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Ramstad English teacher still educating after 24 years

English class and language arts classes are considered to be core classes, but Lilly Taylor makes her classes fun for her students and they have more power of choice.

Taylor was born in Sparta, Greece, and moved to Chicago with her family when she was only two-and-a-half years old. They had other family members there and Greece was going through some economic hardships, so that’s where she grew up.

She has always had an immense love for reading, going back to her years as a child. “I guess I saw reading as not just entertainment, but an escape too,” she said. “I was always drawn to books, into characters, into stories.” Fiction is her go-to. Nonfiction doesn’t usually catch her interest unless it has a story to it, which is what she really looks for in reading material.

At first, she thought she could have been a book publisher and edit books. When the time for her to declare a college major came around, it seemed to her that being an English teacher would be a good fit, and she has never regretted that decision.

“I definitely made the right choice because I can use my passion for reading to get kids passionate about it, too, and that’s very rewarding.”

Taylor went to DePaul University, a private college in Chicago, for about half a semester. Then she got married to a man who was in the Air Force. Her semester in Chicago was cut short when her husband received orders to go to England for a while. To receive her associate’s degree, she went through the University of Maryland on the air base in England.

From England, they moved to Minot. She attended Minot State University for the remainder of her teaching degree, mentioning that it took just a bit longer because she had a young son at the time. Her graduation in 1996 let her jump right into what she loved.

Her time student teaching was spent at the former Erik Ramstad Middle School a block away from MSU. Taylor wanted to teach at Ramstad, but there weren’t any openings for teachers, so she applied for a part-time position at Central Campus High School in downtown Minot. There she taught tenth grade English for two years.

Some staff members at Ramstad had taken leave and were coming back, and with all the displacements happening, she went to the middle school.

“I have loved it ever since,” she said.

When Taylor started, she had to teach both seventh and eighth-grade language arts. There weren’t as many teachers then, compared to today, corresponding with the student numbers being low, as well. As more teachers were brought in, the teachers who had to teach two grade levels moved to just one grade to teach.

Once she was down to just seventh grade, she began teaching advanced language arts classes, as well. Between her language arts and advanced classes, she has done many different types of projects and units, making a lot of changes over the years.

One of Taylor’s favorites is the poetry unit. She sprinkles some poetry in throughout the year, but in April, she usually does a unit focused solely on poetry. The students read some poetry and learn how it works to get a feel for it before they write their own poems.

Poetry has many different forms, such as freeverse, sonnet form and a plethora of different rhyme schemes. Sometimes after they read a particular poem, Taylor may ask them to use that poem as a model and make their own, following the same theme or form. “To them, when they hear poetry, sometimes it’s a big scary word. They think they won’t like it and you kind of have to take down that barrier.”

The creative writing unit is usually the students’ absolute favorite, having the freedom to choose their own characters, construct their own plot and develop their own dialogue for their fictional characters. In the other core classes, students don’t have the chance to be as creative, and Taylor wants to make sure they still have some time to tap into their creativity and bring their own stories to life. Some students continue writing those stories even after they move on to another unit. Taylor said that aspect is success, that they write on their own time and no one is making them.

One of the other rewarding things for Taylor is getting to know her students through their writing and what they choose to read. “I learn a lot about them through their writing,” she explained. “Kids who don’t say a whole lot in class will reveal themselves in their writing.”

The difficult part of that, though, is the fact it takes time to fully connect with students. At the beginning of the year, the students going into her class haven’t had her as a teacher before and Taylor has never had those students in her class. Building that relationship and trust with her students is important and meaningful to her. “Just getting to know kids is the best part, and helping them develop their writing and their reading skills in a personal and relevant way,” she said.

Some students are a bit harder to get to know if they don’t speak in class at all. “I feel like I have a whole relationship just through their writing,” she added, “because they’ll write something and I’ll make some comments back and ask them questions.” That’s their way to communicate if they don’t feel comfortable about sharing in class. “That’s important because I want those kids to feel like they have a voice, too.” If their voice is something the students don’t want to share, they still have their voices through writing.

When some kids or parents think about language arts, they might automatically assume book reports will be part of the class. However, Taylor’s classes involve so much more, and traditional book reports don’t have a place in her classroom.

Her students have a lot of individual choice to read what they like. Book clubs are included in her curriculum, and the students have the option to read anything. In other club scenarios, she has her students get into small groups and give them a list of about eight novels to choose from and pick their top three. Projects and other assignments are also part of the book club, some involving talking with other students about the books they chose.

Oral presentations are required to help them get more comfortable with speaking in front of the class. Instead of just standing in front of the class and talking about their books, they take on the role of a character from their book and give details.

“It’s pretty common for a lot of adults and kids, especially in middle school,” Taylor said. “Sometimes they’re terrified of public speaking. They don’t want to be embarrassed in front of their peers.” She stressed the importance of public speaking and give her students some tips and tricks to build their confidence and comfort level, even in small ways. Baby steps may be small, but they’re still steps in the right direction.

For a project that had an excellent turn out, the students that read the novel “How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found” wrote letters to the author, Sara Nickerson. The content of their letters pertained to the novel, making comments and asking questions.

Taylor was expecting to get only one letter for her to read to her class. To her surprise a few months later, she received a large manila envelope filled with individual personal letters to the students. Nickerson answered every question she was asked in the many letters. “She sent one to all the kids and that is amazing,” Taylor said with a smile. “That was probably one of the most rewarding experiences with literature.”

To remember the wonderful experience, she made copies of every letter that her class received, keeping the copies and giving the students the original letters.

Mental health is something she and other teachers look for carefully in home room and other classes. “Many times in the past, when they express themselves in their writing, we find out what’s happening in their lives and what they may need help with and what they’re struggling with,” Taylor said. In addition to watching for those signs, she has referred a lot of students to the school counselor based on what they wrote.

In those circumstances, she asks those students individually if they would be comfortable talking to her or the counselor about what’s bothering them. If they are not comfortable with discussing it out loud, they may write down what they’re feeling and what’s causing those feelings. “They’re comfortable with the writing process, so I feel like that’s helped a lot of students.”

Taylor has reached many students over the last 24 years, building them up and helping them develop their writing and reading skills. Getting to know her students is what she finds to be most rewarding about her position as a teacher. She has never regretted her decision to be an educator.

(Prairie Profile is a weekly feature profiling interesting people in our region. We welcome suggestions from our readers. Call Regional Editor Eloise Ogden at 857-1944 or call 1-800-735-3229. You also can send email suggestions to eogden@minotdailynews.com.)

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