One of the unexpected blessings of starting a blog has been interacting with people globally with whom I would have never otherwise crossed paths. After I had written my book for new and inexperienced teachers, someone asked if I had ever considered starting a blog. I thought to myself, hmm, I could do that, but would anyone care what I have to say about anything?
Two and a half years later, I’m amazed at some of the remarkable people I’ve met. One of those individuals is a magnificent preschool teacher from Groton, Massachusetts, named Jennie Fitzkee. She has been in education for forty years (two of those at kindergarten and the last thirty-eight years as a preschool teacher at Groton Community School).
Jennie is passionate about the benefits of preschool. “Social and emotional development are number one. Children need to learn how to play, make friends, share, take turns, listen to a teacher, follow directions, stick with a task, and of course, listen to reading. If they don’t get that foundation, school will be hard. Then, either apathy or frustration will begin to set in. A child is in for a tough road without the skills gained in preschool.”
I pay attention to educators who share my love for children, learning, and literacy. Jennie hooked me the first time I read one of her blog posts, and I’ve been like a big fish on her line ever since. Even though she is a preschool teacher by day, she educates all of us through her blog. She is a teacher of humans, regardless of age, color, ethnicity, or background. Each of her posts reflects her understanding of children.
One of Jennie’s first directors insisted that the staff write newsletters to their families at least once a month to educate the parents about child development. Like many new ideas, this was at first met with skepticism by some staff members. These bulletins were more than reports of what children were learning. They went into the “what and why” teachers were using specific activities.
Jennie took this idea and, much like an Olympic sprinter, ran with it. Her newsletters became stories about what happened in the classroom and how it related directly to teaching. After a short time, Jennie realized that not every parent had the time or interest to read lengthy newsletters. Like any skilled educator, she changed her approach. She decided to write a short bulletin for her families and a longer and meatier post on her blog for those looking for more. In 2014, her blog began and is still going strong. As of today, she is now approaching 6,000 followers. While they don’t all engage on Jennie’s blog, many of us do.
It would take too long for me to write about the many brilliant things that Jennie does with her children each year. There are sound educational reasons and wisdom behind each thoughtful decision she makes. One of the things her students look forward to each day is “Jennie Stories.” They are so popular with the kids that she has a set time (the students understand it’s time for a Jennie Story at 12:30 when the big hand is on the six.) She goes on to tell engaging stories, sometimes fiction (“Once upon a time”) but more often real (“It happened like this”), that captivate her students. One of her more recent fun ones is her version of a classic fairy tale, “Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs.” It features Papa T-Rex, Mama Pterodactyl, and Baby Brachiosaurus. Jennie teaches us that lunchtime is not just a time to eat—it’s a time to build community and further bond with her students. They trust her, learn from her, and most importantly, feel loved by her.
Jennie had another incredible “aha moment” when it came to teaching acceptance. Approximately twenty years ago, Jennie’s school and others realized it was critical to introduce the topic of “diversity” into classrooms. Jennie acknowledges this can be challenging in a small-town community like Groton, where 99% of the population is White. How could she teach diversity when nearly everyone looked the same? Instead of focusing on skin color, which might be a natural way to broach the subject, Jennie found her light-bulb moment. She introduced a character to her students that would soon take up permanent residence over the past two decades.
That was the day that Gloria became part of The Aqua Room. Gloria is a doll, but not the type that we usually see. At first, kids may judge her to be an old scary witch. If Jennie had mishandled this teaching moment, her students might even have been frightened by Gloria. Instead, Gloria has become a fantastic teaching tool. Gloria and Jennie show the kids that being different is not something to fear. Differences should be appreciated and celebrated. Gloria now joins the class every day instead of the occasional appearance. One of the most heartwarming aspects of this story is that she often goes home with the kids on holidays and over the weekend. In true Jennie form, Gloria takes her journal when she travels to write about her adventures.
Like everywhere else, Covid meant changes at Jennie’s school. Last year, Groton Community School closed for a time. Did that stop Jennie from giving the gift of herself to her students? Not in the slightest. What do outstanding teachers like her do when the obstacles get harder? They find a way to provide the support their students still need. Jennie knew how important it was to read to her kids, so now the challenge was figuring out a way to keep this happening. She started a YouTube channel and read to the kids. Check out Rapper Jennie performing the children’s story, Goodnight Moon. This is one of my favorite videos of Jennie because she gives her students what they need—music, rhythm, and stories. (It should face right side up when you begin playing.)
Even though Jennie and her husband live in Massachusetts now, she has never forgotten her West Virginia roots. Read Aloud West Virginia was a program started in the early 80s to bring books and volunteers to read aloud to kids at school. When this non-profit group was about to launch its program, respected author Jim Trelease got involved and helped train the staff. Trelease is an American educator and author of the million-copy bestseller, The Read-Aloud Handbook. In his book, Trelease stresses the importance of reading aloud to children to help instill a love for literature. One of Jennie’s most exciting days was when Trelease came to Groton and watched her reading to her class.
One of the beautiful things that Jennie’s school does is celebrate teaching anniversaries every five years. When Jennie celebrated her 30th school anniversary some years back, she decided to do something big. It bothered her that West Virginia ranked near the bottom in terms of money spent per child in educational dollars, so she and her husband, Steve, decided they wanted to find a way to help. What did they do? They rented a large van, loaded it with books, and drove them from Massachusetts to West Virginia. One of the things Jennie is most proud of is more and more volunteers are getting involved through this program and bringing the joy of reading to kids.
Hundreds of children have benefitted from being in Jennie’s class. She loves it when they come back to visit and sometimes serve as guest readers in her class. Quite understandably, these are moments of great pride for Jennie when she witnesses former students passing on the love of reading to others. She has been to graduations and weddings of former students. It speaks volumes that her former students want her there to share in their big moments.
Jennie had a fantastic experience just a couple of weeks ago when she appeared on the Kelly Clarkson Show. Kelly had a surprise announcement for Jennie regarding Read Aloud West Virginia. While Jennie was on the show Kelly announced that Dollar General Literacy Foundation was donating $50,000 to this wonderful program. I got goosebumps watching Jennie’s reaction to this announcement. My favorite moment of the show was watching one of her former students, Eamonn, talk about her and all she has done for him. When Jennie told me she was going on the show, I circled that day on our calendar. My wife and I were watching. It did my heart good for other people to meet my blogging buddy. She is the type of passionate educator who has touched so many people through her commitment. (You have to click the link below to watch Jennie on The Kelly Clarkson Show)
As far as the future, Jennie will continue to teach children. If it’s not in the classroom, she hopes to do it through writing. She has written two picture books and has been querying agents. I’m starting to query now, so that’s another way we’ve connected. Ever the teacher, Jennie has reminded me that award-winning children’s author, Kate DiCamillo, had 471 rejections before finding an agent. DiCamillo has written many outstanding children’s novels such as Because of Winn-Dixie, The Tiger Rising, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, The Tale of Despereaux, Flora and Ulysses, and numerous other outstanding reads.
I feel so blessed to have gotten to know Jennie the past couple of years through our blogs. She is the real deal and someone who brings great honor to the teaching profession. One of my future goals is to make it from California to Massachusetts to meet Jennie and Gloria, be a guest reader in her classroom, and sing This Land is Your Land with her students. Thank goodness for Jennie and all the other educators who bring reading into children’s lives.