December 7, 2016

What’s Gonna Work? The Answer Is Teamwork for JWMS Social Studies Duo

EGYPTIAN EXPLORATIONS: Justin Mathews and Connie Escher team up to investigate the pharaohs of ancient Egypt and many other wonders of the ancient world with their sixth grade social studies students at John Witherspoon Middle School. (Photo by Donald Gilpin)

Tim Charleston, K-8 social studies supervisor for the Princeton Public Schools, described Connie Escher and Justin Mathews, sixth grade ancient world cultures teachers: “As a team they complement each other phenomenally. They both have significant individual strengths. They’re at the top of their game professionally. They take pride and pleasure in providing learning experiences for their students. They approach social studies in a hands-on way, and they care deeply about their students and about history.”

Ms. Escher and Mr. Mathews were right at the front door of John Witherspoon Middle School, waiting for me, early for our interview. They had a lot to tell me, and didn’t want me to miss any of it. “We knew you’d be excited to hear,” Ms. Escher said. She was right.

As they led me to their classrooms, they continued non-stop — sometimes interrupting each other, sometimes finishing each other’s sentences, sometimes both speaking at once, sometimes digressing to pursue interesting related topics, but always articulate, intelligent, fascinating, so well informed, and informative.

Ms. Escher and Mr. Mathews make a formidable team, and every minute in their company confirmed their supervisor’s assessment of those often intangible qualities that identify great teachers.

“The textbook does not define our course,” Mr. Mathews said. “We use current archeology. We give children an experience that’s worth talking about. That’s what makes our work together truly meaningful.”

Both teachers repeatedly emphasized the importance of teamwork. “You get this multi-level experience,” Mr. Mathews pointed out, “half the period with me, half the period with Ms. Escher.”

“One and one is more than two,” Ms. Escher said. “It’s like five.”

She went on to discuss some of her priorities in teaching her five sections, about 110 students. (Mr. Mathews also teaches five 20-25-student classes of sixth graders each day.) “It’s not just one aspect of history,” she said. “We emphasize the skill of writing certain kinds of essays where students read a primary source, take quotations from that source and use them in their essays. They work through the processes of reading, writing, drawing, and thinking. We’re teaching this ethos of research, where they understand the material. We’re teaching them the history of medicine, the history of art, the history of how people thought.”


Describing his hope of fostering a love of history in his students, Mr. Mathews explained, ”It’s one of those things where it’s our goal that at the end of the period you should want to come back tomorrow. That’s something that Connie and I are effective in doing. Kids say to me, ‘you’re going to let us go without telling us the end?’ so they want to come back tomorrow. That’s what makes social studies in sixth grade magic.”

“It really is magic,” Ms. Escher said. “We’ve never lost our passion. We reinforce each other. We love it.”

Mr. Mathews described the unique qualities of sixth grade students and “why I can’t picture myself anywhere else than middle school.” He reflected, ”What makes 6th grade special is that the children still have the desire for exploration combined with the subtle maturity elements that you see in middle school. So we really get the best of both worlds. They have the willingness to explore still and the readiness to think about issues on a higher level. Later, as they get older that desire for exploration fades. The pressures increase. High school becomes more about getting the work done by a certain date.”

“We’re plowing virgin fields,” Ms. Escher stated, “especially in the art of teaching writing, because at the end of this exploratory lesson, called the history mystery, they are going to be writing something. They’ve done the research. They’ve done the reading. They’ll be the experts, writing something brand new as expert historians on this history mystery. This is the place where a lot of kids learn to write.”

Opening Students’ Eyes

Reflecting on the long-term effects of their work in the classroom, Ms. Escher recounted, “Parents stop us on the street or in the supermarket and they say, ‘thank you for teaching my children how to write and how to think. It has stood them in good stead in college and beyond.’ This is the start of very serious academic work for them in many many cases. By the time they leave our hands, they have the tools of inquiry, of writing, of visualizing, the kinds of tools that historians use.

“Once you open that door of learning, open students’ eyes, scales fall off the eyes. They’re seeing. They’re understanding. They’re in charge of their own learning to a great extent. Then you’re not worried about those other concerns because you’ve empowered students in a way that is very exciting, and it lasts.”

Mr. Mathews chimed in to point out, “We foster curiosity, a want to know more, a want to learn about the world around them. And hopefully that goes into their adult lives.”

He went on to recall some of his favorite moments when students came back to say hello. “It is their way of saying, ’Look, I made it!’ Many years ago I had a student who struggled to find success in school and was often in trouble. I must have made an impact on him because last year he came back wearing his full marine uniform. I was so surprised and impressed. His picture now hangs proudly in my classroom.”

Team Matters

Ms. Escher, who has been teaching for 25 years, and Mr. Mathews, who is in his 11th year of teaching, have worked together as the ancient world cultures team for more than 10 years.

“The reason I was successful was that Connie was ready to accept and nurture me as a teacher when I was new,” Mr. Mathews said. “I was 22 years old. She was my mentor, and now she’s a friend that I love. We started off as partners and it’s grown into a life-long friendship.”

Ms. Escher echoed, “Life-long friendship. We inform each other, and we’re always updating each other, adding different parts to what we’re doing.”

Mr. Mathews concluded, “What we do together embodies the whole district goal of partnership. You are a life-long learner. It’s live to learn and learn to live. It’s the life-long love of learning that sets you up for success on every level.”