Heartfelt lessons
By Sarah L. Bender

Kelley Crain, a teacher for more than 30 years, is always on the move with her blended second and third grade class at Paris Elementary School. Sometimes it’s creating a bulletin board to display work and other times it’s to simply get wiggles out so the learning can begin.

In her blended second and third grade class at Paris Elementary School, Kelley Crain, 57, calls out: “Hard work." Students respond with “. . .pays off.”

Kelley continues with “Embrace the struggle. ” The children finish with “love the challenge.”

At the end of the positive call-and-response the room falls silent, and 22 pairs of eyes stare lovingly, and with anticipation, at Kelley who provides instructions before releasing her charges to continue their work.

Kelley’s call and response exercise impacts her students because it acknowledges the reality of struggle and challenge and normalizes it. “This community, like any other, has needs," says Kelley who has taught elementary school for 32 years. "If we acknowledge, even embrace, what the needs are, what can be done to meet the needs, then we’re well on our way to providing for everyone.”

The academic day is jam-packed with formal learning using nontraditional methods. Her students dance about vocabulary words, rap about the water cycle, meet in small groups and wiggle at their desks. Through her methods, Kelley works tirelessly to teach her charges science, math, English and social studies concepts.

Outside her classroom Kelley eats lunch with her students, helping them master basic table manners, while engaging them with kindness and politeness. After a game of telephone and time on the swings during recess, Kelley takes her students back to the classroom to finish the day. The children sit on the carpet as Kelley reads aloud "Nearly, Dearly, and Sincerely," a book about adverbs.

In everything she does, Kelley demonstrates what she expects from her students. She knows how critical the lessons are to the future of her community.

When the day ends, Kelley ushers her students out of the building, but not before she tells them “I love you.” They glow because, while the day was filled with struggle, they overcame the challenges and did the hard work. They solved the problems and leaned into frustration and Kelley showed them how. She taught with love, and it's a love that sustains.

Eli Sagesar, who at 9 years old is an emerging reader, works in a small group. Like Eli, all the children take turns working in twos or threes under Kelley’s guidance to master skills such as text analysis and comprehension.

Community spirit flows into independent work time when students have the option to collaborate with a partner. They sit on the floor, find a cushion-covered crate or, like third graders Christina Johnson (from left), Mady Morris, Braxton Brooks and second grader Rory Ryan, stand with their workmate at a desk.

Kelley’s class travels the hallways quietly on their way to the cafeteria. “I’m always late so they give me the last lunch of the day,” Kelley admitted, laughing.

Seven-year-old Greyson Caudill continues a game of telephone started by, in his words, “the one and only teacher Ms. Crain.” Kelley eats lunch alongside her students daily, demonstrating life skills such as table manners and how to clean up.

Recess lasts about 20 minutes and is the only unstructured time in a Paris Elementary School student’s day. There’s basketball, tag, using playground equipment and imagination-based playing happening all around. If students want Kelley, they can find her on the swings.

When students like 7-year-old second grader Everleigh Etheridge complete the day’s assignments, they can choose between reading a book from their curated collection, practicing math facts or, like Everleigh, listening to a story on a literacy website called EPIC.

As the day winds down, the class gathers on the rug and Kelley reads them a story related to a topic they learned about earlier in the day. It’s a full-circle approach to a jam-packed day of learning.

The elementary school day ends at 2:50 p.m. and Kelley makes good use of dismissal time by giving high-fives, hugs and reassurance that she will be there tomorrow.