Linda Vasu of the School at Columbia University has been recognized as the outstanding teacher in an independent middle school. Ironically, her reason for pursuing this profession and the obvious results exhibited by her love of it kind of work in reverse for this 7th grade Humanities teacher. "I love learning," she says, and given her students’ success, she isn't the only one.
Teaching kids just beginning to emerge as individuals fits perfectly into the Socratic approach that her class takes. Joined every day at a table that reminds of Thanksgiving Dinner, she believes literature is best ingested as a form of inquiry that asks big open-ended questions. "Reading, interpreting and writing about literature helps us make meaning of our own lives," says this veteran teacher of 24 years who has worked in rural schools in Westchester and public schools in New York City, covering a spectrum from 4th grade to graduate students.
Therefore, everyone has a say, and anonymity cannot happen as it may in a regular classroom, according to parent Dina Balderes. "It really gives the children their voice, so no one can just hide in the back of the class," says Ms. Balderes, who nominated Ms. Vasu for the recognition.
She knows it firsthand and not just from the second hand accounts of her daughter. On parent teacher night, the students congregated around op-eds from the Times and embarked upon a lively discussion. Of
course, with a focus of satisfaction on her own somewhat shy daughter, Ms. Balderes was impressed with the outgoing effect on her daughter, but for as fun as it sounds, this is still work. "She's a tough cookie. She has a very high standard and she expects a lot from them," says Ms. Balderes.
In turn, to inspire them to try to match the literature with some lofty prose of their own, she has a simple formula. "I have them read good writing," she says, and it isn't contained to just Young Adult novels.
For example, they delight in the projects built around the African novel, “Things Fall Apart.” Usually a 10th grade read, they’re proud to learn about Nigeria and study the kinship of the Igbo tribe. Of course, the seminar format rules, and like learning in the real world, the best way is to do.
Students have produced a movie trailer, others created a mock Jerry Springer type forum to explore the main character, while a Hip Hop show put another group into the spirit of African culture. “The creative stuff helps to keep it going,” she says, “and it keeps me cool.”
The Cool, which both parents and students can appreciate. “She’s very cool,” says Ms. Balderes, and it translates to students who prefer a challenge rather than whining about something being too hard, she adds.
“Su,” as her cool students call her, will be the first to admit, though, that every day is a struggle and she always has to address individuals to keep them on course. Whether they aren’t paying attention or falling behind, she believes it works for her because she sends a clear message. As 7th graders coming into their own, she says, “Kids appreciate that I’m honest with them.”
Being a teacher also means communicating with parents, and if it’s ever out of line, that’s simple too. We’ll, because I am one and I know no matter what a parent does it’s only about love and advocacy,” she says.
In terms of Ms. Balderes’, she has less to do in that regard because of Ms. Vaso, so she advocates for “Su” instead. “We all had teachers like her who capture our heart,” she says, and her own daughter’s growth cannot be denied.