Teaching By The Books

May 01, 1994 20 min read

Within the walls of Dodson Elementary School in Hermitage, Tenn., a Nashville suburb, is the Apple Classroom of Tomorrow (ACOT), a three-year, $3 million research project funded by the computer company and the National Science Foundation. About 60 of the school’s 3rd and 4th graders participate in the ACOT program, which attempts to infuse technology into every aspect of the curriculum. The classroom itself is chock-full of the kind of equipment most teachers only dream of: Apple computers, laser printers, VCRs, and camcorders.

But if ACOT is high-tech, Timothy Hamilton’s 2nd grade classroom, just down the hall, is decidedly low-tech. Everywhere you look there are books, books, and more books. Big books. Little books. Hardcover books. Paperback books. Serious books. Silly books.

On one bulletin board is a banner that says, “Be Excited About Reading,’' or BEAR, which explains the abundance of stuffed bears scattered about the classroom. Another board displays biographical information about James Marshall, the “author of the month.’' In the front of the room, above the blackboard, are these words: “Our Goal: 500. Books Read: 394.’' Like the old McDonald’s signs that tallied the number of hamburgers sold, the “books read’’ figure is constantly growing.

For Hamilton, reading is everything. The 32year-old Nashville native has found a way to use children’s literature in every subject he teaches, including mathematics. “I just immerse my students in it all day long,’' he says. “And they get caught up in my excitement.’'

Hamilton isn’t just boasting; visitors to his classroom are often astonished to find out just how much his students actually know about books. They understand the difference between a fairy tale and a folk tale, between a biography and an autobiography. They know who won last year’s Newbery and Caldecott awards (the Oscars of children’s books). They know detailed information about their favorite authors. They know what a copyright page is. They know that it was a 17th century Frenchman by the name of Charles Perrault who wrote Tales of Mother Goose.

But mainly, they have a love of reading that seems all the more remarkable in an age of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Super Mario Brothers. And if Hamilton has done his job, his students will carry that love with them for the rest of their lives. “If you can read,’' he says, “and you’re real excited about it, then it’s going to be something that can transform your life, something that you can use forever. I want them to be lifetime readers.’'

Monday, 8:50 a.m. Students are trickling into Hamilton’s smallish classroom. As they enter, they put away their jackets, go to their desks, and look up at a whiteboard on which Hamilton has written:

  • List 20 things you would take to Grandma’s.
  • Read Twits pp. 15-23.
  • Let’s have a great week!

Hamilton, neatly dressed in khaki pants, a blue button-down oxford-cloth shirt, a red paisley tie, and brown penny loafers, has been at school since 8 a.m., so he’s had time to place a paperback copy of The Twits, by Roald Dahl, on each child’s desk. With little prodding from their teacher, the students take their seats and begin to read.

Hamilton’s 25 students are heterogeneous in every sense of the word. Some are white, some are black. Some are fast learners, some are slow learners. Some are affluent, some are poor. Most of Dodson’s 940 students come from the Hermitage area, which is both suburban and rural. But some are bused to the school from north Nashville, 45 minutes away.

By 9:15, all but one of the students have arrived. “OK,’' the teacher says, “I’d like everybody to close their Twits books. I’d like for you to put your index cards away, and I’d like to see you on the perimeter of the rug when I call you. I’m going to start with table three.’' One by one, Hamilton calls up the other tables, and the children take their places on the rug, a multicolored affair decorated with letters and numbers. After the pledge of allegiance and the state-mandated “moment of silence,’' Hamilton sits down in a beautiful handpainted rocking chair, a gift from last year’s class. Throughout the day, he will spend much time in this chair, sometimes reading books to his students, sometimes just chatting with them, creating a living-room atmosphere in an otherwise typical classroom. (“I let them know what I’m doing and what’s going on in my life,’' he says later. “They need to know that I’m a real person.’')

“Guess what Mr. Hamilton did on Saturday?’' he asks, sounding like a younger, Southern version of Mr. Rogers. “I had a big test to take. A big test. I mean, it lasted forever, and I didn’t know some of the answers. I had studied and studied for it.’' Hamilton is referring to a state assessment that, if he passes, will place him higher up on the professional “career ladder’’ for teachers.

