Teaching was never a dream of Sammie Smith’s. Growing up in Joplin, Mo., she thought she would go into medicine or law. But halfway through her pre-med coursework at Washington University, Smith had had enough of professors’ attempts to weed people out. She longed for a more supportive environment and decided to switch her major to English and education in order to purse her lifelong passion for literature.
Since earning a master’s degree from Northwestern University, where she focused her studies on Shakespeare, Smith, 33, has striven to share her passion for reading and writing by teaching. In the last seven years, she has taught middle and high school English and Latin in Missouri, Chicago and, most recently, New York City at Columbia Secondary.
Her enthusiasm for the subjects is “infectious,” said Candy Gulko, a parent. In Gulko’s letter nominating Smith for the Blackboard Award, she wrote, “All students—from the struggling to the most advanced—are mesmerized from the beginning to the end of each class.”
Using a curriculum she designed herself when she first started teaching at the school two years ago, Smith exposes her students to poetry, Beowulf, Shakespeare and modern fiction like Life of Pi. She uses the Socratic method to facilitate deep philosophical discussions inspired by what the students are reading.
“I want kids to be asking bigger questions about life and to do it in a very serious way, something that’s grounded in the text,” Smith said.
Smith’s classes are so engaging, another nominating parent wrote, “One wants to sit in the back and learn with the students. She is clearly well-educated in many areas; truly an intellect, yet easy to talk to.”
Parents laud Smith’s ability to infuse performance into her lessons. She has students sing poetic verses and act out passages of novels and plays. Recently, she directed a “Bollywood/New Orleans” version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which over 30 students were involved over the course of several months.
Smith said she will do anything she can to get students to better understand and remember the texts they are reading.
“I want our kids to feel like they have a leg up in the world because they’re ready to read and write and express themselves, and in an eloquent manner,” she said.
Preparing them to do so, however, Smith said, takes time.
Smith said she typically arrives at school around 6:30 a.m. and leaves no earlier than 8 p.m. She is constantly meeting with students and parents before and after class and leading after-school programs like Latin Club and a student chapter of Amnesty International, said another parent who nominated Smith for the Blackboard Award.
Smith, who declined to be photographed for this article, said she would not have it any other way. They are long days, she said, but they are a “labor of love.”
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