Pa. Teacher of the Year finalist makes sure kids have a ball while they’re learning

Yoga balls have helped one Delaware County teacher become a finalist for this year’s Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year.

Pam Gregg, a language arts teacher at Springton Lake Middle School in Media, is among a dozen teachers up for the honors.

As class begins, Gregg’s students bounce on yoga balls as they wait for the team activity that will soon have them running around the room. The ball chairs and academic lessons that include physical activity help the students become less fidgety and more focused, Gregg said.

“I incorporate movement into the lessons because, you know, they’re middle school — they need to move,” she said. “They’ll be more engaged and take in more information when they can move.”

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And it’s fun, said eighth-grader Sarah Hughes.

“It’s really engaging, and we get to do a lot of activities,” she said. “It’s never boring, because we get to get up and do stuff and walk around.”

Gregg, who has rolled out the stability balls in her classroom for four years, gives students the option of a ball or chair. Brain theory research supports her approach.

“Adults can only sustain about 18 minutes of attention without having to change it up,” she said. “So you figure middle school, every 12 to 15 minutes, you have to change. Well, it’s a 46-minute class. How are you going to get that engagement sparked again in the middle of the class?”

Instead of giving students a handout, Gregg takes the information and places it around the room — a silent scavenger hunt — so students have to get up to solve any assignment.

Besides giving her students a chance to move around, Gregg developed a schoolwide curriculum this year for a literacy program. It teaches sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders how to read nonfiction texts, including “I Am Malala,” “Titanic: Voices from the Disaster” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” a book about where food comes from.

Eighth-grader Aurora Di Franco says Gregg knows how to work well with kids.

“Although other teachers help you with your work, I feel like she has her own way of doing it, in ways that kids can understand better,” she said.

‘A passion for teaching’

Gregg was nominated by the school’s faculty and staff, and principal Bob Salladino understands why. Describing Gregg as dedicated and energetic, he said she created the materials and lesson plans for the non-graded class — and for the companion social studies and science classes.

“This is clearly someone that enjoys what they’re doing, has a passion for teaching,” he said. “And you only need to have a quick conversation with Pam, and that comes out in everything she says and does.”

The non-graded aspect is important, he said, because it gives kids an opportunity to try out skills without pressure.

“I really want kids to embrace the value of this — and not like some other things that are part of a school culture — say it’s only important because I’m going to get a grade or going to be tested,” Salladino said. 

One of the school’s major initiatives was to hone students’ reading and writing skills, the principal said. He restructured the class schedule for teachers to have time to focus on that effort, creating a new period in the day for every student to take Gregg’s class.

Almost every teacher in the building is involved in the literacy effort, helping kids understand reading and writing aren’t “only 45 minutes out of the day,” but a part of everything.

“We need to model for them that it’s not just the language arts teacher who are the readers and writers,” he said.

Though the program is only in its first year, Salladino said he’s noticed a new sophistication in how students talk about their writing.

Another Delaware County finalist is Kimberly Riviere, a French teacher at Middletown’s Penncrest High School. Gregg and Riviere both teach in the Rose Tree Media School District.

Pennsylvania’s Teacher of the Year will be announced in December and become the state’s nominee for the National Teacher of the Year.

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