“The test was to help me be a better teacher and to help me make more money,’' he explains. “And I think I did pretty well on it.’'

“I hope you did,’' one girl offers.

Hamilton says that, after the test, he decided to give himself a treat by going to a bookstore. “And what bookstore do you think I went to?’' he asks. In a flash, every hand in the room shoots up, and several students can hardly contain their excitement at knowing the answer.

Hamilton picks a student named Morgan to answer the question. “Davis-Kidd,’' she replies. The Nashville bookstore, which has a large children’s literature section, is one of Hamilton’s favorite haunts. He likes to take his students there whenever he can, especially if an author is on hand to sign books.

Hamilton holds up a copy of The Horn Book Magazine, a bimonthly journal that lists upcoming children’s books. He says: “I was thumbing through it--and I always get so excited when I do this--and there was a book in here that looked good, and I thought, I sure hope Davis-Kidd has this book because if they don’t, I’m not going to be very happy. So I got there, and, sure enough, they had it.’'

Next to Hamilton is an old wooden trunk, which he says he found in the classroom when he arrived this morning. “And when I opened the trunk up,’' he says, “I found an envelope with my name written in cursive. And I thought, This is my grandmother’s handwriting. I opened the envelope up, and inside there was a little note. It said, ‘Tim, here’s everything you’ll need to teach today. Love, Grandma.’ ''

Slowly, Hamilton opens up the lid of the trunk. The students strain their necks to get a peek inside, but the teacher quickly closes it. “Our focus today is going to be on grandmothers,’' he tells the children, and, in fact, the teacher will return to that motif often during the day. Hamilton may not be an author, but he creates his lessons in the same way that a writer conceives a book: by establishing an overarching theme. Even the trunk itself (which he, not his grandmother, actually filled up with goodies) has a certain literary flavor to it; if it were a book, today’s lesson might well be titled Grandma’s Trunk.

Hamilton allows his students to talk briefly about what they did over the weekend before he asks them to return to their seats. It’s time for math, but there’s not a textbook in sight. Instead, Hamilton reaches into the trunk and grabs a plastic bag full of Band-Aids. “I looked back in Grandma’s trunk,’' he says, “and I found Shel Silverstein’s book Where the Sidewalk Ends. And I opened it up, and there was a poem called ‘Band-Aids.’ ''

The teacher passes out a Band-Aid and a copy of the poem to each child. The students have no idea where this is leading, but they know enough about Mr. Hamilton to realize that, whatever happens, they’re going to enjoy the ride.

Hamilton asks the students to follow along as he reads the poem out loud:

I have a Band-Aid on my finger, One on my knee, and one on my nose, One on my heel, and two on my shoulder, Three on my elbow, and nine on my toes. Two on my wrists, and one on my ankle, One on my chin, and one on my thigh, Four on my belly, and five on my bottom, One on my forehead, and one on my eye. One on my neck, and in case I might need ‘em I have a box full of thirty-five more. But oh! I do think it’s sort of a pity I don’t have a cut or a sore!

“Now, I’m going to close Grandma’s trunk,’' Hamilton says. The lid drops with a loud crash. He asks, “What do you call the author of a poem?’'

“A poet!’' answers a student.

“Who’s another famous poet you know besides Shel Silverstein? Who was that man who wrote ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’? What was his name?’'

Half the hands in the room reach into the air. Hamilton calls on a boy, who has the correct answer: “Robert Frost.’'

Getting back to the poem, Hamilton asks the students to estimate the number of Band-Aids mentioned in it. After a moment, the answers come fast and furious:








(Most of the students giggle when they hear the last number, knowing that it’s way off.)

To find the correct answer, Hamilton writes down all the numbers on the blackboard and then, with help from the students, adds them up. The answer, it turns out, is 35. “Who estimated 35?’' he asks. Several students hold up their hands. “Good job.’'

Later, Hamilton will pass out a work sheet full of math problems, but right now it’s time to have a little fun. On the front board is a drawing of a boy; Hamilton has his students go up to the drawing, in pairs, and stick Band-Aids on the boy’s body parts, just like in Silverstein’s poem. “I can’t wait to see this guy when he’s done,’' Hamilton says.

