A Flame for Learning

pseligson@newsobserver.comMay 24, 2014 

Johnston County’s teacher of the year can remember teaching others as early as third grade: She would line up her stuffed animals and tell them about the book she was reading.

Emily Westbrook, who teaches senior English at West Johnston High School, has won this year’s Flame for Learning award as the county’s teacher of the year.

Westbrook, 31, came to West Johnston in January of 2013 after teaching in Goldsboro for seven years. She teaches Advanced Placement literature and composition and honors English IV.

Westbrook said her secret to engaging students is simple: She tells stories.

“Even if you tell them something about you or something they can relate to or a story in a book, then that’s what I think speaks to people and makes them want to learn,” she said.

Combining stories with fun and joy keeps her students interested, Westbrook said. “Having fun is contagious, and joy is contagious,” she said.

Westbrook said going to West Johnston each day doesn’t feel like going to work – for her or her students. “When my students come to my classroom, they expect a certain level of joy, and they expect to be in a creative and happy place,” she said. “And I don’t think it feels like the day-to-day work, although it is work, and I always have very, very high expectations.”

Her students agree, on both the fun and the workload. “She gives us a lot of work, and I don’t mind doing it because it’s always fun,” said Georgina Rubio, a senior from Clayton.

“She’s not boring,” added Maggie Batson, a senior from the Cleveland community. “Sometimes our work is hard, but it always pays off. ... She’s probably one of the best teachers I’ve ever had.”

An attentive classroom

As students walked into class this past Monday, they shouted, “Happy birthday” to Westbrook, who had just turned 31. Days before, on May 15, she had a great birthday present: winning the teacher of the year award.

On Monday, Westbrook continued teaching a unit on speaking poetry out loud, using “The Man-Moth” by Elizabeth Bishop. She showed a video of a slam poet talking about her work and then handed out “The Man-Moth” to her students.

As she had students read the poem silently, Westbrook told them: “Read it slowly and several times. You must read poetry slowly to let it sink into your brains.”

Reading poetry out loud shouldn’t be in a monotone voice, but with highs and lows, hand gestures and emotion, Westbrook said. She had students mark up their copies with notes and then went through each line, acting out how the poem could be read.

Students stayed interested, giving suggestions, making jokes and laughing at Westbrook’s jokes. Her energy and humor kept the students interested, even with the end of school just a few weeks away.

“Air high fives,” she said to a group of students who chimed in with answers to her question.

A flame for learning

The county’s chambers of commerce present the Flame for Learning award annually to Johnston’s top teacher. Nominees submit a write-up about one of their best teaching practices and then sit for an interview by a panel of judges.

Westbrook won for a lesson about the book “1984” by George Orwell. In the book, citizens live in an inescapable surveillance society where children report their own parents to the Thought Police. Society is controlled by Big Brother, a god-like figurehead.

Westbrook said students just didn’t seem that interested when she started teaching the book, so she asked some of her fellow teachers for help. Together, they came up with the idea of a surveillance classroom.

Students had to follow arbitrary rules, like using only a black pen, wearing blue or saying “Thank you for educating me today” when leaving the classroom. Westbrook then picked some students as Thought Police, telling them to let her know who was breaking the rules. The next day, those students would find their names on the board, which added a page of work to their reflection assignment.

“They would say things like, ‘But I don’t think I broke that rule,’ and I would say, ‘There’s no justice system in 1984,’” Westbrook said. “They would go, ‘Oh, that’s why we have a justice system.’”

Westbrook wanted to teach them why it’s important to think critically and to not do something just because someone tells them to. She also wanted to show them that the book is still relevant today. Westbrook even used street art by the London graffiti artist Banksy and the movie “All the President’s Men,” which details the Watergate scandal.

West Johnston principal Paula Coates said she is proud of Westbrook’s work. Whenever she walks by Westbrook’s classroom, she can tell that students are interested, learning and having fun.

“She represents one of many outstanding teachers here and at many schools,” Coates said. “Lots of students were very excited even though they haven’t had her yet. I’m sure there are lots of juniors right now hoping that they get her for senior English.”

Seligson: 919-836-5768

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