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Thank You. Thank you to all the teachers across North Carolina for working tirelessly for your students. Thank you for the late nights creating imaginative lesson plans, creating a safe world within your classroom, providing students with the tools they need for the unexpected journey, and encouraging them to go to “The Lands Beyond.” Thank you for sparking passion.

The teachers I remember the most, the ones who had the most impact on my life and my life decisions, were those that sparked passion. They brought out something in me that I wasn’t aware existed before and I was then forever changed. One of those teachers was Nancy Grier.

Nancy Richmond, 6th grade

It has been a long time since I was in the sixth grade – before the internet, before laptops and smartphones, before calculators in the classroom –  but the feelings and impressions from that 6th grade year are still very vivid in my mind.

I had always been a good student, made good grades, behaved in class, and mostly did what was expected, but school was school – nothing was particularly exciting. I was just “moving through.” My 6th grade teacher at George Watts Elementary School, Nancy Grier, changed all that and sparked a passion in me for problem solving and a life-long love of learning.

Mrs. Grier did not do traditional lessons. There were no rote spelling tests. No mimeograph sheets of math problems. Instead, she created a what might now be considered a Live Action Role Play (LARP) based on The Phantom Tollbooth.

Mrs. Grier was ahead of her time.

At the start of the school year, the class read the book The Phantom Tollbooth. The main character, Milo, is a child who is bored with EVERYTHING. Nothing sparks his interest. He just moves through his day from one thing to the next.

One day a box appears in his room with a note that says “FOR MILO, WHO HAS PLENTY OF TIME.” Included in the box are instructions for setting up a tollbooth, a map of The Lands Beyond, a book of rules and regulations, and assorted coins for paying tolls. Since he has nothing better to do, Milo decides he might as well construct the tollbooth and play the game. After putting everything together, Milo opens the map and reads the signs:

SLOW DOWN APPROACHING THE TOLLBOOTH

PLEASE HAVE YOUR FARE READY

HAVE YOUR DESTINATION IN MIND

Without much thought, Milo closes his eyes, puts his finger on the map, picks “Dictionopolis” as his destination, and places his little electric car on the map. He is immediately transported to a strange land. He begins his journey with Expectations on the Road to Wisdom to Dictionopolis (the land of words). There, he learns that the Kingdom of Wisdom is ruled by two brothers, one the king of letters (in Dictionopolis) and the other, the king of numbers (in Digitopolis). The kings have two sisters, Rhyme and Reason, who once settled all the disputes in the kingdom, but were now banished to the Castle in the Air for decreeing that letters and numbers were equal in importance. Milo, along with Tock, (a talking dog with an alarm clock on each side, aka a “watchdog”) and a Humbug as a guide, set off on a quest to bring Rhyme and Reason back to the Kingdom of Wisdom.

Ms. Grier turned our classroom into the Milo’s world, complete with characters, obstacles, and rewards. We “traveled” to Dictionopolis where we held our own Word Market, creating physical word stands out of boxes and developing a word inventory from the dictionary.  On Market Day, we bought and sold words. To “sell” a word, you had to be able to spell it, state the meaning, and prove that you had used it multiple times in conversation with others. The more difficult the word, the higher the price. You took the proceeds and bought more words, gaining “rewards” as the word difficulty increased.

We visited Digitopolis (math), escaped demons from the Mountains of Ignorance (time wasting, boredom, confusion), and brought Rhyme and Reason back to Wisdom (debate and discussion).  Along the way we encountered obstacles and had to solve problems. For me, this was the best part. I loved figuring out how to overcome the “obstacles.” It could have been a logic problem, a history question requiring research – I don’t remember the exact problems, only that I wanted to solve them. And, not just for purposes of a “game,” but for the challenge of solving the problem and learning something new.

I can only imagine the hours it took Mrs. Grier to conceive the Kingdom of Wisdom, to integrate all the lessons into activities, to turn the subject matter into something more, to spark passion. Mrs. Grier did that for me – sparked a passion for problem-solving and a love of learning that continues today.

Mrs. Grier, wherever you are, thank you. I thank you for all the students you have “sparked” because I know I’m not the only one.

Editor’s note: This column is part of our Teacher Appreciation Week Series. To participate in Teacher Appreciation Week, share a photo of you and your favorite teacher on Twitter with the hashtag #ThankATeacher.

Nancy Rose

Nancy Richmond Rose was the chief operating officer and director of First Vote NC at EducationNC and the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.