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Quite a character
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Marjorie Morgan attended the University of Georgia intending to study veterinary medicine.

"That's until I realized you had to like science and math a lot to do that," Morgan said, "and I realized I love a good book more."

A self-described book-worm, Morgan then anticipated teaching high school English. However, the job market in the area she wanted to work at the time of her graduation called for middle school English teachers.

She learned to love middle school students, because of their intermediacy between childhood and adulthood and because they are just starting to think about their place in the world.

Morgan remembers how her sixth grade math teacher separated the classroom into what she deemed high-achieving and low-achieving students. The teacher taught to whom she thought were the intelligent students while the others completed worksheets with no feedback or assistance.

She was on the worksheet side of the room.

"To this day, I feel incompetent in math," Morgan said. "I can balance my checkbook, but I know that teacher is why I'm not confident in that area."

So, Morgan set out to help all children learn, rather than segregate the A students from the C students just to make her job easier.

A large part of the eighth grade English curriculum focuses on writing because students take a grade-level writing assessment and must pass the state-administered Criterion Referenced Competency Tests in reading and math to advance to high school.

She said it is sometimes difficult to decide whether she should move on further into the curriculum to cover more or should wait until all her students master a concept.

Morgan often gives her students prompts to write short essays about and then gives them a checklist to examine their own writings to make sure they includes things such as a topic sentence and a concluding paragraph.

"It makes them constantly think about the process of writing," Morgan said.

She said sometimes it is hard for students to understand that their work can always be improved.

Students in Morgan's class also participate in daily grammar drills from a book called "The Bizarre Mystery of Horribly, Hard Middle School."

The students have to correct usage, spelling and punctuation in the few sentences they are given at the beginning of class. The sentences make a story which follows the characters one can see in any school across the country - the bully, preps, jocks, nerds and others.

"It's fun because you begin to associate yourself with one of the characters," Morgan said.

She said the drills are much better and more engaging than reinforcing concepts with worksheet after worksheet.

"I don't have any proof it's better than worksheets," Morgan said, "but it's certainly more fun."

She said when a concept needs to be reinforced more than the information the students glean from the drills, she will pass out a worksheet.

"Sometimes I have to drag the questions out of them," Morgan said, "but when they get those confused looks on their faces, I know I need to slow down."

Morgan makes a deal with students at the beginning of the year that she will not spend much time on things the students already know and has created a system to discover whether students feel comfortable with the material.

She asks students to give a thumbs-up, down or sideways to tell her if they understand, do not understand or partially understand a concept. This method allows students to let Morgan know they need additional help without all their classmates seeing.

Morgan said the "light bulb moment" when students first understand something, makes her job worthwhile.

"That moment is really special because you know for that one child, for that one second you made a difference," Morgan said.

She especially likes that moment when she is discussing literature with her students.

"You can learn a lot about life from literature - about who you are as a person, the world and the difference you can make," Morgan said.

According to Morgan this is especially true when students read "The Diary of Anne Frank" at the end of the year.

Frank wrote from the perspective of a young teen - the age of Morgan's students.

The diary also gives Morgan a chance to discuss more critical subjects with her students than simply correct grammar and vocabulary. The diary helps students understand how to prevent the hate and ignorance that caused the Holocaust, according to Morgan.

She was honored this year by being chosen by her colleagues as Indian Creek Middle School's 2008 Teacher of the Year. She had previously been nominated for the award last school year.

"We have so many awesome teachers in this building, I know it was a hard choice," Morgan said. "I don't feel like it's an honor I can have all by myself though because the other teachers around me and the leadership of my principal have made me a better teacher."