By Debora Gordon
After more than two decades perfecting her craft as a teacher, Michelle McAfee is at the top of her game at Park Day School. She begins the school year by analyzing “The New Colossus,” a 19th-century poem by Emma Lazarus, with her class of 16 second-graders.
She challenges her students to examine the issue of whether we as a community and as a nation really stand by the 129-year old classic poem. The words are emblazoned on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in New York City, welcoming immigrants with the famous lines, “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
The poem is the basis for a poetry project that is the centerpiece of her English and social studies curriculum. The final product is a published collection of student work written, revised and polished throughout the school year.
“I put a lot emphasis on the language arts because that’s my love,” McAfee explains, “and parents know when their kids go to the second grade, they’ll be learning a lot about poetry.” The study of “The New Colossus” also opens the door to an entire social studies year-long theme, during which Michelle talks with her classes about what it means to be welcome, and unwelcome, in America.
Social studies in her second grade class includes a focus on immigration, and where students’ families came from. She encourages students to have pride in their heritage. She leads her students to ask themselves what they might have done differently at various points in history.
After 22 years in the classroom, Michelle still loves teaching. “When the kids are so inspired by the new material, you see the ‘ah ha’ moments, when they’re beaming, when they’re synthesizing pieces from different streams, this makes it all worth it.” Michelle says when students come back years later, and tell her “you were my favorite teacher,” or “I still look at the poetry book, I know it by heart,” it gives her a sense of accomplishment and pride.
Michelle continues to find new challenges, such as getting seven-year-olds to work together as a community. It is frustrating not always being able to respond to all of the students’ needs all the time. Also, the demands beyond the classroom are endless. “You’re always thinking about teaching, you’re never quite satisfied. You see things you could use, you’re always processing, ‘how can I use this in my classroom?’”
Teaching may well have been in Michelle’s blood. Her mother was a teacher, a counselor, and administrator who taught the neighborhood kids in their family backyard in the summer.
“I played school all the time with my friends,” Michelle remembers, “and I liked doing that. I was the teacher. We loved it. I always thought school was fun, but I never thought I’d be a teacher. I thought I’d go into graphic design or acting.”
“Teachers do make a difference,” from Michelle’s point of view. She says that a great teacher “is one who understands where a kid is and takes them forward from there, one who challenges kids to challenge themselves, and one who finds a personal connection with each kid.”
She recalls her own best teachers, because they took an interest in her and made her feel confident, talented and intelligent. “One was my kindergarten teacher, she was so comforting to me. She spoke in such a loving way, never raised her voice, she felt nurturing.”
“I believe that kids really learn by interacting with the community,” Michelle says, “where kids feel like they’re part of creating something.” A few years ago, Michelle attended Harvard’s Project Zero, a research group that uses arts education techniques to teach across various disciplines. That experience clearly impacted Michelle, who uses art, literature, drama and hands-on science and math to help her students grasp new concepts.
Students also affect teachers’ lives, and Michelle recalled one of her most memorable students. “She was a girl who was very sweet and grounded. She had a wise soul and she was the most creative writer. Her writing flowed beautifully, it was beyond her years, her vision, her perception were very mature.”
Michelle works hard to make her classroom a safe and supportive space where students can realize their talents, and “where they might think they’re terrible at something, and I can turn that around. I think I’ve always been good at
that, but I’ve honed it over the years. I think I’m good at making kids not feel like ‘bad kids’. I want them all to know the goodness in them, remind them that they have choices. Make a choice that will work out for everyone around you.”
Living in her newly-purchased home in East Oakland, having raised two sons now in their twenties, Michelle plans to continue teaching until retirement. “I would still choose teaching if I had it to do over again,” she says with finality. “I love teaching.”
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