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June 4, 2000 - National Teacher of the Year - 2002-02-06

INTRO: An English teacher stopped by to chat with our Wordmasters, Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble - - but not just any English teacher.


"My name is Dr. Marilyn Whirry and I teach Advanced Placement English, twelfth grade, at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, California, and I recently received the wonderful distinction and honor of being named National Teacher of the Year."

AA: America's fiftieth National Teacher of the Year, to be exact. It's an honor bestowed by national education groups and a children's publishing company.

RS: Marilyn Whirry will travel around the country for a year, teaching adults about the role of education in society.

AA: And part of that role, she says, is to nurture a passion for learning.


"I'm a very rigorous teacher, but I want to get my kids to love the learning of reading and writing. So I teach them techniques for reading books and I teach them how to write.

My students write about 35 essays in the course of a year, and I grade them."

RS: That's one three-page essay per week, based on reading about 20 novels during the school year.

AA: Marilyn Whirry has a doctorate in contemporary literature -- which happens to be the focus of twelfth-grade English classes at Mira Costa High School.


"We teach some classics in there, like 'Crime and Punishment' and 'Hamlet,' but a lot of our works are very contemporary. I teach Toni Morison's 'The Song of Solomon' and I teach 'Snow Falling on Cedars,' and I teach 'Their Eyes Were Watching God,' and I teach 'Cry the Beloved Country' and I teach works that pertain to today's society and the problems that exist in it. It's so wonderful for English teachers because we're able to open the door to the world."

RS: When she's not teaching children, Marilyn Whirry teaches teachers. And what she's found, she says, is that many new teachers today are not trained to run a classroom.


WHIRRY: "For many of them it means learning to do a lesson plan for the first time, when I feel they should have learned that long before. And you may have to teach them how to teach a novel. They don't know that you don't just tell kids to read every day, you have to do something every day. And then the teaching of writing is very, very difficult. It's a skill that needs a lot of development in young teachers - in all teachers."

AA: "Do you have a philosophy of what seems to work best for you in teaching writing?"

WHIRRY: "My philosophy is, writing takes writing, and you have to work with each child individually on that writing. There are basic things we teach. We teach that if you give a reason, you need evidence. If you give evidence, you need significance. And if you can teach kids those three areas, they begin getting it, their writing has some depth.

There's another way to do this, and that is through group work. You give them the same kind of problem in a group and demand the same kind of examples - here are your reasons, now where's your evidence, and then give the significance when you talk back to the class.

Then you're reinforcing what they're going to do in their writing."

RS: Her methods, she says, can apply just as well to students learning English as another language. One technique she described is to have students write to one another or to the teacher in a journal --


" ... where you pick a passage from the text - such as `our lives become meaningful by being meaningful to others' - and then you comment about that. What does that mean, how does that connect to other ideas in the text? What does it mean to you? What does it mean to other pieces of literature you've read? (The child works with the text until he/she)

understands that quotation. And that's a very important way for a beginning reader to operate. And it's also an important way to bring up reading comprehension."

RS: "And grammar and sentence structure."

WHIRRY: "Absolutely. All these things are essential. And as a child learns to write, what one does as a teacher is, take out what he needs. He needs work on syntax. Well, now you work with syntax and you do it this way.

You work with syntax in the writing and then you start pointing out the syntax of the books you're reading, so that it becomes one, and the student says `yes, I get it! If I want a style like this writer, I'd better use my syntax this way."

AA: English teacher Marilyn Whirry of California, America's new National Teacher of the Year.

RS: Next week it's time to check in again with Slangman David Burke. We hope you'll tune in! Until then let us hear from you. Our e-mail address is

AA: Or you can write to us at VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC, 20237 USA. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.

MUSIC: "No More Homework"/Gary U.S. Bonds