A long journey of learning culminates for School of Education graduate
A long journey of learning culminates for School of Education graduateMay 06, 2002Ellen Edgertonebedgert@syr.edu
For many years, Ted Grace has told pre-schoolers and elementary school students the tale of a plucky ant who faces down a beetle and spider in order to gain the confidence to carry off a juicy crumb much larger than himself.
He didn’t think that one day be telling it to students at Syracuse University to inspire them for a year of intense study in the school’s Accelerated Graduate Program. The persistence recounted in the story offers insight into Grace’s own unusual career as an educator.
“I see myself as an entrepreneur turned student,” says Grace, who is receiving his Ph.D. in reading and language arts from the School of Education. “It’s really strange how my academic career has developed. Doors kind of opened.”
A native Syracusan and certified elementary school teacher, Grace was working at Crucible Specialty Metals in 1980, when his wife, Jackie, decided to leave her job to stay at home and raise their young children. When she also began to watch neighbors’ children, the Grace Children’s Academy was born.
Grace soon left his job to work with his wife full time, overseeing the business of running the academy and sharing teaching duties. For the next 16 years, the Graces taught hundreds of children, first at their home, and then near the Syracuse University campus. Open to all preschoolers, but with a predominantly African American enrollment, Grace Children’s Academy won praise from local child-care experts for its innovative curriculum. Over 1,000 young students graduated from the preschool.
Despite its success, declining enrollment forced the school to close in 1996. “It was the middle of the school year,” Grace recalls, “so I thought of getting a regular teaching job.” However, he was encouraged to enroll at SU instead, where he completed his master’s degree in reading and language arts in 1999.
Returning to academics, Grace found himself on new ground that was at the same time familiar. “I found that things we did for years were concepts that had labels,” he says.
His dissertation focused on a unique approach to involving African American students in their schoolwork, drawing on his own skill as a storyteller and his past experience with preschoolers.
“How do you engage students who have the ability to read and write, but who choose not to? Print is one way to express ourselves,” Grace points out. “Spoken word, poetry, rap and hip-hop culture are others.”
The concept of engagement in different methods of learning, not just self-expression, is central to Grace’s work. He believes that oral and written skills shouldn’t be separated in the classroom environment. African American children in particular stand to benefit from the intermingling of the two in the learning process, since many urban teachers may be unaware of the role of oral culture in these students’ home lives and how it can be used as a teaching tool.
In his work with sixth-graders, songs, stories and poems were performed aloud in the classroom, recreating African American oral traditions in order to encourage the students to write down their own stories. “It’s about creating a context where they feel safe to share,” says Grace.
Many of the students became more eager to use writing to express themselves, and talented writers became more comfortable with expressing themselves with the spoken word. And Grace says his studies have uncovered another benefit to oral-based literacy instruction. “It really eliminates discipline problems. There is less need to disrupt a class when you are engaged.”
Although Grace looks back with fondness on the years he taught preschool, he’s now looking ahead to teaching future teachers. Having already taught as an instructor at SU for two years, he’ll begin a position as assistant professor in the School of Education this fall. He continues to travel to area schools, however, bringing storytelling into the classroom.
“How do you make a difference in children’s lives? You can go into a class and affect 20 to 25 lives at a time,” he says. “But there’s a responsibility to be a skilled teacher, to develop a pedagogy that’s good for all kids.”