When all the kids have done their part, the boy is covered from head to toe in Band-Aids, which amuses the students to no end. Hamilton has combined math and poetry so seamlessly that the students are not even aware that the two subjects have been mixed. “You look around the room,’' Hamilton says later, “and it looks like a total mess. But we’ve been working. The children have been doing stuff. They haven’t been mindlessly filling in the blanks all morning and staying in their seats. We can’t teach like it’s still 1952.’'

It comes as no surprise to learn that, when he was a boy, Hamilton knew he wanted to be a teacher when he grew up. And much of the inspiration came from his 2nd grade teacher, Eunice Bailey.

“She was a wonderful lady,’' Hamilton recalls. “She was the first black teacher at our school, and a lot of the parents were very apprehensive. This was back in 1969, 1970, when desegregation had first come about in Nashville. But she would probably stand out as the best teacher I had. She worked hard on getting kids to feel good about themselves, no matter what. And she was a very loving, grandmotherly type. So she always stands out.

“I can remember writing a story about wanting to be a teacher, way back in 2nd grade. And somehow I wound up teaching 2nd grade.’'

Hamilton’s first teaching job was at a Nashville preschool, where he worked part time while attending Belmont College, a small, Baptist-affiliated liberal arts college. After graduating in 1984, he continued working at the preschool full time while seeking a job with the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. Although the district wasn’t hiring a lot of teachers at the time, Hamilton was offered a job teaching 2nd grade at Dodson Elementary School. He jumped at the opportunity.

“If we traveled back to that class,’' Hamilton says of his first year at Dodson, “it would be very different. In those days, we did a lot of ‘skill and drill,’ with a lot of work sheets. It took me longer to run them off than it did for the children to complete them! And I knew that wasn’t working. The kids may know it for that particular moment--you give them a test, and everyone gets an A--but it was not practical. They were not using the skills.

“So, the one thing that I saw that they did enjoy was the reading, even though the reading book that we used was not very good at all. And back in 1984, there wasn’t much talk about whole language. It was unheard of unless you lived in Canada or Australia.

“That skill and drill--you never, ever remember one single work sheet that you did in your 12 years of schooling. However, you do remember those special activities, those special days, or that special book. We all do. Real literature--it touches you.’'

Slowly, Hamilton began to change the way he taught. First, during his second year, he stopped grouping his students by reading ability. “Every adult knows what reading group they were in,’' he says. “You still remember if you were in the bottom or in the top. And I think no child should have the stigma of being in a low reading group.’'

Second, he began to get away from using the basal reader. “I began to branch out and learn about authors. I had done a lot with books already, but not where they were for enjoyment. I had used them more for teaching skills. I was not developing lifetime readers, where the child takes a book and has a personal relationship with it. And that’s what I wanted to nurture.’'

The kicker came during the following summer, when Hamilton and some other Dodson teachers attended a whole language workshop. “We knew right then and there that we had to change some things,’' he says. “We had to get away totally from skill and drill.’' Hamilton’s teaching hasn’t been the same since.

Although he considers himself a whole language teacher, he thinks of it more as a philosophy than a set method. “Whole language is a belief that reading and writing are something that you do naturally,’' he says. Hamilton has taken that basic tenet of whole language and created his own unique style of teaching. “A lot of what you do you have to investigate and find out on your own,’' he says. Now, Hamilton conducts his own workshops for teachers who want to incorporate children’s literature into their lessons.

Clearly, Hamilton’s love of children’s literature comes from the heart. Over the years, he has amassed a collection of about 5,000 volumes, and he’s read every single one of them. One reason he still lives with his parents is so that he can afford to keep buying books on his shamefully low teacher’s salary. He even buys entire sets of books, like The Twits, so that his students can all read the same text at the same time. “If you look around here,’' he says, scanning the classroom, “basically everything but the furniture and the computers is mine.’' (The two computers are available primarily for writing and language “maintenance’’ exercises.)

Where does he keep all of his books? Wherever he can find room for them. “That entire cabinet is full,’' he says, pointing to the back of the room. “That’s full. That’s full. These three trunks are full. And I have three huge boxes at home.’'

“His books are his,’' says Dodson’s principal, Nancy Coleman, “and he’s sharing them with the children. That kind of personal commitment is what sets him apart.’'

