Linda Vasu, a 7th grade humanities teacher at the School at Columbia University, offers a simple reason when asked why she pursued teaching.
“I love learning,” said the Wellesley College graduate.
Teaching kids who are just beginning to emerge as individuals fits perfectly into the Socratic approach that Vasu favors. Joined by her class every day at a rectangular, 15-foot table that seats 15, she thinks its size and stature engenders a better connection than rounding up school desks in a circle.
“You’re at this table and it’s about respect,” she said.
She views her approach to teaching as a form of inquiry that asks big, open-ended questions about literature.
“Reading, interpreting and writing about literature helps us make meaning of our own lives,” she said.
Vasu, who grew up in New York City, has been teaching for 24 years. She spent time as the English department chair at the Greenwich Academy in Connecticut and as executive director of an academic enrichment program called REACH Prep.
“We all had teachers like her who capture our heart,” said parent Dina Balderes.
Prior to the 7th grade, Balderes’ daughter, Olivia, considered herself more a math and science person who really struggled with writing assignments, according to her mother. That changed as Vasu helped the student understand how the written word can forge an identity.
“She encouraged her to find her voice through writing,” the mother said.
Olivia now devours her reading assignments and even looks forward to the constructive criticism coming back from Vasu, Balderes added.
“Once Olivia started to feel confident in her written voice, she naturally began to feel confident to speak her mind around the table,” Balderes said.
The mother was proud to observe this for herself at a literacy night, when students and parents gathered to discuss a large, open-ended question inspired by a New York Times opinion piece.
But as much as students enjoy Vasu’s teaching, her class is still a lot of hard work.
“She’s a tough cookie,” Balderes said. “She has a very high standard, and she expects a lot from them.”
Part of the way she helps students meet that standard is by having them read good writing to inspire their own prose. Students particularly enjoyed a unit built around Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. Usually a sophomore-level read, the 7th graders learned about Nigeria and studied the kinship of the Igbo tribe. Student projects for the unit included a movie trailer, a mock Jerry Springer-type forum to explore the main character and a hip-hop show.
“The creative stuff helps to keep it going,” Vasu said, “and it keeps me cool.”
“Su,” as many of her students call her, will be the first to admit that it’s not easy keeping middle school kids on course. But treating them as young adults helps.
“Kids appreciate that I’m honest with them,” she said.
— Rich Monetti