by Kristina Domitrovich // photos by Lindsay Pace
In Sherry Willis’ third-grade gifted classroom at Rankin Elementary, there are four things everyone should do to be a good citizen, as told by giraffes: 1. Be caring — the giraffe has a 25-pound heart, 2. Be compassionate — “you’ll never see one that picks a fight; he will fight to defend himself, but he’s caring because he takes care of all the animals on the savanna, he’s the lookout,” Willis says, 3. Take helpful action — like the giraffe protecting the savanna, and 4. Be persistent — the giraffe is very resilient and can run 35 miles an hour, and he won’t give up.
Willis has been teaching for 30 years, and she said every year when she prepares a unit, she learns something new each time. In her classroom with students who “see things differently,” she strives to incorporate multiple aspects of learning to make sure each student stays engaged and excited to learn. At the start of each school year, her students take an evaluation to help her gauge their talents.
“My job is to help them with their strengths and their weaknesses, and to improve on their weaknesses and to learn how to work with others, and how to appreciate their gifts that they have,” she said. “Every day when they come to me, I try to have things that they do that’s on all of those levels.”
For each unit, Willis usually incorporates presentations to make sure her students are equipped with public speaking skills. For each presenter, the classroom does “three stars and a wish.” Their speaker’s classmates will point out three things the student did well, and the speaker will chase the three stars with a wish — “‘I wish I would have done this differently,’ because that helps them realize there’s always room for self-improvement,” Willis said.
Willis has served on the Mississippi Association For Gifted Children for 10 years, and was the president in 2010. In addition, she is Rankin’s Arts Project Director, so Willis works to integrate a school-wide initiative with the Mississippi Arts Commission to bring art into each classroom. She also reaches out to Mississippi artists such as William Heard to come to the school to do art with the kids.
When covering a unit, like when her class learned about Egypt, she assigned her students projects like mummifications, costumes, creating a museum and decorating a tomb. The art projects are usually her favorite, and she says her students never fail to “blow my mind.”
“I don’t believe kids are born as a blank slate,” she said. “I really don’t, because in all my years of teaching, I’ve seen these kids come to the table with things that are already in them, and it’s a teacher’s job to be facilitators to bring that out. That’s my job, is to help to see their potential and to reach that potential.”