She’s still asking her question when the first hand shoots up. Within seconds, every student at the table has a hand in the air.
Sylvia Perry, 59, is used to this excitement from her students. She raises her eyebrows and nods to a girl in pink. The girl starts to reply, her voice a soft murmur. Then, questioning herself, she pauses.
Perry leans into the table, stretches her arm across it and gently pokes the girl’s forehead with a pencil. “I know you know this in that smart, pretty head of yours,” she says.
Speaking up this time, the girl says she lives with her parents and one sister, which is different from the many Pilgrims who formed larger families during the colonial period. Perry flashes a smile and tells her that’s a good answer.
The assignment this Monday morning is simple. The handful of students still in the classroom — those who haven’t been pulled for English as a Second Language tutoring or another related program — are instructed to read an original colonial text and look for ways the Pilgrims’ lives were like or unlike their own.
Perry, who’s been teaching for 38 years, says colonial lessons are always a favorite for the fifth-graders at Forest View Elementary School, a K-5 school south of Duke Forest on Mount Sinai Road. Many of them don’t know how the United States got started.
The student body is 36 percent Hispanic, 30 percent white, 21 percent black and 7 percent Asian, according to school statistics. Perry says her classroom last year represented 18 different countries.
“We are a very diverse school,” says Linda Foreman, an administrative specialist. “There is no racial or ethnic majority.”
By state standards, Forest View is an average school. In 2017-18, it met growth status and received a “C” for school performance. But the grades don’t tell the full story. The school is a melting pot of cultures with a distinctly large refugee population. It’s a unique spot with a young teaching staff.
Perry, who came out of retirement to join the staff six years ago, is the elder of the group — the veteran social studies teacher who has seen it all.
Perry speaks in a gentle tone and a southern accent that gives away her Memphis, Tennessee, upbringing. She’s petite, with glasses and blonde hair cut just short of her shoulders, but even the tallest children in her classroom seem to look up to her.
There’s 42 of them in total — two groups of 21 — and Perry says she knows them well by now. On a board on the wall, there’s a class contract she’s had her students create every year. It says teachers and students are expected to treat each other maturely, lovingly and patiently.
Perry was born into education, her mother an American history teacher and her father a professor of philosophy, but she found her own way into the profession when a college work study placed her in a teaching role for the first time.
By the time she arrived in Durham, she had earned a degree in special education and a masters in elementary education and spent 32 years teaching the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and eighth grades in Tennessee. “I’ve taught in almost every concept,” she says.
Over the years, she has learned what works in the classroom. As her students return to her room after lunch, she greets each of them with a fist-bump-turned-peace-sign, a years-old move she calls the “Perry pound.” Even some of her first students, who have stayed in touch through Facebook, have told her they remember this move.
For the most part, she sticks to the basics. “My whole thing is kind,” she says. “I tell [my students] when they show up everyday that it’s a great day to be kind.”
She doesn’t fight the small battles, either. When students forget to return a pencil, she doesn’t mind. When a child gets upset with her, she connects that child to a counselor so he or she can air frustrations in private. But even that doesn’t happen often, she says.
“As long as you don’t lie to me and as long as you’re not mean-spirited, we’re going to get along fine,” she says.
Since coming to Forest View, Perry has taught exclusively fifth-graders. “This is kind of the year of organization before they go off and switch classes,” she says. Middle school is a big leap for some children, so she focuses on building good reading and working habits.
At one point during an individual reading assignment, a small boy in a thick Navy sweatshirt and jean shorts looks up from his reading. His hands tucked into his sleeves and his body slouched, he is evidently distracted.
Perry leans over his shoulder, her hands crossed behind her back. “I think a good strategy would be to go chapter by chapter and try to take two minutes for each one,” she says.
Later, another student raises his hand. “Do I have to read this part?” he asks, pointing to a line in his book.
“Yes, you always want to read the captions because that’s an important text feature.”
Perry worries that reading is becoming “a dying art,” so she reads out loud to her students at least once each day. In a typical year, her curriculum covers American history from the colonial period through the Civil Rights movement.
“I always do a huge Civil Rights unit,” she says.
Perry can remember exactly where she was in Memphis when, as a fifth-grader, she learned that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated.
“Civil rights was always a part of my life,” she says. “My father was one of the people who headed up the Sanitation Strike in Memphis. There were people in our basement making signs, and our house got egged all the time.”
That historical footing is important, she says, because so many of her students, including many African-American children, are getting their first exposure to American history from her.
“So many kids who, if they don’t have that heritage, or if the heritage is painful and they don’t talk about it — it amazes me how little is known about that struggle, when for people like me, that’s a huge part of my life,” she says. “I think sometimes they don’t realize their strong heritage and what was overcome, and the fact that it really wasn’t that long ago.”
“If they don’t know their history, it might repeat, and I don’t want that because I tend to believe that each generation should make it better.”
Perry doesn’t soften the horrors of slavery, either. Every year, she assigns readings from slave diaries and takes her students to the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro. “I learned the whitewashed history,” she says, but her students get the full picture.
“Now we study the American revolution, but we read a book that talks about how the Patriots weren’t so nice to their Tory neighbors,” she says. “‘Nothing is all good and all bad,’ I tell them. Nobody is all right or all wrong, and there all some sadder things about our country.”
Sometimes, this history is hard to make sense of, especially for her refugee students who are still new to the country. But she tries to learn about their home cultures too so she can compare and contrast. The fact that some students may struggle is no reason to lower the bar, she says.
“I hold the bar high even for the kids that come from disadvantaged backgrounds,” she says. “When we lower the bar, what we’re telling them is, ‘You can’t get there.’ I always tell them that I’ll scaffold, I’ll build, I’ll put in supports and we’ll get you there, but we won’t lower the bar.”
Others at Forest View have taken a liking to Perry’s progressive lesson plans and age-old tactics. Administrators don’t shy away from giving her tough assignments. “She’s a veteran who can roll with the punches,” says Forest View Principal Neil Clay.
“The diversity of this building is a unique experience for almost everyone, and of course what she brings … is experience,” adds Foreman, the school’s administrative specialist. “She’s just seen so much and been through so much. She’s a really good role model for younger teachers.”
Perry knows this. She says it’s part of what made her jump back into education in the first place.
“I’m kind of like a mother to the teachers,” she says. “I really kind of want to use all my expertise now, because I see so many young teachers who seem overwhelmed when they come in.”
“Clearly I could retire, and I don’t, because I like it.”