Sixth grade English teacher Heather Hoffman spotlights compassion in her classroom.
Heather Hoffman found herself in a unique situation at her previous middle school, when the school board decided to close the school’s doors. It was in the middle of the summer and jobs were scarce. “One of my eighth grade students went to his parents and said, ‘I think it’s important that our class stay together,’” Hoffman said. So she and the former principal coordinated to create a classroom for nine students in the basement of one of the students, based on the curriculum they had developed.
“Parents were pitching in; former teachers came in to teach,” she explained. “It was an incredible experience. Three of them followed me to Pembroke Hill the following year.”
As luck would have it, a sixth grade middle school English position came open at Pembroke Hill, and Heather leaped at the opportunity. “I’ve been so happy to have landed at Pembroke Hill,” Heather said. “It initially was very intimidating, but has ultimately worked out.”
Her English classes recently finished their unit on the Holocaust by watching the documentary film, Paper Clips, and reading the book I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a collection of art and poetry from children of the Nazi concentration camp Terezin.
In connection with the book, the students created paper butterflies, based on poems from the book, that were meaningful to them. “There’s so little that made it out of the concentration camps,” Heather said. “These pieces aren’t a ‘look back in remembrance’ sort of collection. These were written while they were in the camps at the time it was happening, and most of the children didn’t make it out.”
Throughout the year, Hoffman and her fellow sixth grade teachers focus on one of the school’s values, compassion, and bringing students closer together. With several new students coming to Pembroke Hill in the transition from lower school to middle school, she said, “How can we bring them into the folds of friendship?” Students started the year by watching the film Temple Grandin and reading excerpts from the book, Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World. They discussed how people are different, not less, which helps propel them through the year. “It highlights how our differences are things that can be valued,” she pointed out. “It doesn’t make one less, it just makes us all different and, hopefully, makes us more interesting.”
In addition to focusing on values, her classes focus on tightening up her students’ writing skills to a more mature level. “At the beginning, their voice is more kid-like, but by the time they leave sixth grade, they have elevated their ability to write with an advanced sentence structure, and have learned to take the time to craft what they want to say,” she disclosed. “It’s one of my favorite metamorphoses, because I show them one of their first pieces of writing at the end of the year and they just freak out. That’s their growth right there, that’s what they’ve done this year, and I can’t make it more apparent than to let them hear who they were nine months ago.”
This year Heather has had the special opportunity to teach her son, Karl, which has been an amazing experience for the teacher. “We will remind each other of different things that’s going on in school, like the foreign language hat day,” she exclaimed.
One of her favorite parts of the school year has been seeing how her fellow teachers interact with her son. “My colleagues have been amazing with him. I have always known my colleagues were wonderful teachers, and we have a unified vision for what sixth grade should be. But to see it from the parent side and see it in action, it just makes me love and respect them all the more.”