Spotlight: Jennifer Gordon (MA '18)January 3, 2019
Librarian Jennifer Gordon (MA ’18) knows her enthusiasm for reading is contagious: “When I love a book, my students almost always end up loving it too.” She won Massachusetts’ 2018-19 Milken Educator Award at Cambridge's Benjamin Banneker Charter Public School (BBCPS) on October 16, 2018.
Milken Family Foundation: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Jennifer Gordon: I was shocked to win the Milken Award. When you think the day is going to go one way (setting up for an assembly, prepping for a reception for the Commissioner, rearranging classes, etc.) and it ends up with you winning an award and being featured on the news … surreal city! But it's really so wonderful for my school and my profession to be acknowledged like this. I am beyond honored.
MFF: How did your students respond to your Milken Award?
Jennifer: My students have been so wonderfully sweet about it. I think I was congratulated by every student for a week straight with high-fives, cards and posters—it was adorable. Many past students have reached out too, letting me know how much library classes meant to them.
MFF: How did you land in education?
Jennifer: I wanted to be a librarian ever since I was a kid. I used to draw check-out cards in the backs of my books and would make friends and family check them out. Reading was and is my favorite pastime, but I never actually knew that going to school to be a librarian was something people could do.
I went to college as an English major and was in my last year at Worcester State College. I was at a loss as to what to do after graduation. One of my part-time jobs was assisting in the Writing Center (helping other students edit their papers) and my boss just threw the idea at me: "Why don't you go to school to become a librarian?" It just clicked, like one of those cartoon characters getting hit in the head with a brick. I applied to Simmons College that day.
In my first semester I was thinking archival studies, maybe working at Old Sturbridge Village or a public library. Then I found the listing for my current position. I applied, got the job, and fell in love with working in a school library—specifically this library. So basically, ending up in education was an accident!
MFF: What do you like about teaching elementary students?
Jennifer: While I was in college I worked in the children’s section of an independent bookstore. That solidified, aided and abetted my addiction to reading kids’ books. I adored reading Shakespeare, Austen and Chaucer, but there’s something magical about children’s books.
MFF: Who are your role models as an educator?
Jennifer: I am inspired by what my coworkers are doing on a daily basis. We share ideas during staff meetings, at lunch breaks, before school starts, pretty much any time we’re together. I get to work with so many different groups of teachers—my own cluster of specialists, the Adventure Club staff, the reading department, the tech department, classroom teachers, etc.—and I’m super inspired by people who work hard, love their jobs and are passionate about what we do.
I loved school in fifth and sixth grade. My fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Lacroix, had some rad routines I still remember. We had enrichment classes and I started playing the flute that year. In sixth grade, Ms. Goodwin made me want to learn more. Mr. Keating, my reading teacher, introduced “The Hobbit” to us. That is one my favorite academic memories and inspires me to pull reading groups today.
MFF: Tell us about your first year of teaching.
Jennifer: I started in the middle of the school year, so those first months are a blur. During my first full year of teaching, the cohort of new teachers got me through. Although we all ended up at different schools, we’re still friends and get together often. I looked to them to help me figure out how to work with larger groups of students, how to plan … basically, how to do everything.
MFF: How do you pick the right books for each student?
Jennifer: Our school library has a well-rounded collection that skews towards fantasy (my favorite genre). The kids love poring over the shelves. If a kid is stuck, I ask, “What’s your favorite book you’ve ever read or had read to you?” Sometimes that’s enough for me to make a recommendation. If all else fails, I sent them to “Ms. G’s Favorites,” a couple of bins filled with books that I love and want to share with kids. Those books are in heavy rotation.
In our technology-driven world, I love that my students still love physical books. They cannot wait for new books to arrive. We love studying the illustrations, anticipating the new read. It’s awesome to see. I think my enthusiasm for books and reading goes a long way. When I love a book, they almost always end up loving it too.
MFF: As a specialist, you work with classroom teachers to piggyback on their lessons. Why is it important to align your work with theirs?
Jennifer: Students need to know that classrooms and specialists are not individual islands. When special teachers and classroom teachers are in communication and we know what we’re all teaching, our kids get even more excited about the learning. I stay on top of the units classroom teachers are working on so I can have materials and resources at the ready.
Right now classes are working on their biography unit in reading and writing. The library is covered in picture book biographies and my question of the week is tailored to this unit. A few classes had visited the aquarium recently, so I made books related to that easily accessible. For the second-graders, the music teacher and I have based our year’s plans on their social studies unit. I work on Stories From Around the World; in music, they’re focusing on Music From Around the World. It’s pretty awesome when students tell me, “We learned a song from that country the other day!”
MFF: How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Jennifer: No definite plans yet, but in general I’m hoping to use part of it for something responsible (pay off my car or part of my school loans), something not-so-responsible (a trip or a new tattoo), and save the rest.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Jennifer: Success is all about setting goals, facing challenges, working through pitfalls and mistakes, learning and growing, and moving forward. For my students, seeing them grow into themselves, watching them learn, and providing experiences that will challenge them is what it’s all about. I love that at BBCPS we provide more than academic experiences for our students. We have a cross-country team, a dance troupe, STEM blocks, our Innovation Lab, the Adventure Club, and more. I’m very involved in the Adventure Club, where we bring the kids out on a different adventure every month. Working independently or in groups, they face challenges outside traditional academics. They face their fears, achieve goals, climb mountains. I love helping them find success outside of the classroom as well as in it.
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