Raphael, a fixture in kindergarden classes, to leave VUES
VERGENNES — It took a journey to two continents for longtime Vergennes Union Elementary School reading specialist and kindergarten teacher Diana Raphael to discover her passion was education.
Raphael, then 21 and just out of Pine Manor College near Boston, traveled to Europe in 1971 for half a year, and from there to Morocco for three months. There she found herself in a village for an extended stay.
“I spent a lot of time with the children in the village I was living in, and I thought, this is what I want to do. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was in college,” said Raphael, 65, a native of Weston, Conn. “So I came back and started working in preschools and daycare centers and early childhood programs.”
That started a lifetime of work with children between the ages of 5 and 7, a career often focused on reading and writing.
“I love early literacy. I love teaching kids to read. I love the connection with the kids,” said Raphael, who will soon retire from a career that includes 28 years at VUES and before that four years at the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union. “I just love kids this age.”
After that journey abroad, Raphael returned to Boston to be with fiancé David Raphael, who also attended college near Boston, and began working in a daycare center.
Two weeks after he graduated, they married, and they were hired to run the Hampshire Children’s Coop, a daycare center for Hampshire College further west in Massachusetts. Next, they helped found the Valley Play School in Shelburne Falls.
Then David went to graduate school at Harvard, and she became the director of Lemberg Children’s Center at Brandeis University. The couple eventually moved back to western Massachusetts, and traveled to the Basin Harbor Club for a family wedding.
“I’ll never forget driving down Route 7 into New Haven and thinking, ‘This is it,’” Raphael said. “We moved up the next year.”
OFF AND RUNNING
They bought land in Panton, first living in a tent and then building and gradually expanding a home. David, a landscape architect, eventually founded Landworks, now based in Middlebury. Diana parlayed her childcare background into her work for the Addison Northeast district, starting as an assistant for its Title I home preschool and kindergarten program — only two of the ANeSU elementary schools then offered kindergarten.
“I lugged materials around to homes. I left things with kids, did activities, met with the parents,” Raphael said.
After four years, Raphael had earned her certification to teach at the K-3 level. But federal funding dried up, and she was laid off. For four years, she volunteered at the Ferrisburgh preschool her three children attended and worked as a weaver.
Then, 28 years ago, VUES decided it was time to add kindergarten. The committee formed to get kindergarten off the ground liked what Raphael had to offer, she recalled, even if at first not all the parents understood her approach.
“They hired me because I believed play is the work of children,” Raphael said. “I had a very play-based curriculum. And I had a lot of parents who said, ‘Where are the worksheets? And the kids don’t have desks. What’s this blocks thing?’ So it was an uphill battle for a little while.”
Over time, her kindergarten philosophy gained acceptance.
“Kids aren’t ready for the analytical. They’re very concrete learners. So they can learn about units of measure through blocks, these two blocks make this block. They’re much more hands-on,” Raphael said.
Even though she became a reading specialist after her kindergarten years, she remains skeptical of what she calls the “push-down” of first-grade curriculum into kindergarten.
“There’s no research that shows that a child who learns to read early is any better off than a child who learns to read a little bit later,” Raphael said. “There’s a very brief window in our life where we don’t see the world through print, and by pushing kids to read in kindergarten we’re taking that away from them.”
Rather, she said, kindergarten learning should include, “How to get along with others. How to follow routines. I think oral language is huge, how to ask and answer questions, how to wonder. Listening to lots of stories.”
After nine years, VUES agreed to have Raphael work with students who needed extra reading help. She held what she called a demanding and rewarding position for 10 years.
After that, she became a roving literacy specialist, working with teachers in different classrooms from kindergarten through second grade as needed, sometimes with groups of “high flyers,” sometimes with groups of struggling readers.
Along the way she picked up two master’s degrees, one in teachers leadership, and the other in education. Raphael serves on the Addison Northwest Supervisory Union professional development committee, and is the chairwoman of the ANwSU writing committee.
That committee has been responsible for writing a K-6 “writing framework” that she said outlines what “the components of writing in the classroom need to be” and required content areas, such as reports and the Common Core’s new “opinion piece” requirement. She plans to consult with that committee after retiring.
Always, helping children make progress kept making her days along the way.
“Struggling readers work harder than any kids that I know,” Raphael said, reaching for a tissue. “Eventually it will come to them. You just see this light bulb go off. They just get this smile on their face. And I’ll say, ‘You didn’t think you could do it, did you?’ And just their whole face lights up. And that’s very rewarding for me. I’m getting verklempt.”
LOOKING BACK, AND AHEAD
Raphael said research and data have improved teaching over her years in education.
“We’re learning to observe our kids a little better, to really know what those next teaching steps are going to be using data,” Raphael said. “When I first started to teach I really saw it as an art. I was attracted to teaching kindergarten and teaching preschool because I could bring my art into that. Then I learned that teaching is also a science. Collecting data and looking at the data, that’s what reading recovery was really all about.”
That information, combined with intuition and hard work, adds up to good teaching, she said.
“Listening to a child read and they make a mistake or several mistakes, what’s that powerful teaching point that I’m going to move them ahead with? It’s really getting down in there. And I think teachers are doing that in the classroom more,” Raphael said. “But I just don’t want to lose the art. There needs to be a balance. They both need to be there. They need to hold hands, the art and the science of teaching.”
And teachers should be helping children to think, she added.
“We have to teach them how to ask questions. We have to teach them how to have a difference of opinion and be willing to change their opinion. That’s the most amazing thing about the Common Core. The Common Core, the whole thing about opinion writing is really graduating kids who are willing to listen to another point of view and possibly be willing to change their point of view based upon what they’ve heard,” she said.
“If we really could teach kids how to do that, I think it would change society. I think it’s exciting. I think there are exciting things going on in education right now.”
But there are also exciting things going on in her life, including the opportunity to teach part-time at Castleton State College, spend more time in her garden, and see her three children and five grandchildren.
Still, leaving VUES and the district that supported her while she obtained her master’s degrees will be bittersweet, she said.
“I’m going to miss my colleagues. All of my kids went here, and now one of my grandchildren is here. David built one of the original kindergarten playgrounds, and his students build boardwalks and bridges in the outdoor classroom. And he designed the parking lot,” Raphael said. “So it’s been a family affair. So I’m really grateful.”
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