BARNESVILLE-Denise Adkins-Leach always knew she wanted to work with children. She had it narrowed down to teaching or child psychology, and, 19 years after making her decision at the University of Akron, the Barnesville Middle School 8th grade language arts teacher is satisfied.
"I still get to use my psychology training anyway," she says, smiling.
Adkins-Leach recalls what (or who) turned the tables for her and continues to influence her career. She watched Mr. Sam Shuman, her government teacher when she attended Barnesville High School, noticing how he interacted with his students and how he presented the material.
Denise Adkins-Leach, second from left, was chosen as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in September. Here she poses at a Convention event with Mike Dossie, left, a Bellaire teacher and OEA board member, State Senator Lou Gentile and Bill Leibensperger, vice president of the OEA.
"He was very caring to the kids and to everyone around him," Adkins-Leach adds. "He had a real love for the methods [of teaching] and could relate what he taught to situations later in life. That was so important."
As a language arts teacher, Adkins-Leach has to make sure students can read and comprehend language concepts and express themselves at a certain level, but tries to take it beyond everyday school work. An avid reader, she has taken on activities that promote language and reading: the spelling bee and "Read Across America."
Six years ago, Adkins-Leach began facilitating the Barnesville district spelling bee when a colleague who was the advisor became ill. She says that she doesn't coach as much as coordinate at the school level but does help the contestants with additional study time before or after school or with word usage and questions. What she sees them reaping from the program is better study skills and public speaking experience in a "safe environment"-abilities that will stick with them and perhaps give them an edge in another situation. She notes, too, that the area winners receive some nice prizes for their efforts, the grand prize being a trip to Washington, D.C. to compete in the National Spelling Bee.
Before bee season was over last spring Adkins-Leach was getting ready to launch another reading-related event, "Read Across America" day at Barnesville Middle School. "Reading is my passion," says Adkins-Leach, and she enlisted adults from different walks of life, including the mayor and people from state education organizations, to read award-winning children's books to the elementary school students. Readers were encouraged to talk about how they use reading as adults.
Meanwhile middle school students participated in their own themed activities, and in all more than 850 students took part, and 1,000 people overall. It was the largest "Read Across America" event in Ohio and appeared in education magazines and websites.
She adds, "It took months to organize, but we got really positive feedback. The kids were in the middle of testing, and this gave them a chance to just chill."
Adkins-Leach is an education advocate on several levels: reading, teaching, professional organizations and legislative. Some of her "extra-curricular" activities include work as an online coach for non-traditional students through The Ohio State University and re-writing that course curriculum to meet new common core requirements.
She also chairs the Ohio Education Association committee on professional efficacy, which addresses issues pertaining to teachers as professionals, for instance teacher evaluations and the push to privatize public schools.
Most recently, Adkins-Leach was chosen as an Ohio delegate to the Democratic National Convention. "I've always been involved, but I never dreamed I would get that opportunity," she recounts. "The energy was amazing, wonderful."
Days began at 7 a.m. and were full of meetings and trainings, then evening speakers at the Convention Hall until 11 p.m.
"Ohio does a great job at the convention. Because it's a swing state, we were up front for all of the evening speakers, right next to the media."
What was one of the most meaningful experiences from the DNC? Adkins-Leach chooses several that touched her personally: when President Obama walked out on stage with his family; Elizabeth Warren's speech ("She's all about women's rights and is in it for the right reasons;") when Gabby Giffords walked across the stage ("There wasn't a dry eye in the house. It was the one time during the Convention that everyone was completely quiet, very respectful.")
The other moment that affected her was Bill Clinton's speech. "I felt like he was speaking to me. He nailed all of the points that were important. We're careful about political views in the classroom," explains Adkins-Leach. "But we'll be able to use parts of it for compare/contrast." Part of the eighth grade curriculum covers persuasive speaking, and she plans to use the speech as an example-an opportunity to link her students with a real life experience.
"We're all trying to beef up for this huge transition. We're trying to find a balance between giving the kids things that they have to do and giving them things they want to do," she says of challenges she and other teachers face today. "The testing is going to be a real issue." The "transition" is a complete revamping of the Ohio common core requirements that is forcing school districts to bump up technology tools and re-do curricula and teaching methods under already stretched-to-the-limit budgets. Testing will be done online beginning in the 2013-14 school year, but the tests haven't been developed, so the curricula and methods are still up in the air.
Adkins-Leach tries to instill the importance of a strong GPA and the ability to fill out job applications correctly. "I want them to realize that what we're teaching has a point, and it's not just to make work for them," she says.
"I do worry about them. We teach things they have to know later. They don't always see the purpose right now. But I still love being with kids. I still love seeing the light bulb flick on."