Making the Classroom the Real World
Going home for the summer after his freshman year at Covenant, Matt Jelley ’03 found himself relating to his family in a new way. “I was lording my newfound knowledge over my family,” he says. Over the next three years at Covenant that “intellectual elitism” turned to a desire to approach others with humility, and to make connections where might be none. The potential chasm between the classroom and the outside world has stayed with Matt, and effected how he conducts his own classroom at Dade County Middle School, where he teaches eighth grade English composition.
Matt believes much of teaching is done “for a trashcan. I teach it to you, you perform on a test or give an assignment, I grade it, and either I throw it away or I give it back to you and you throw it away. What we try to do is reorient our entire writing program around making meaningful connections to life outside the classroom.” That goal is the driving force behind a writing curriculum Matt and fellow teacher Tom Randolph have developed over the years, offering a new way to teach writing that has attracted attention well beyond Dade County.
On the last two annual state writing assessments, Dade County’s middle school has ranked number one in Georgia. “That’s an insane feat for these kids to accomplish,” says Matt. “Part of it is that we practice like crazy. My kids wrote twenty-two essays from August to January this year. Their writing is meaningful; it’s going out into the community, and it’s getting read.”
In addition to creating writing assignments that matter to the students, and even to people beyond the classroom, Matt grades the work on a system that eliminates much of the mystery of writing well. “This rubric we’ve developed takes a lot of the abstract out of writing. The switch is on or off; either you did something or you didn’t. We’ve got a clear system for going through an essay, allowing kids to evaluate their peers and say whether the switch is on or off, and I think that concrete nature has allowed them to thrive.”
As he continues to develop and to share this curriculum for teaching writing, Matt seeks the right balance of love and instruction, of discipline and relationship. “Teaching has bolstered the things I got from Covenant. Christ’s ministry was a great balance between being tough and being tender. That’s something I take into the classroom every day. I’m always seeking to find that balance, and I think I got a lot of that at Covenant, from watching my professors and interacting with my peers. God has really worked on giving me the approach of humility, and of understanding what it is to be poor in spirit.”