Unlike many great teachers, Hamilton is fortunate to have been cited for his superior work. In 1991, his colleagues voted him Dodson Teacher of the Year, an honor that put Hamilton in the running for the districtwide Metro Teacher of the Year. For that, Hamilton submitted a portfolio in which he summarized his teaching philosophy: “I try to make each day special for each child. I want them to feel like they can’t wait to get back tomorrow and learn some more.’'

The portfolio, which Hamilton keeps in his classroom, also contains glowing testimonials from friends, colleagues, and parents. Typical is a letter from Rick and Jeane Norvell, whose daughter was in Hamilton’s class:

Rick and I feel privileged to write this letter of recommendation for Tim Hamilton as Teacher of the Year. Our daughter, Ellen, has acquired the confidence of a writer, the eloquence of a speaker, and the imagination of a poet under the influence of Mr. Hamilton’s creative style. The positive reinforcement that Mr. Hamilton consistently displays provides an atmosphere that encourages the children to flourish and progress at a very rapid pace.... In our opinion, Mr. Hamilton is the most creative and innovative 2nd grade teacher we have ever known. We’re very grateful that our daughter has had the opportunity to experience the very high caliber of Mr. Hamilton’s expertise.

Hamilton became the youngest teacher ever to be named Metro Elementary Teacher of the Year, which put him in the running for the regional District Elementary Teacher of the Year award. (He was first runner-up for that particular honor.) Also in 1991, he received the Excellence in Teaching Award from the University of Tennessee. Not bad for someone who had only been teaching for six years.

The awards, Hamilton says, “made me feel like, ‘Hey, somebody out there recognizes that I am doing a good job.’ And a lot of times, as a teacher, you never hear that.’' He is quick to point out that his school is blessed with many excellent teachers; last year, a Dodson staff member won Metro Elementary Teacher of the Year, and this year another was a first runner-up.

Two years ago, as word of Hamilton’s teaching began to spread, it reached Victoria Risko, a professor of education at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University. She was looking for about 10 exemplary Nashville-area teachers whose classes she could videotape. Now, Hamilton’s teaching is captured on two 30-minute videodiscs, which are used in two classes at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College.

“We enjoyed being in his classroom,’' Risko says, “and he’s had a real impact on our undergraduates. The students take away a lot of good ideas. We hold him in high regard.’'

In Hamilton’s classroom, students don’t just read books; they also write books, which they “publish’’ under the imprint of Cubblestone Publishing Co. Sometimes they even sell their works at school fairs. The proceeds, of course, are used to buy more books.

Following the Band-Aid exercise, the teacher again asks the children to come to the front of the classroom, this time so he can read from a book called The Doorbell Rang, by Pat Hutchins. The book, about a dozen cookies, will provide the students with a model for their own books about the number 12.

“It can be about absolutely anything,’' Hamilton tells his charges. “The only thing we can’t do is Pat Hutchins’ story. What if we do her story again? What have we done?’'

“We’re breaking the copyright law,’' a student responds.

“That’s right,’' Hamilton says.

The teacher asks a boy named Robert to pass out two sheets of yellow construction paper to each student. Hamilton wants them to write first drafts, or “dummies,’' which he will then edit and give back to the students so they can create finished versions.

A hush comes over the room as the children begin writing. Hamilton moves from desk to desk, answering questions and offering suggestions.

A boy named Kevin has decided that his story will be about 12 brownies, so, on his book’s title page, he carefully writes, “A Dosin Brownes.’' Then, on the copyright page, he inscribes, “Illscratid by Kevin. 1994.’' The story itself begins like this: “Ones upon ua time sum one nakt at the dore it was Sam he brot in tweve brownes.’' The next day, when Hamilton edits the book, he will correct the spelling mistakes and remind Kevin that sentences must end with periods.

Some of the other students create dummies that will require virtually no editing by Hamilton. One of the best is by Katie Lewis, a quiet, freckle-faced girl with a blond ponytail. Her book is called The Twelve Books:

I was on my way to the bookstore. When I got there, they had a sign up that said: Twelve new books! Buy them now before they’re gone! Well, as you might know, I love it when bookstores sell new books. So, I went up to the cash register lady and asked: Excuse me, but can you tell me where the twelve new books are? Why yes my dear child, said the cash register lady. I will be glad to.

