Motivated Literacy: Mrs. O’Donnell’s Magic Pencils

Greetings from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte! For this month’s post, I’d like to write about a memory of magic pencils and a Latin classroom. It goes like this:

In the 1980s in high schools across the state of Virginia, high school students had the option of taking, along with Spanish and French, Latin — for a  minimum of two years — to fulfill the foreign language degree requirement. My brother did. My sister did. So I did, for four years. The last two culminated in our reading of Virgil’s Aeneid and Catullus’ and Horace’s lyric poetry.

I wasn’t alone. Across the state, there was a renaissance of high school Latin studies, in part driven by our high school teacher, who was awarded an honorary doctorate from Yale University and a Fulbright to Rome, Italy. She died at 58, and the entire school turned out to say goodbye at her funeral — even the ones who never took Latin.

It wasn’t so much the Latin we loved. We didn’t actually. It was complicated and hard — even if the Greek and Roman mythology that came along with it was very cool. What made Latin motivating was the sense of community that Mrs. O’Donnell created.

Her classroom was a stand-alone trailer behind the gym — to accommodate the high school’s exponential growth. We’d stop by the “Latin hut” in between rotations and at lunch time and after school to see our teacher and friends. Once a year, to fundraise, we took orders for Krispy Kreme doughnuts. They would arrive by the truck full — boxes of dozens in the morning. You could smell the fried sugar dough from far away.

Among other things, Mrs. O’Donnell had a box of “magic pencils” in her desk. Every once in a while, when someone would get a “passive periphrastic” just right or successfully distinguish a genitive case from a dative case, Mrs. O’Donnell would suddenly stop the class and reward that individual with a magic pencil. These were red inscribed with a Latin dictum in gold letters. She would congratulate us and tell us that with the same pencil, we would continue to succeed in the course and that the magic pencil would help us through our whole lives.

So all this is to say that what we read in K–12 classrooms might sometimes seem boring or distant — and sometimes it is just that. It’s also part of teaching to make it come to life, to motivate students to read an ancient text, and to make that antiquated language from a time long past somehow relevant to the complex and layered lives we lead. It helps when that motivation is grounded in community — in a Latin hut where  learning and reading are valued and validated by magic pencils or whatever magic the teacher can offer her students.

Here are some questions to think about:

  • Who was a classroom teacher who made a difficult subject or text accessible and exciting?
  • What sort of magic did that teacher bring to reading?
  • How do those memories continue to motivate you as a teacher and a learner?

About Spencer Salas

Spencer Salas
Spencer Salas, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Middle, Secondary, and K–12 Education at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he leads the PhD in Curriculum and Instruction Urban Literacies/TESL subconcentration. An award-winning District of Columbia Public School ESL teacher (1994–2001), he has been a Fulbright Fellow to Romania (1998), Guatemala (2007), and South Africa (2013); and, a frequent U.S. Department of State English Language Specialist (2003–present). His scholarship focuses on Black and Brown teachers’ lives and the potential of humanizing dignity and care as K–16 best practice.
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5 Responses to
Motivated Literacy: Mrs. O’Donnell’s Magic Pencils

  1. It is a great motivational story, thank you for sharing! The magic works once the teachers believe in it and start cultivating humanity, kindness and magic among the students. We are the reflection of our beliefs!

  2. It is a great motivational story and a very heart-touching one! I believe your story shows deep dimensions of teaching such as cultivating humanity, kindness and magic among the students. Magic works in teaching if teachers believe in them and teach students to be magicians in a real life. We are the reflection of our beliefs. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Janice Cate says:

    This brought make memories of my high school Latin teacher. I took Latin because my favorite aunt recommended it. After two years I switched to Spanish. Learning both languages helped me understand how languages work. I know this wasn’t the main focus of your post. I hope I was the special teacher your Latin teacher was.

  4. Bryan Salas says:

    carpe diem!

  5. Better to include Sanskrit rather than Latin. For obvious reason.

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