The roaring engines of school buses, those bright, flashing lights and early mornings with an extra cup of coffee… they can only mean one thing. Back to school! Every September, Huntsville Doppler profiles an outstanding educator as part of its extraordinary person series. This month, we’re happy to introduce Libs Peca, one of Huntsville’s most dedicated teachers who still exhibits an old-school flair in the classroom while embracing the changing times.
The morning recess bell rings and 19 students eagerly file into the classroom. Before taking their spot on the carpet, the kids stop at an aquarium that’s filled with milkweed and little black egg-looking things, apparently the poop from the many hungry caterpillars inside.
Inquisitive minds are in full force. The students are asking their teacher, Libs Peca, when they might start to see some action. When will a butterfly emerge? How much longer must they wait? Libs gets right down to their level and she’s pointing things out and they’re all talking about what they see.
As the teacher, she has no definite answer. But she assures them with a smile they will have to keep watching and waiting. As the old saying goes, patience is a virtue. The students don’t know it but these caterpillars are teaching them an important life lesson.
“It’s such a neat age,” says Libs of the kids in Grade 1. “They’re always raring to go. They’re just curious about so many things.”
And that’s the main reason behind her having the butterfly aquarium. It sparks curiosity and that in turn opens a door for reading about the intriguing winged insects, writing about them and taking many artistic stabs at drawing them. And all the while the kids are keeping a log about exactly what happens to the caterpillars every day.
The Grade 1 classroom at Spruce Glen Public School is bright and spacious and welcoming; the perfect environment to inspire kids to want to learn. And that’s exactly what Libs wants. A safe space that’s organized and comfortable. Many of the students are still feeling anxious. It’s only week two. In fact, their nerves about back to school often overshadow their excitement.
“Summer is awesome but September means getting back into a routine and I think that’s good for us,” says Libs.
She strives for order and structure so the students can be able to be as independent as possible. There’s all kinds of interesting learning tools around the classroom. Various abacuses, cups of markers, trays of counting blocks and jewels, and a giant carpet with the alphabet is undoubtedly where a lot of discussion takes place. There’s a few inspirational sayings on the wall like, ‘stay curious’ and ‘start every day with a smile,’ positive words for a kid to learn to live by. The one thing that’s most noticeable is that no matter where you look there’s books. Lots of books. Probably hundreds. And every single one of them has a home in a shelf or a bin. It’s apparent that in this room books steal the show. They’re the main attraction.
I want a literature-rich environment because the basis of all learning is to be able to read. Once you learn how to read, you learn how to think and critically interpret things and that’s what you need for math. Reading is everything.
Some educators believe Grade 1 to be one of the most important grades a kid will go through in their lifetime, as it lays the foundation for reading, writing and math. And that’s exactly the aspect of teaching that Libs loves. The basics. She’s also a huge research junkie, reading anything good that she can get her hands on and fill her brain with. Because she is ever seeking the root cause of problems (for example, why is a child having difficulty learning how to read or engaging in math?) If you ask Libs, there’s a solution to every problem.
Firm but loving, old-school but with an open mind to embrace the ever-changing ways. That is how Libs would describe herself. She has seen the negative impact technology has had on our youth. She can tell right away the kids who spend too much time on cell phones and don’t get enough sleep.
“Technology is rewiring our brains and affecting our central nervous systems,” she says. “Our oral language skills are lacking and that’s affecting our ability to read as well.”
Her old-school methods are tried and true and that is why Libs continues to stick to them. She maintains a beautiful balance between allowing students to utilize technology (like learning on computers and ipads) but she still sees the benefits of allowing them to play board games and teaching them number lines. She will never abandon teaching kids how to print and the importance of numbering the pages in their printing books. That’s the good stuff, she says. In so many ways.
The main rule in my classroom is respect everybody at all times because that covers absolutely everything. I take a long time to establish what it should be like in a classroom or group. The students should be respecting each other and me. I set very high expectations for behaviour and manners simply because you should care about other people. I do my best to teach them to be the best people that they can be.”
This is Libs’ 18th year at Spruce Glen. She’s one of the school’s veterans. And she’s in it for the long haul, she says, with no plans on going anywhere any time soon. The community feel of a small school is comforting to her. And she knows all the students and teachers by name. It’s like a big family, she says. She looks forward to her job every day.
(Top left) Learning to read is a huge focus in Grade 1, which is why Libs has gone the extra mile to make books accessible to her students. The classroom has its own mini library! Cameron (left) and Leto get lost in books of their choice.
(Bottom left) Libs is very attentive to her students. Here she helps Ember make a symmetrical pattern on a butterfly.
(Right) Konner is intrigued by this skeleton book. As you can see behind him, kids can read and learn about whatever they want. Reading is everything, says Libs.
Teaching is what she was put on earth to do and even after being in the game for as long as she has (24 years in total), Libs continues to do it with passion. And like the kids at school she, too, is always learning. Her students have taught her some pretty important life lessons. It’s good to take risks, make mistakes and try again.
“Trying different things and searching for what will help my students or what will help my own understanding keeps me fresh, engaged and a model for what I want my students to be… ones who will desire to think and learn.”
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