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From First Grade to the Strand Bookstore: Teaching and Appreciating My Students


This piece originally appeared in Next Avenue.


As the school year ends, I look back fondly at teaching younger and older learners

By Nancy Davidoff Kelton

| June 15, 2021 | Work & Purpose

Classes are winding up around the country at grade schools, middle schools, high schools and colleges. All of this is making me nostalgic about my 50 years of teaching.


A class picture, with teacher Nancy Davidoff Kelton at top right


I regularly walk to PS122 (Public School 122) on First Avenue and Ninth Street in Manhattan, so I can take a trip down memory lane. Now a performance space, it was a public school where I taught from 1970 to 1974. Back then, with no classroom positions open, I started as an "above quota" teacher, covering for absent educators before the school's substitutes were called up.

Upon observing me teach a second-grade class, she admonished me, saying I didn't enunciate well and was "weak in the discipline department."

What an education!

I learned how to keep some children from throwing paper airplanes and banging on their desks, and which ones needed breakfast, shoelaces and hugs. The veteran teacher assigned to train me told me I must enunciate every word, particularly during phonics lessons. Upon observing me teach a second-grade class, she admonished me, saying I didn't enunciate well and was "weak in the discipline department."

Liking the Students More Than the Teachers

Over time, I became well-acquainted with the entire student body and staff. I identified with the children; I liked them — better than I did the teachers.

I was also able to acquire material for the first three essays I had published as I launched my career as a writer. These were about the faculty lunchroom, teaching the initial sound of "f" and a field trip where I took students to the Museum of Natural History and lost an entire class near the Blue Whale. The following year, I became a first-grade teacher and faced different challenges. But I loved having my own class, getting to know my children's needs, treasuring their reactions to new experiences and treasuring our connection. We had what my grandmother called "great rappaport." Two years later, the music teacher had to take a medical leave. As the only staff member who played the piano and could march classes into assemblies to music and play "The Star-Spangled Banner," I became the music teacher.

That meant teaching third and fourth graders how to play song flutes (plastic versions of flutes), helping the district music teacher with violin and viola for fifth and sixth graders and having all grades perform songs from "The Happy Wanderer" to "Both Sides Now." I played musical games with the youngest children. We walked in circles and pretended to be ducks.

No matter that I wasn't a real music teacher or that I longed for my own class and didn't return to the classroom at PS122.


The author teaches writing workshops at the Strand Bookstore


Substituting for Kids and Teaching Adults

Next, I filled in as a substitute in lower Manhattan schools. This involved using the absent teachers' lesson plans (if they were available and I could understand them), playing word games with students, trying to discipline and engage the children and dealing with chronic laryngitis.

I subbed two to three times a week and wrote the other days. Upon having four children's books published, I was offered a job teaching a writing course at the New School for Social Research, a small, progressive private university in New York City.

Terrified, but excited and inspired, I practiced my classroom lessons at home in front of a mirror and gave weekly assignments as well as in-class exercises that called for my students' delving, self-revelation and courage. I wrote constructive comments on their manuscripts after reading what they'd written several times.

I loved having my own class again

. A few years later, I was offered a second course there, then another at New York University and then three to four-session workshops at Hunter College in Manhattan.

On my walks to PS122 these days, I wonder how many of my first pupils still live in that neighborhood and what they're doing now.

I found my niche in university continuing-education programs for adults.

These courses are electives. My students want to be there. So do I.

I provide a safe, yet challenging environment in which they can open their hearts and express their true selves. We have "great rappaport." On my walks to PS122 these days, I wonder how many of my first pupils still live in that neighborhood and what they're doing now.

I so want to run into them. But would we recognize each other?

Back Where My Teaching Began

My little first graders are now in their late 50s. I wonder: Do they have children? Grandchildren? Do they have work they like? Joy in life?

Each time I walk there, I look around. The East Village neighborhood is so different from when I punched the time clock in the office, did not enunciate well and was weak in the discipline department. When I taught at PS122, the area was somewhat sketchy. Now, it's hip and gentrified and artsy.

I think about my first walk to Tompkins Square Park, a block east from school, with my class, and holding the hand of adorable six-year-old Danny, who chose to be my partner. I remember gripping his hand tighter when a man staggered up to us, asking for money.

"Don't worry, Mrs. Kelton," Danny said, looking up at me with his big brown eyes. "He won't hurt you." I got it. I know. Nancy Davidoff Kelton has written seven books including "Writing From Personal Experience" and a memoir, "Finding Mr. Rightstein," from which she has adapted the play. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Parents, McSweeney's and other publications. She teaches at the New School, the Strand Bookstore and privately. Read More

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