Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The impact of a caring teacher . . .

I glanced at the October issue of Reader's Digest that just came to our house and happened across an article that moved me very deeply. In Reader's Digest the article is titled My Mother's Gift. In the Washington Post, from which it comes, it is titled Talented and Gifted: In one year, she taught her students to see the wonders of their talents -- then and forever. It's written by a regular columnist in the Washington Post, Steve Hendrix. Steve's article reminded me of my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Strange. Mr. Strange ran our classroom much the way Mrs. Hendrix ran her classroom for talented and gifted fourth- and fifth-graders about 10 years later.

A big difference: Mrs. Hendrix was teaching in a small town in South Georgia; Mr. Strange was teaching sons and daughters of PhD students and university professors at Stanford University in the late 60s. Escondido Elementary school in Stanford was designed for cutting-edge teaching to help these children of well-educated parents reach their full potential. Mrs. Hendrix's school, by contrast, was unprepared to help students even imagine that college was a worthy goal. But Mrs. Hendrix was. . . .

Before I recount a bit of her story, I should probably note that as I worked on helping to found Sonlight Curriculum 15 to 20 years ago, I often had my classmates at Escondido Elementary in mind. And Mr. Strange was in my mind as well. I wanted to be as creative as Mr. Strange was and to offer students the kind of wondrous opportunity to investigate the world that he gave us. And I wanted to make sure that every Peter Hogness, Philip Scowcroft, Bruce Jaffe, Mark Coombs . . . or John Holzmann--not to mention all our other classmates, male and female, most of whom I can only recall by first name at the moment . . . --I wanted to make sure that all our modern equivalent peers would receive an education that permitted them to develop to the fulness of their potential.

As I read the testimonies of Sonlight moms (see the "Sonlight Moments" in the right sidebar of this blog), I sense that maybe Sarita and I achieved my goal.

But back to the story of Mrs. Hendrix. . . .
The kids selected for [her] class were seven fifth-graders and 14 fourth-graders, all of whom were testing at three or four years above grade level.

"They were taking the tops out of any test we could give them," recalled Patsy Knotts, the [school district]'s curriculum director at the time. "They were bored stiff."

It was just as the gifted education movement was coming into vogue among progressive educators, and Knotts persuaded her superintendent to give it try. At first, not all parents were enthusiastic about pulling their kids out of the regular classroom. One father told Knotts he didn't want his son labeled an egghead. But the kids themselves knew they were already marked -- by their fellow students. They were geeks decades before geeks ruled the economy, culture and eyewear design.

"We were all pretty odd by South Georgia standards," said Frank Lowrey, at that time a fourth-grader. "We didn't hunt or fish. We liked 'Star Trek.' It wasn't always comfortable in other classrooms. We didn't always fit in."

Suddenly, they found themselves in a room where reading wasn't mocked, where being creative, outlandish, even effete didn't risk a punch from a recess tough.

"It was a sanctuary," Christopher said. "Before that, I was hiding out. She looked us each in the eye and knew us as individuals."

During the first month of school, Mrs. Hendrix visited each of her new students at home. She wanted to meet their parents and brace them for the pell-mell year to follow. But mostly she wanted to give the students a chance to see her off that front-of-the-class pedestal.

Mrs. Kipp served cherry pie. While the grown-ups talked, Neill and his new teacher played a game of chess on the couch. At the end of the game and the visit, she looked steadily at Neill and said, "I can tell you're a very patient person."

"It was just a casual compliment," he said. "But I can still picture her saying it. Ever since that moment, I have thought of myself as a patient person." . . .
It was this kind of attention to detail and personal involvement with her students that set Mrs. Hendricks apart from all the other teachers . . . and that made her input in these children's lives memorable even today, 34 years later.
One of the first big class projects, Mrs. Hendrix announced, would be a play. They were going to stage Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol." Neill and a fifth-grader named Becky Thurman would direct. Everyone would work on the set. Mothers, of course, would sew the costumes.

The production encompassed almost all their subjects. Building scenery would reveal geometry. Decorating them was art. Decoding the dense English was reading. Dickens's portrayals of class and poverty were portals to social studies. . . .

Brad Ewing, then a fourth-grader, was the town crier in Scrooge's London. That was fine, but what he really got into was his second job, running the spotlight.

"I really loved electronics and taking things apart," Brad said, "and that was not something I had been allowed to do in school much."

Despite his interest in things electronic, Brad was no obvious prodigy. "Based on my grades and test scores, most guidance counselors would say anything but math or engineering."

But Mrs. Hendrix invited him to bring in some of his home-wired gizmos. She let Brad and Frank rig the class bulletin board with working lights. For a lesson in arithmetic, Brad assembled a kind of abacus out of colored blocks, astounding his teacher.

"She said, 'One day, I'm going to be able to say that I knew the person who invented these really cool things,'" Brad recalled. "I became kind of determined to make that come true."

His mother remembers it, too.

"I picked him up one day, and he said, 'I'm going to be an electrical engineer,'" June Ewing said. "He came home happy almost every day from that class. He had so much fun learning, and that has stayed with him."

For Cynthia Counts, it was the mock court.
Forgive me. I'd love to quote more. I'd love to point out how Mrs. Hendrix's use of Dickens' play is a perfect example of the kind of thing I know many masterful homeschoolers do. But I'm going to stop quoting the article at this point and let you read the original.

For the most moving parts, I particularly recommend Page 5 in the online version of the article.

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