Walking the halls of Burnette Elementary and entering Maria Upchurch’s fifth grade classroom brought back warm feelings of nostalgia and coziness to me. The room of my former Gifted Language Arts and Social Studies teacher had always felt like home, and I was glad to see that it still does-an assortment of pillows are arranged along one wall, perfect for comfortable independent reading. It’s also a glimpse into how Upchurch manages to make her class uniquely fun.
Being a fifth grader is not easy for most 11-year-olds; they have the most tests out of all of their Gwinnett County school years, and many of these tests are crucial in determining the students’ future class placements.
Teaching fifth graders is not easy, either. “I try to remember that they’re young, and that they have a lot of tests,” Upchurch says, which is why she tries to balance all those tests with fun classwork. For example, to teach a lesson about Henry Ford, she lets kids get hands-on to build an edible automobile, assembly-line style. She also makes them move around as much as possible to break up monotony and spur their creativity. And her students love it-once, they even had a dance party instead of going to recess!
One of Upchurch’s current students, Ethan Lee, ardently agrees that his teacher is very fun. When asked his favorite thing about his classes with Upchurch, he passionately replied, “Everything.”
From improved grammar skills to better reading comprehension to enhanced focus, Ethan uses the skills he learns from Upchurch’s classes and applies them to areas outside of the classroom. For example, his grammar skills came in handy when writing appreciative letters to the military.
Besides noting the enjoyable learning environment, Ethan highlights how Upchurch encourages independent work. He says, “She wants us to solve our own problems, not depend on someone else.”
It’s certainly a valuable life lesson, especially for our future leaders who must often take initiative.
Speaking of future leaders, one of Upchurch’s hopes is that from her Social Studies lessons, her students can practice being active citizens in the community, as well as apply the stories from history that they learn in class to everyday life.
Pictured: Maria Upchurch (left) and Ethan Lee (right)
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