The energetic 68-year-old presides over a colorful Fairmeadow Elementary School classroom packed with art, flora and fauna.
In one corner, a curtain of green netting encloses a butterfly sanctuary, where kids may enter if they're careful not to step on a swallowtail or painted lady.
Kitty-corner is a shelf holding 22 pairs of neatly arranged rain boots and slickers, in varying hues.
"We play when it rains," Russell explains. "I don't ever want to tell them, 'Don't get wet.'"
The window wall is lined with cages of the class pets: Tofu the guinea pig; Hunter the bearded-dragon lizard; Salazar the corn snake and Willoughby the bunny.
Just outside, a garden sowed and tended by the class produces lettuce, celery, snap peas, radishes and more.
Wall spaces contain all manner of kindergarten art, and students' stories written in their own shaky, often indecipherable, hand.
Russell said she's leaving by choice. But in the next breath she said she's being driven out, as her core beliefs about kindergarten increasingly come up against educational trends of escalating academics, testing and classroom technology.
"No one's said I can't teach anymore, but they're just making it harder and harder," she said.
"I was never going to retire, but I'm very sad about what's happening to public education.
"I should never complain, but this is heartbreaking."
Last summer Russell's room, like all elementary classrooms in Palo Alto, was furnished with a Smart Board — a large, interactive whiteboard that displays a computer's video output.
Russell promptly covered hers over with a sheet of muslin onto which she pinned alphabet cards.
She re-hung her maps, which had been displaced by the Smart Board, on a suspension system she rigged from wall-mounted L-hooks.
Not far from the unplugged Smart Board rests Russell's unused supply of "leveled readers."
"I won't use them — it's not appropriate in kindergarten," Russell said. "I have kids who are already reading better than sixth-graders — my own daughter was like that.
"But when you do leveled reading, kids know soon enough which ones are in the higher and which are in remedial. Why should we start that in kindergarten? Give them at least a year to learn social skills."
Russell believes passionately that kindergarten should be about play, imagination, building a child's self-confidence and sense of wonder.
"To get through life's many stresses, which we're all going to have, they need to have those things," she said.
"The way they're packing the curriculum — and all teachers are frustrated by this — it puts more and more stress on the kids and stress on the teachers. And to what end?"
Here she evokes author and home-schooling advocate John Holt: "Since we can't know what knowledge will be most needed in the future it is senseless to try to teach it in advance. Instead, we should try to turn out people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn whatever needs to be learned."
As for kindergartners using computers, said Russell, who has one in her classroom and one in her home, "that can wait until third grade because kids need to interact with the world.
"Children need all their senses to learn, and the soft-touch on a screen takes that away," she said.
"When they're learning to write, they need the drag of a pencil or crayon or chalk — it sends the message to the brain better."
In her class, kids absorb academics by sinking their hands into nature and art, she said. Symmetry can be understood through a butterfly art project, science through watching butterflies mate, lay eggs, unfurl their proboscises and sip nectar.
Each year Russell's students also make a full study of the silk-moth life cycle, from the egg to the larva to the pupa to the adult.
Russell said she made her decision to retire in March after deciding she was unwilling to return in the fall to introduce leveled readers, connect her Smart Board and comply with what she views as an increasingly test-oriented culture.
She still doesn't know what she'll do with herself after years of coming to her classroom seven days a week to care for the animals.
"I wake up every morning and say, 'This is not really happening, is it?' I can't believe there are only a few days of school left, and I don't get to come here anymore to hear the children's voices."
She fantasizes about a benefactor swooping in to transport her classroom, intact, to another space, where she can keep working.
By the time they've grown up, the kids may not remember her name, Russell said, "but they'll remember the butterflies hatching or the guinea pigs having babies or the silk moths or whatever — the wondrous things that happened in here that they got to be a part of."
This story contains 837 words.
Stories older than 90 days are available only to subscribing members. Please help sustain quality local journalism by becoming a subscribing member today.
If you are already a member, please log in so you can continue to enjoy unlimited access to stories and archives. Membership start at $12 per month and may be cancelled at any time.