With 28 years of experience teaching Language Arts to middle school students, one could understand if Trey Reynolds felt he was in a perennial comfort zone. That notion is dispelled quickly, even in a relatively short interview.
"I've never come into a job thinking I've learned it all. I always look for new ways to teach," said Reynolds in his E. T. Richardson Middle School classroom.
That perspective informed his approach as Reynolds taught 5th graders (which ETR included for a time) and 6th graders. It did not wane during his decade with 7th graders, especially considering "new ways to teach" became essential with the advent of more technology. However, two years ago ETR Principal Dan Tracy asked Reynolds for a more significant change—agreeing to teach the same subject to 8th graders.
"With 10 years at 7th grade I'd been inside the same comfort level for some time. I had great colleagues in Stephanie Pierce, Amanda Smith, and Nicole Schaaf which gave me even more comfort," said Reynolds. "But movement does occur. I did not go grudgingly, and was not afraid of it at all."
What Reynolds found were new and exciting challenges and two new teachers in Monica Mancini and Lauren Wiseley who he continues to characterize as "being blessed with the Language Arts folks." Reynolds said the subject area is a collaborative effort with most decisions made by a team. It is a synthesis he enjoys.
Obviously the curriculum differs for this grade level. All forms of writing are explored, produced for assignments, and contributed to the ETR "writing hub" effort. He noted a particular enthusiasm about the novels chosen for the course.
"Literature is the backdrop for everything we do. We are trying to give kids a degree of rigor in the curriculum. We are reading 'Night' by Elie Weisel. Whether purposeful or not, it coordinates with the Holocaust Project 8th grade does in Social Studies. We are also reading Ray Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451' which has always been a favorite of mine."
The novels have been vetted by the administration, but if their themes seem somewhat adult, it ties into how Reynolds sees his students.
"Present in middle school is the kids' enthusiasm. They are so dynamic. Every day you don't know what you are going to walk in to. There is great energy and a desire to learn. But I also see a different maturity at this level. They are in discovery mode about where they want to go and who they want to be. I'm glad if I play a little role in that," he said, noting a few of his own mentors during school years.
Reynolds, who grew up in Norristown, brings to this position very relevant experience which might seem in the distance past.
"I started as a journalist. One of my high school teachers connected me with the 'Times Herald.' I'd always played and been interested in sports. I called coaches and wrote short pieces. By that time, I'd already started writing an awful lot."
At Temple University, Reynolds majored in journalism. He had thought, however, that he wanted to teach. He returned to studies and first earned an elementary school teaching certificate, then continued for a master's degree in instructional design and technology. Facility with technology has proven valuable.
"In the early days of my teaching there were worksheets and ditto machines. The technology boon in the 90s seemed new and cutting edge, but the big thing then was Power Point. Now it is embedded in what we do. I'm thankful to be in this building and this district when it comes to how technology is used. It's necessary to keep up. I admit, sometimes I get help from kids on how to make something work."
In Language Arts technology may be less a matter of content than Science or Social Studies, Reynolds suggested, but it plays an important role, "It is more the practicality of how I do what I do. I can pull up 30 essays (on the computer) and watch them being written in real time. It's also much more freeing in the way we write—I really see that with students."
While he does not have a 24/7 mindset when it comes to access, he welcomes the opportunity for students and parents to reach out regarding homework or other matters.
In terms of ancillary technology issues, Reynolds said he thinks the deterioration of writing due to texting might be exaggerated.
"Most of my students are used to writing (formally), and I don't encounter problems in the pieces I get." About the work submitted, Reynolds has embraced the school-wide "second chance" learning approach whereby students are offered a "do over" opportunity to demonstrate learning and improve their grades.
Rightly or wrongly, middle school students are often seen as the most challenging age due to the remarkable changes they experience in all areas of their lives. Reynolds said his own experiences as a "dad" has made him sensitive to those challenges, and informs the way he handles issues aside from the academics. He and his wife Leisha have a daughter who is a senior at Bucknell University and son who is a senior at Spring-Ford High School. Reynolds said, in general terms, he has learned good counseling is often a matter of "taking a step back."
For Reynolds, there is only moving forward, although almost certainly in the same school, grade and subject.
But, even after all these years, Reynolds says his home is in the classroom. "I enjoy working with students to show them that learning never ends. That's what the growth mindset and second chance learning are all about." And every day at ETR, you'll find Reynolds and his students doing just that.
Submitted by Susan L. Serbin