So, she tole me that they were in aisle four next to the Fairy Tales. Thank you, Miss Golder, I said. You’re very welcome I’m sure. So, I went to aisle four, and I almost fell over my feet because there were not twelve new books. There was one new book with twelve new copies!

The End.

It’s obvious that Katie reads a lot of books, for on the back page, she has written the following:

About The Author: Katie Lewis was born in 1985. She lives in Tennessee. Katie is eight, and in Mr. Hamilton’s second grade class at Dodson Elementary School. Her favorite subject is spelling. Katie likes to read.

Last year, Hamilton took his students to Davis-Kidd to meet Aliki Brandenberg, a popular author of children’s books who lives in London. “She was so impressed,’' Hamilton says. “I’ve got to tell you--my group last year could have told you ev- erything about her. They knew every book she had written.’'

Brandenberg was so taken by the visit that she presented the students with a poster-size ink drawing of an “Alikisaurus’’ reading a book. On it, she wrote, “You are wonderful! Happy Reading Forever in Mr. Hamilton’s Class!--Aliki.’' Hamilton had the picture framed, and it is now prominently displayed in his classroom.

Hamilton’s dedication to his students has not gone unnoticed by parents. Former Dodson principal Carl Ross, who hired Hamilton back in 1985, says: “The parents were just crazy about having their kids in his class. There was always a waiting list to get in.’'

Such popularity created some problems, however. Until this year, parents could request, on a first-come first-served basis, which teachers they wanted for their children. But not all parents made such requests, and those who did tended to be the ones who were more actively involved in their children’s education. Thus, the process resulted in some of the most popular teachers ending up with some of the best students.

“Last year,’' says principal Coleman, “we worked very hard to set up what might be a more equitable way of assigning children that still allowed for parental and teacher input.’' The goal was to have no teacher “overly burdened’’ by a high percentage of challenging students. Coleman says the new process seems to be working, but it doesn’t mean that Hamilton is any less popular. “He still is one of the most highly requested teachers,’' she says.

Coleman points out that Hamilton, who is Dod- son’s only male classroom teacher, is well-respected by his colleagues. “I think he’s looked upon as a leader,’' she says. Teachers who want to learn more about using children’s books in their classes see him as an important resource, and Hamilton has always been willing to share his expertise (not to mention his books) with others.

Finding the time, however, is another question. “I put in a very long day, every day,’' Hamilton says. “I’m always here before 8 a.m., and I usually leave at 5:30, sometimes later. And then I take things with me to do at home.’' Coming from someone else, such words might sound self-serving, but Hamilton is simply stating the facts.

At 3:30 p.m., after his students have gone home for the day, Hamilton likes to “close the door and collect my thoughts, think about the day and what I’ve done, what I could have done differently, and what I want to do tomorrow to improve myself. Because I’m a learner, too. And I’m not perfect.’'

Like most good teachers, particularly those who pour their heart and soul into their work, Hamilton worries about burnout. “I don’t know how long I can continue to be enthusiastic in the classroom and stay fresh,’' he says, “coming up with new ideas year after year. I like to share my ideas, and a lot of folks here and at other schools use my ideas. But to say that I’m going to be a classroom teacher for another 30 years--I’m not really sure. I’m happy with it right now. But when you lose that edge ... We need folks right now who enjoy it. We need to be out there recruiting people to be teachers because it still is a very rewarding profession. It truly is, although maybe not monetarily.

“I’d like more materials,’' he continues, gathering steam. “I’d like fewer children. I’d like a larger classroom. I’d like a full-time educational assistant. I’d like to do whatever I want in my classroom regardless of the cost.’'

Sometimes Hamilton thinks he’d like to get into book publishing. Or maybe become a librarian. Or do more teacher training. But not just yet. “I know I’ll be here next year,’' he says. “I can tell you that. But beyond that, I’m not sure.’'

Ultimately, what got Hamilton into teaching in the first place may be what keeps him in the profession. “There was a sense,’' he says, “that teaching was something that I could do and feel like I had accomplished something. So now, when I go home at the end of the day, exhausted from all the interactions I’ve had all day long, I can feel that what I’ve done with my life has been successful, that my little time on earth has meant something.’'

—David Hill

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Teaching By The Books