Profiles in Positivity: Sara Roark

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Everyone had one growing up… a favorite teacher. If you were lucky (and I was) you had several. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Barra, was kind and lovely and helped me learn to read. My ninth grade English teacher, Mr. Schwartz, taught me to enjoy real literature (and always asked his students to take out a “slice of paper”). My college biology professor, Dr. Killian awarded me the “most improved student” award after our second test (a 2-liter bottle of Kroger’s “Dr. K.” soda) taught me to love learning and the essentials of chemiosmotic phosphorylation.

I have it on good authority that my sister, Sara Roark, is one of those teachers who falls into that “favorite” category for many many students. I know this because we’re friends on Facebook, and students she taught a dozen years ago still regularly pop up on her wall to tell her how much she affected their lives and many of them still call her “Momma Roark”.

She’s a certified Intervention Specialist and is certified to teach Social Studies K-12. While she’s taught a wide variety of ages and subjects in her career, her favorite class to teach is World History (especially because it’s not state tested). “When we get on a topic they don’t know anything about, we can just study it and explore it without worrying whether or not it’s going to be on a test.”

Her favorite age to teach are high school students.  She’s particularly fond of those students that we who love her call her “misunderstood yoots.” For kids who society has written off as gang members, miscreants, stupid, delinquent or incorrigible, Sara sees potential with a capital P.  She has the innate ability to find the good in others, and recognizes that while not all kids learn in the same way, learning differently doesn’t make them dumb or unteachable.

A number of years ago, she was working in an inner-city school near Dayton. She often brought fresh fruit, granola bars, peanut butter and bread to her classroom, so that kids who didn’t have the resources to grab breakfast at home didn’t start the day hungry. She had a student that year who, while generally clean, became thinner and thinner and more and more disheveled as the year went on.  He came up to her on graduation day and gave her a big hug.  It was at that moment that he admitted that he’d been living in a refrigerator box behind a store because he was afraid that if he told the school that he’d been kicked out of his house, they’d kick him out of school. He thanked her for always having food in her classroom, as it was literally the only thing that kept him from starving.

I asked her how she would fix the education system, and guessed that she’d jettison testing forthwith.  “I don’t have a problem with testing. I do have a issue deciding what a student does or doesn’t know based on one day of testing. If I was going to fix the system, I would have kids come up with a portfolio where they showed what they’d learned on a given subject.  I would allow teachers teach their subject matter in a way that they taught kids how to learn and not how to regurgitate facts.   “We have a society of (mostly) good test takers. We don’t have a society of good thinkers or evaluators or humanitarians.”

To that end, Sara has implemented “Free Style Friday”. Fridays give each kid a quiz grade, but instead of taking a test, her kids show her what they’ve learned in their own way. She’s had a student make a [nearly life-size, 150lb] guillotine and tell her class all about the French Revolution and Robespierre and the Reign of Terror. “He was able to tell me things about the Reign of Terror that I never taught him.  He went out and did the work.” The kid later admitted, it was the only “A” he’d gotten the entire year. She’s had students who have reenacted famous events from history. Some events, she admits, would be better off not-reenacted. She’s had students who write and perform hip hop numbers about the week’s subject. She’s had kids who might have been mediocre students, but were also amazing artists who drew a scene out of history and made important connections to the material that Sara did not provide.

Sara makes it a habit to call her students’ parents when they’ve had a good day, rather than a bad one, and to make sure that each student gets at least a couple calls a year. She calls to tell parents who’ve only heard from teachers when their kids were in trouble that their son or daughter is an awesome human and a delight to have in class. Not that strangely, she finds that the students become even more awesome human beings and try even harder in class to be delightful, which is just one reason why she is an amazing teacher, and this week’s profile in positivity!

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