Teaching in Rural America: Georgia Holt Inspires Students to Dream Big

HAEd recently received a request for a donation of a Harvard pennant from Georgia Holt, a fifth grade teacher in Georgia. We were happy to accommodate her request, and she kindly shared this story:

I teach school at Hamilton Crossing Elementary in a rural county in Georgia, outside of Atlanta. I teach fifth grade reading. Part of my classroom structure allows for “Book Club” time. A period of time where students pick novels of their choice, respond to them, and discuss different book topics with their classmates. Book Club groups are organized by names of colleges.

 Georgia's fifth grade class.

Georgia's fifth grade class.

The first day I introduced this activity to my fifth graders, I was shocked that my introduction to our class book clubs turned into an introduction about the names of our groups! My students had no idea that the titles I had chosen were names of Universities.  The colleges I highlighted were: Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Cornell, and Columbia. I used these specific colleges on purpose. I wanted my students to aim high. I wanted them to become familiar of the idea of associating themselves with a names like Harvard. That this could be their reality. Then maybe these universities would not seem as foreign or unreachable to my students!

After a somewhat lengthy discussion on these particular colleges, the discussion quickly turned into why would anyone go to college? WHAT!!!  Seeing this as a “teachable moment”, I scrapped my lesson plans, and felt compelled to continue this discussion. After all, in fifth grade the majority of my class had already decided that they were NOT going to college.

When I was in fifth grade I was going to be a lawyer and I was going to Harvard! Obviously my life changed direction but I was thinking about my future! So I asked them, “why don’t you want to go to college”? Their responses were:  What was the point? College cost too much money? I am not smart enough! My parents said college is for smart, rich people. Or my personal favorite, the only reason to go to college is to play sports!  I realized at that moment, these students needed someone to believe in them and to show them that they CAN go to college despite their uncontrollable circumstances. They are smart enough. They are good enough!  I wanted them to understand that with hard work and the right attitude, anything is possible! PERIOD! That is when I decided I needed to expose these students to colleges around the country, just to get them thinking about the possibility of their future.  

So I started emailing! I brainstormed every college I could think of across the United States. The Ivy Leagues, the state schools, and even the small liberal colleges! I could have just emailed schools in Georgia, but I wanted to expose them the idea that they can travel to go to school too. They can stay here in GA or they can go far away, the point is that it is THEIR CHOICE. Every pennant I hang up in my room starts a discussion. Whether it is about the awesome basketball team that school has, or where a particular school is located? That is what I wanted, exposure!

 Pennants hanging in Georgia's classroom.

Pennants hanging in Georgia's classroom.

I know that my students are only 10-11 years old and many of them may not go to Harvard or Yale, but some of them might! All of them can try and all of them can dream. I have taught in rural America for the duration of my teaching tenure. In Montana and now in Georgia and one thing I do know is that we often overlook our rural communities and students. We focus on inner city poverty, but poverty is also rural and rural communities are often without the resources they need.

Without resources it is difficult to reach the students who need us the most. If I can help one of my students see their value to society, if I can help them dream and see a promising future, then I have accomplished what I set out to do! I am overwhelmed by the generosity that many colleges and universities have shown me in the past few months! I will continue to hang pennants for as long as they keep coming in the mail!