What makes a teacher unforgettable?

Recently, there was a question posted on Facebook (where else) that asked: Can you remember your fifth-grade teacher? I am sorry to say that my mind drew a complete blank. At the time I was attending Annunciation BVM School at 12th and Reed and which no longer exists. My teachers were all Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters, so – except for height and weight – all looked alike.

However, there was one Sister who taught 7th grade and whom I will always remember with love. Her name was Sister Henrietta Maria. There is a special reason she left an indelible mark on my memory.

One day in class, Sister announced that we were about to have a civics lesson. The topic was: How a bill becomes a law. We had these skinny blue manuals with all the information inside. No pictures. Basically, we were expected to read over the material, memorize key facts and be able to answer certain questions on a printed test. My favorite expression for that method of learning is: memorize, regurgitate, forget.

I was getting light-headed at the thought of spending time on such a boring topic. Then an idea came to me and I raised my hand. To her eternal credit, Sister Henrietta called on me. So I stood up and suggested that, since we had about 40 students in our classroom, maybe we could form a Senate and House of Representatives. Then we could act out the process of turning a bill into a law. (I was describing a mock Congress of course.)

Well, of course Sister had two choices. She could have simply told me to sit down, be quiet and let her lead the lesson. Instead, she uttered the unforgettable words, “Gloria, when you get a brainstorm, you get a brainstorm.”

It did not take long to divide the class into two houses of Congress. (I believe I ended up in the Senate.) After that, we assumed our roles during every civics period for several weeks. There we took turns writing, debating and voting on a series of bills. I still know how a bill becomes a law.

What made Sister Henrietta unforgettable was the fact that she listened to a student’s idea on how she wanted to learn a lesson. The activity we performed is an example of a teaching method called “active learning.”

The good news is that I remembered that feeling of being personally involved in a lesson and carried that idea with me when I was in my own classroom. By now, those who have followed my opinions in the Review know that I was a teacher in both parochial and public schools. Later I helped train future teachers for Temple University. Believe it or not, the method described as “active learning” was part of our Temple Teaching Standards.

Well, of course I used a similar method even during my earliest teaching years in parochial school with classes of over 50 students. It must have made an impression. To my surprise and delight, several members on Facebook, whom I had taught in the 1960s, remembered me fondly as their 5th grade teacher. They even recalled my last name, which was Cipollini.

As hard as this is to believe, some of them are already grandparents. So they recalled their favorite teacher from about 60 years ago.

So what exactly makes a teacher that unforgettable? Obviously, it must include someone who respects students enough to allow them to choose their own method of understanding a concept. Then it means creating an environment where students get to engage in hands-on learning rather than merely rote repetition. I can still recall teaching science where every student entered the classroom in silence so as not to be excluded from the laboratory activity. They wanted to be physically engaged.

I do understand that some information like times tables and spelling words may be recalled through rote repetition. But there are concepts such as how a bill becomes a law that are remembered better by acting them out. And even a rote subject like the alphabet can be set to music and sung.

So thank you in heaven my beloved teacher Sister Henrietta Maria, IHM. And thanks to those students of a long time ago who still remember their 5th grade teacher Miss Cipollini.

Gloria C. Endres