Amy Kehew takes her class through a series of vocabulary words. The Liberty Elementary School third graders listen carefully as she asks them what "agent" means.
Like a spy, one boys says. Yes, but also like a sports agent.
What about another definition, related to a story the children read recently? Kehew calls one student "Mr. Chemist" when he hits the right track.
Yeast – "It's an agent in the dough," Kehew says.
She tells them to break into groups of two or three and gives them 10 minutes to fashion sentences that incorporate the vocabulary and a list of categories – preparation, nutrition, traditions and flavors – into a question about how different cultures contribute to the foods we eat.
They quickly form their own teams and scurry around looking for places to brainstorm. Above them hang colorful letters spelling out the students' names, and strips of paper with more vocabulary, terms like "thrift shop," "convince" and "inspire." Three boys head up wooden steps to the classroom's reading loft. The class, mainly nine-year-olds, chatters with excitement.
"You have a mission, you need to stop talking and get busy," Kehew says. "Make sure your sentences have to do with the question."
Two girls sit at a table and start and stop sentences.
"The braided bread had nice flavor." "The ingredients had good nutrition." "My belly was grumbling but in a good way."
After 46 years teaching at Liberty School, Kehew has a well-honed system for instruction – lately she has been organizing her subject plans to pass them off to colleagues upon her retirement this summer – yet through the decades she has also maintained room for imagination.
"Third grade is the best kept secret," Kehew said in a recent interview. "It's wonderful. It's the perfect age: independent but enthusiastic. They are fresh and wholesome."
During Kehew's more than four decades of service, she has been recognized as an outstanding Norfolk County teacher, received a state award in excellence in social studies teaching, and has helped organize a career fair and annual third grade musical.
She will be honored with a retirement reception on Thursday, May 16 from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Liberty. All former co-workers and students are invited.
Aside from her first year at the school, when she taught second grade, Kehew has stuck with third, and has seen significant changes over those 46 years.
When Kehew was nearing graduation from a college outside Pittsburgh, she traveled to Boston with two fellow students looking for work. During a semester break, they stayed at a house in Back Bay and went on interviews for a week.
She sent out 25 letters, and also interviewed with Wilmington, Marblehead and Lexington, but Braintree was her first offer. For a while, she lived on Chestnut Hill with her friends and drove the reverse commute to Braintree. Eventually, she settled in Quincy, where she has lived for 30 years.
There were no computers in the school when Kehew began, and the curriculum was also much different. Today standardized testing means constant changes to what students need to focus on, and less time for cross-subject instruction.
"Sometimes we don't have enough time to sit back and enjoy what we're doing," Kehew said. "It's kind of a shame."
Advances in technology, however, have boosted efforts in the classroom, she said. Interactive websites, electronic projectors and newer computers allow students to learn more about the world more quickly and encourage real-time feedback.
Old-fashioned wood and nails can also go a long way. After learning about reading lofts in an academic paper in 1995, Kehew enlisted a friend who was a structural engineer and drew up the plans, and a parent builder, who put it together piece by piece in the classroom.
Teaching has been an "awe-inspiring" profession, Kehew said.
"First of all, I get to go to a job that I like," she said. "I get to do a job that I love and not everybody gets to do that."
Kehew is not sure what lies ahead. She will certainly do more gardening, and may end up in Denver, where her sister lives. They have plans to travel together as well, now that they will both be retired.
She said she is lucky to have found Liberty School, where teachers are encouraging rather than overly competitive.
"This school has always been a very welcoming place to work," Kehew said. "If I'm good at what I do it's because I've learned a lot from the people I work with."