Master Teacher

The master teacher that I chose to think about this week is Dr. Karen Kreider, who is a Social Studies and Mentally Gifted teacher at Central High School in Philadelphia. She might be retired by now, but she was my teacher in ninth and twelfth grade. She inspired me to become a teacher; someday I might fulfill that complete dream instead of being only a trainer.

Dr. Kreider was different from other teachers. She must have been a fan of Dewey, who believed that the curriculum should come from the students’ interests and be guided by that (Gutek, 2004; Noddings, 2007). I’m still not sure how she did it, but she had us keep journals in ninth grade where we could write anything we wanted about a topic each day, as long as that topic had something to do with either a current news event or something we were learning in class. As part of our course materials, she secured for all of us a subscription to the New York Times, which was the best newspaper we could get at the time. We would write for a week and then turn in our journals on Friday for her to grade over the weekend. Each time, she wrote very long notes back to each one of us, probing us further, asking us to challenge ourselves on the issues and to find correlations between an issue that we chose and something that happened in the past. I think in this way that she was allowing us to choose certain learning objectives; each one of us was pursuing something of our own interest. In addition, we all learned a great deal about how current events could be traced back in history. In the days before the Internet and Google searches, Dr. Kreider helped us by giving us hints on different topics we could research in the library in her notes back to us. As our journal developed, themes emerged, and she helped us to find those themes in our writing by probing us about what we found interesting enough to comment upon. I certainly do wish that other teachers had required us to keep journals. My writing improved greatly in ninth grade because of the journal writing.

Dr. Kreider was interested in each of us as people. She did not see us a children, but as emerging adults. As a Mennonite, I am sure that she saw children assuming great responsibility at early ages when she was growing up and as she lived among them while she still taught in the Philadelphia school system. She treated us the same way, telling us we were responsible for our learning. She could guide us, she said, and help us along the way, but she could not do the reading and create the understanding for us – that was something we had to do on our own.

Dr. Kreider was not an imposing figure. She always wore a dress with sneakers, no makeup, and no products in her curly hair. She looked like any woman, but when she spoke, you could see her intelligence. Her mind was sharp and quick; she could pull information from various places in her mind with ease. She was a great storyteller and would have those of us in her classes enthralled with the topic of the day.

In twelfth grade, I was grateful to again have her for a class. This time, it was an MG class called “Contemporary World Conflicts.” Again, we had the ink of the New York Times on our fingers and journals to write, but this time, we were studying current events (such as Afghanistan and Israel) while also researching the origins of those events. This was the first time this course was offered at the school and Kreider was the perfect teacher to teach the class. We were in the library so often that the librarian knew each one of us and what we were researching; he would put different materials aside that he had found in his own searches, which we thought was nice.

In this class, it was not enough to know about the current event and what was happening currently. This was the first class I ever had where 20 references was average for a paper. No, we had to demonstrate that we understood where the origin of this current event came from. By this time, a service called dialog was in service at the school. Dr. Kreider had one of the only computers in the school that had the service. We would use it to find articles, write down the citations, and then we were off to the library to find the hard copy. That, along with Mr. Politis’ help, did make things a little bit easier.

Class itself was relaxed. It was the first period of the day. We were allowed to bring in our morning soft pretzels; many of us brought coffee in from the pizza shop across the street. By this point in our lives, Dr. Kreider looked at us as young adults. She was helping to prepare us for life at college. She wanted an atmosphere of collaboration and that was certainly what we had. After scanning the NYT for a few minutes, groups would form to discuss our papers and the research that we had found. Then, Dr. Kreider would bring us together for a lecture. I remember sitting on the floor of her room, coffee in hand, taking notes in the Cornell method she had taught us, while my friend June lay on her stomach doing the same thing next to me. Most of the time we were at tables, however, and all faced each other, which was also conducive to collaboration. Dr. Kreider would lecture but ask questions at the same time. She had an outline and would start in, but then turn to us to see if our research was taking us in the same direction. If it was not, she would continue asking questions, trying to see where the class was going in its research. I am sure there are times that the class did not go the way she had originally planned. I’m sure, too, that she didn’t care as long as we learned something.

This second class was perfect for Dr. Kreider’s teaching style. No standardized test would be given at certain times during the year, since this was an elective class. She had no one to answer to, really, but herself and her supervisor who approved her curriculum. In the end, most of us had learned how to write 20 – 30 page papers, complete with references and in perfect MLA format. Not only that but each of us was well-versed in current events and could discuss the origins of these events with ease. We truly did learn in that class, through our journals, our discussions, our lectures, and our own reflection on the events.

Kreider’s approach is important to me because it made us feel like scholars instead of just students who had to regurgitate everything that was said during lecture. We truly had to take responsibility for everything in our learning and Kreider was helping us, but she wasn’t feeding us the information. She was treating us like the adults that we were becoming, expecting more of us, challenging us to outperform even our own expectations. All of us – if I remember correctly – did.

Today, I try to imbue myself with her spirit. In my classroom, I expect more from my students, challenge them, and celebrate with them when they succeed beyond what they were expecting. I try to keep the room relaxed as she did, yet on task – as she did. I also try to incorporate collaboration as often as possible as she did.

Gutek, G. (2004). Educational Philosophy and Changes. Boston: Pearson Education.
Noddings, N. (2007). Philosophy of Education. Boulder: Westview Press.

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