For Sue Blackall, retirement is just the beginning. After 32 years and 800 pupils, the Appleview Elementary third grade teacher plans to open the book on two new projects in the district when she hangs up her teacher’s hat this year.
Blackall has plans to add a once-a-month program focused on science investigation to the host of activities students already do on Flex Fridays. She hopes the program would help boost scores and expand on classroom learning.
“The curriculum comes so fast, because that’s where students are tested,” she said. “It’s been a disservice to not get that far. Kids aren’t getting a chance to do investigations or think like a scientist.”
Since 2007, Blackall’s classes have participated in Grand Valley State University’s watershed projects, planting wildflowers that clean local water systems and provide habitat for wildlife. Planting flowers is part of Blackall’s wider goal of encouraging her students to forgo electronic screens and spend more time in nature.
“It’s amazing how many kids don’t really go outside very much,” she said. “You just look at nature and it relaxes you. I think it makes a difference in how they communicate and how they learn.”
Two of her students, Josh Sternisha and Conner Peterman, have learned not just to enjoy nature, but to understand it.
“This is a sedimentary rock,” Josh said, heaving a flat-sided rock from the school’s rain garden.
“I think it’s cool that we get to learn about all the bugs, because I like to study all the bugs and see what they do,” Conner said, recalling a leaf collecting assignment in the fall when they discovered a stick bug in the woods behind school.
Josh said he hopes to go bird watching this summer, which he learned about in Mrs. Blackall’s class.
“In school I like to be active,” he said. “Doing science. Getting out and taking notes and stuff.”
When her students head into summer and move onto the next grade, Blackall said, she hopes they will be more connected to their surroundings.
“I think they know how important they are to the community,” she said. “That’s the biggest thing they leave with.”
Always a Teacher
The second project Blackall plans to embark on this fall is an after-school homework club.
“Some of the kids don’t have the extra help, and if they had just a little more to help them over the struggling, I would like it to be more of an invitation to do that,” she said.
“(Blackall) has impacted the lives of thousands of community members in Sparta during her career, leaving a legacy of love for our community and the natural environment that surrounds us,” said Appleview Principal Mike Birely.
Though she’s not breaking ties with the school, Blackall said she’ll miss the teacher-student relationships most of all when she retires.
“Being so close to the kids, they do turn into your family,” she said. “I feel like kind of a grandma toward some.”
Teaching has been more of a calling than a job, Blackall added. The profession isn’t about telling kids what to think, but how to think, she said, an approach that has changed since she began her career. Encouraging them to think for themselves is important, considering how diverse a class can be, she said.
“The kids come from different places. You’re trying to get all the kids to grow. That’s like 25 different points of view, but you’re still there for all of them.”