With novels, poetry, teacher makes sense of life's dramas

April 07, 2003|by PEPPER BALLARD

Editor's note: This is the seventh in a monthly series highlighting excellent educators in Washington County high schools. Next month: Washington County Technical High School.

On the first day of the school year at South Hagerstown High School, teachers stand with maps where the building's halls cross: You are here.

After guiding the freshmen, sophomores and juniors to other classrooms, 12th-grade English teacher Judith Shipley finds seniors have no trouble finding hers.


A sign on her door reads, "The tassel is worth the hassle."

"I'm like their last stage before they have to go out and be even more responsible," she said.

At the beginning of the semester, Shipley, 63, said a lower-level class of students was not turning in assignments on time and was doing poorly on tests. She told them their grades would suffer if they continued on that track.

"The first marking period, they didn't believe I said what I meant," she said. Shipley said their grades convinced them otherwise.

Their grades improved the next marking period. She gave a test a couple of weeks ago in which six of the students received 100 percent. She said she gave several a score of 90 percent, as well.

"They felt so proud when they got their papers," she said. "It feels so good to see kids actually enjoying learning."

Shipley not only helps her students understand the books they read, but also the lives they lead.

"I fear a lot of our students get a lot of hard knocks when they're young," she said.

Shipley said the South High faculty, of which she's been a member for 24 years, is open to communicate with its students about problems they're having either in school or at home.

"The sad part is that it reaches a crisis point before they do," she said.

Shipley tries to buffer the drama in their lives by teaching them the dramatic lessons contained within the pages of novels and the stanzas of poetry.

Among the lessons taken from her senior tour of English literature, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," she said, for example, is a story that teaches that even in perfection, people can make mistakes.

Shipley said she recently had a discussion related to the book, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," about what makes someone good or evil.

Shipley asked them whether drug dealers and drug users are evil. The students replied both were inherently good.

"What do I do to convince 18-year-olds that selling crack to kids is evil?" she asked.

In that instance, Shipley allowed the students to debate, and hoped the students would listen to each other if they wouldn't listen to her.

Shipley said students who graduate from her classroom sometimes return to visit.

She's left to wonder about those who don't come back.

After Shipley retires this year, many students may wonder about her.

"Hopefully, they're going to be lifelong learners," she said. "They have to find their own pathway."

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