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Her classroom resembled a construction site. Now she’s bringing her ‘eclectic’ teaching style to Zoom.

Headshot of Mattie Davis in front of a red tile wall.
Mattie Davis engages first graders through dance, politics, and lessons on butterflies.
Bernadette Golden

Mattie Davis thrives on consistency. She lives in the very same house she grew up in and is about to start her 30th year with the school district of Philadelphia.

She teaches first grade at the William Dick Elementary School in North Philadelphia, the neighborhood in which she grew up and has spent her entire teaching career. She has no desire to move from her home in Strawberry Mansion — once a thriving Jewish enclave, then a thriving Black one — though the area is now plagued by poverty and, sometimes, violence. In early August, two young men were killed in a shootout not far from her house.

The enrollment at Dick is almost entirely Black (with a few Latino students) and low-income. After school abruptly shut down on March 13, Davis, who doesn’t drive, spent days walking through the community and dropping off materials at the homes of her 23 students. “I put them in mailboxes, or in a few cases, I saw an aunt, or a mom, and put it in their hands,” she said.

For weeks, she painstakingly called parents and guardians to make sure they picked up school-issued Chromebooks and had reliable internet access. Then she set up schedules for video or phone conversations so she could see and listen to her students read. She was able to keep in close touch and continue lessons with all but three of them.

Forging close — and empowering — connections with her students is not new to her. Recently she heard from a former student, now an adult. “You were so influential for me, in teaching us to be proud of your Blackness,” he told her.

This year she has 24 new first graders, and so far she has been able to reach all but three. School starts Wednesday, remotely, with the possibility of a “hybrid” plan starting in mid-November in which students will be split into two groups, each attending two days a week. For now, though, many of the classroom activities that have made her class memorable are on hold: from field trips to student council nominations to watching caterpillars transform themselves into butterflies. But ever the optimist, she is determined to make it work and launch the children on their journey to love language and understand the written word.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What is one word or phrase that you use to describe your teaching style?

Eclectic. It depends on the children and what they need.

What does your classroom look like?

Traditionally, it looked like a true construction site. It’s messy — it makes folks squirm. But teachers who believe the classroom to be a garden of learning understand that teaching and learning is always a work in progress, in other words, always under construction. And just like a construction site, it is not always a pretty picture. Authentic teaching and learning embraces exploration. This does not mean that the teacher never stands and delivers content. There is time for that. But authentic teaching and learning looks like small groups of students working, having conversations about their projects while the teacher conferences with one student or a few at a time. One teacher’s classroom will not look like another. As long as the students are achieving, that is fine.

I hear students dance in your classroom.

Dance is a great way to teach reading. We start with regular free movement, and then we introduce the name of the dance step in writing. And we call out the name of a movement, and it’s also written down. When the children are not sure what to do next, they can go back and read the name and the steps. The kids get it eventually; it’s learning through kinesthetic activity.

And you conduct an election each year?

Students nominate themselves or each other to be on our student council. Each has a campaign manager, and they make speeches. Those students who are not nominated, I tell them they have the most power because they are the voters. I tell them to take seriously who they want to represent them. It helps them understand the importance of good behavior.

Your class raises caterpillars and then butterflies. What does that involve?

Before COVID-19, retired reading specialist Betsy Wice would come and teach the children about monarch butterflies and their lifecycle. Students love this. They clamor to compose text about the chrysalis. They gladly illustrated and wrote their observations when we released the butterflies. They also learned that this emergence occurred at no set time. We had to look at the weather conditions and discuss if “this” was a good time to release the monarch. It was an authentic integration of reading, writing, science, and social studies. We would also take excursions to the zoo, the Academy of Natural Sciences, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. The children love writing about what they learned. They would talk about these experiences all year.

How are you preparing for this school year?

I have made contact with my parents and have gone twice to the school to stand outside and give them their little packets. As I’ve told parents, it’s one thing to have high schoolers, that’s abstract thinking by that point, but the little ones, they need to be able to touch, to hold things.

What’s in the packets?

Two sharpened pencils, straws to use as counters, word cards so if they see the word “at” they can add letters to make “cat” or “bat,” things like that. And long colorful counting sticks and Unifix cubes for assistance in computing equations. A Scholastic magazine on the topic of caring for animals. And, I almost forgot, a miniature stuffed animal.

But with remote learning you won’t be able to do so many of your favorite activities.

We will dance for a few minutes every day. We will see how it goes. Every other month, they’ll get a new choreographed piece. That’s another way to hopefully bring the families in. For the election, things will have to be different; this will be the first time I will not have a nomination process open to the children, they won’t be able to get to know each other in the same way. But we will have a student council and continue to have meetings.

Do you plan to talk with your students about the antiracism protests that have been taking place following the police killing of George Floyd?

They’re a little young for that. But recently, I felt so good, one of my former students sent me an email. He is now a teacher in Philadelphia himself, he would be in his 20s and I had him in my class back in the 1990s. He told me, “You were so influential for me, in teaching us to be proud of your Blackness.” So that is something I always try to do.

Fill in the blank: I couldn’t teach without ____

My passion for the vocation. You have to have passion. Some days you want to run. If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t be there. During our remote learning time last spring, many of my students would recall their experiences with the monarch butterflies or going to the zoo. And sometimes the children would just blurt out “Hey, Ms.Davis, do you remember the time...?” When children excitedly lead the conversation about their learned experiences, that’s the stuff which keeps old gals like me teaching.

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