There are books galore in Rebecca English’s high school classroom. New and old and of many genres, they are categorized and in bins along the walls, on shelves and in a closet-turned-library.
There are also bundles of yarn stacked in a container on the floor, wooly materials to be knit into hats and mittens. Several handmade scarves hang from hooks on the wall.
When it comes to connecting with students, English does so purl by purl and page by page. She invites them into her den-like classroom for endless supplies of books and knitting needles, which she said are great mediums to get students to relax, talk and develop a sense of belonging. Their effectiveness is evidenced by teenagers who pop into the classroom to visit her during lunch every day.
They take a seat to read, eat or just start a conversation.
“When you walk into my room, kids always say it’s like walking into a big hug,” said English, who has taught at Godwin Heights High School for 23 years. “I want it to be cozy and nurturing.”
Sophomore Cecilia Montejo said she started writing poetry after being inspired by English. “You can be comfortable here. It’s a warm place inside school.”
“She has this smile on her face and is always happy,” sophomore LLuvia Fuentes said of English. “It’s full of books. It’s like the library in here.”
Three days a week at noon, the classroom becomes Knitting Club, Writing Club or Book Club, all which English advises. Over half-finished scarves, prose or verse, lots of bonding takes place.
“We talk about different situations, laugh and solve all the world’s problems,” English said.
Reaching Out to ‘Invisible’ Students
English teaches special education English and social studies classes, and general education multicultural literature. A native of Grand Rapids, she grew up “with floor-to-ceiling bookcases” in her home. Her parents (her father was an Episcopal priest) stressed giving above everything else.
So as a teacher, English made it part of her job to do more than required. She jokes that a huge chunk of her paycheck goes toward books. Students call her an Amazon fanatic, and the staff at Schuler Books & Music know her by name.
She started the clubs — Knitting Club is in its third year, Book Club in its second, and Writing Club is new this year — to give students another way to be involved with school.
“I basically just saw a big need,” she said. “Our school offers sports, band, choir, art, but sometimes students fall through the cracks. Sometimes certain students do not feel a sense of belonging and feel disconnected from their own high school.”
English herself was once an “invisible student,” she admitted, so said she relates to those who tend to go unnoticed, those at the back of the class, not an athlete or academic superstar.
She also realized another need in Godwin Heights, a diverse district where more than 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch rates. “Some of our students come to school and this is their safe haven,” English said. “I think every kid wants to feel special in someone’s eyes, like someone’s caring for them.”
So her room is a sanctuary. During club sessions, students feel safe and free. “Goodbye social media for an hour. Goodbye fast-paced world. Goodbye chaos-filled minds,” English said.
English goes the extra mile in other ways. Shebrings groups of students to movies that are based on the books they read; she takes them shopping and to lunch. She hunts down the right book for the right student. Senior Zy Scott often spends her lunch hour in English’s classroom with a book in her hand. She didn’t even like reading much before she met English, who introduced her to “drama books,” she said.
“Now I read every day,” Zy said. “She knows what kind of books I like, and we talk about them.”
Principal Chad Conklin said English’s work makes a big difference at Godwin Heights.
“Rebecca has a fantastic heart and passion for our students, and she works hard to ensure all students have an opportunity to connect to a club to build a sense of school pride and self confidence,” he said.
English, who has two daughters, even made sure one teenager had a home. “I had a student who needed a foster placement a few years ago.
Davonte ended up living with English’s parents, and now, at age 20, recently moved out on his own, she said.
“I feel kind of like that’s what I was put on Earth to do, to give back,” she said.
Advocating for Students
She is also her students’ biggest champion. In her ninth- and tenth-grade special education English class, she asks Shakespeare trivia questions. Students rattle off answers on his birthdate, wife, family and theatre. They know a lot about the Bard.
“I’d put them against anyone in the school,” she said. “They are Shakespeare experts.”
English loves to see students accomplish their goals, to see them dare to try new things. When they succeed it impacts others, she insists. In Knitting Club, they learn to make beautiful, handmade gifts and to teach others how to knit.
“The look on student’s faces when they come into the Knitting Club glowing because they were able to make a homemade Christmas gift for their family, is priceless.”
Student Edwin Daniels, also a former non-reader, talks about how he’s already read five books this year because English stocked her shelves with a series he really likes.
But getting to know English is about more than books and knowing Shakespeare, he said.
“We share in here. We share whatever. We’re different shades,” he said, about the ethnically diverse class. “(That students are different) doesn’t matter.”
What matters is the way English makes students know they are always welcome by handing them spools of yarn, a favorite novel or a comfy place to talk.
“I cannot help but smile and feel the joy,” she said. “My students have found their place.”