

“You’re all over this,” Valleau would later tell the girl, whose arm would rise almost every time Valleau asked the students a question.

 Likewise, Valleau is all over the Push-In program, constantly working to reshape it and improve it – something that will always be necessary, she said.

“I don’t consider it ever being done,” Valleau said. “It would be counterintuitive … because education is an ever-changing, developing industry. There’s constantly new pedagogy.”

“You choose not to be done,” she concluded.