In Memory of Jeanette Levin
by Val Parsegian

In Memory of Jeanette Levin

It was just after World War II in Washington, D.C. The phone rang one evening, and a young man introduced himself to Jeanette. Henry Levin had obtained her number from an army friend who felt that the two would be well suited to one another. Several nights later, Henry came to the house, met Jeanette's family, and took her out on the town dancing at the Shoreham Hotel. There were many such nights following that first one as the handsome young man pursued the college senior. They were married the October following her 1947 graduation from the University of Maryland. Remaining in the Washington area for the 57 years of their marriage, Jeanette and Henry lived first across from the Meridian Hill Park, then in their first house in Silver Spring, and finally for 48 years in their Bethesda home. Their two children, Barbara and Robert, have given them five grandchildren, two of whom have attended Sidwell Friends.

I always knew I liked teaching, says Jeanette Levin. Family lore says that the toy Jeanette loved best as a little girl was a piece of blackboard. And she's still at it, working as a docent at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Jeanette came to Sidwell in 1961 as a remedial reading specialist for all three divisions of the school, which in those days were all on the Wisconsin Avenue campus, like a college beautiful grounds. Lower School was where the present Upper School Building stands, and Upper school an old, wooden building -- was located where the present upper school parking lot is. Middle School was the same building as at present but without its top floor. There were only two classes in every grade.

Jeanette brought unusual but ideal credentials to her teaching career. She arrived by way of the Red Cross where she had been a volunteer social worker, the Public Health Service, and the Department of the Treasury. She'd been encouraged to consider teaching by her husband's sister, herself a teacher, and one day during a modern dance class had talked with another dancer, Nancy Wood, who was a remedial reading teacher at Sidwell Friends. Nancy mentioned that the school wanted to train another teacher in remedial reading and suggested that Jeanette should apply. Jeanette was willing to work under the other teachers while she honed her skills, so Jean Jasperson took her on immediately.

By a chance encounter in the ladies' room (which in those days had a small couch), Jeanette observed to an exhausted fifth grade teacher lying down for a spell, I could take your class for you. She did and was hooked. I just had a ball, Jeanette recounted. The regular teacher was away for longer than expected, so even though Jeanette was still doing remedial reading with middle and upper school students, she settled in to teach fifth grade for the rest of the school year, a heavy load for anyone but especially for a new teacher.

In the spring, Frank Barger caught Jeanette in the hallway and asked her if she would like to sign a contract for full-time teaching for the next year. She accepted. I stayed for 27 years. By the time I retired, I think I was the only member of the faculty who remembered the old days of a single campus for all divisions of the school.

Jeanette channeled her students' energy into productive work. Through the Valentine's Day Love Drive, she involved her students in community service. Each year they raised thousands of dollars for Children's Hospital through a Bike-a-thon. Within her classroom, every pupil had a job. Jeanette took great care to select the right job to match each child's temperament and needs. I always tried to treat each student the same way I treat my own children.

One year a girl accused Mrs. Levin of being unfair because she had asked a boy and not a girl to work the audio-visual machinery. What the girl could not have known was why Jeanette had chosen this boy for the job. The child simply could not spell and was struggling with academics; his forte was mechanical chores, so Jeanette had put him in charge of the film strip projector. Another familiar source of grief was parental objection to material in the assigned textbook, in those days not always sensitive to diversity. Jeanette developed her famous living history, in part to allow individual children to choose the focus of their own projects.

History always began with the telling of the fascinating tale, embellished by memorization of significant quotations. Then the students would read the appropriate chapter in their textbooks. After that, Jeanette asked the students to think about something to do or make as their own project for Indian-Eskimo Day or Colonial Day.

Field trips to museums were very much a part of this scheme. The museum docents got rapt attention because the students were free to listen, knowing Mrs. Levin was the one taking notes. For homework that day the students were asked to draw a picture of any item they'd seen. These pictures would then adorn the classroom walls.

Each morning Jeanette got to school early enough to post a P of D (Password of the Day) for the early birds to look up in the dictionary. Later, when the school day formally began, Jeanette had the entire class write down the meaning of the word, say, "archaeology," and compose two sentences using that word.

Any graduate of 5B, whether student or parent, remembers the famous Mrs. Levin's Scrapbook," one of many creative projects Jeanette used to teach her students history, geography, culture, math, artistic skill, you name it. Each student chose a state for his or her scrapbook, and went to work, using those elegant letter writing skills to ask their state government for brochures, tourist information, economic statistics, and maps. The effort that went into these glorious compendia of facts and pictures was enormous, but even an exhausted (or exasperated) parent could see how skillfully Mrs. Levin had planned the project. From map skills to rudimentary statistics, each part of the scrapbook was carefully thought out in manageable and educational steps. And artistic talent had a chance to really go to town.

Kids that age can't handle assignments in advance, observed Jeanette. The Scrapbook Project excepted, she always gave homework that day, one assignment for each subject, and a last-period study hall in which to begin it, with her there to answer questions. There were aphorisms like, "Do the most difficult assignment first, and get it over with."

Jeanette's lively classroom was filled with reading book characters in the form of puppets hanging from the ceiling and the sounds of I love you said on Valentine's Day in as many different languages as there were children in the class. Her students had to memorize poems and even whole sections of prose such as the Gettysburg Address or the introductory paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, and recite them aloud. One shy student, a Pakistani, did not want to come to the front of the class to recite. He was won over by the explanation that this was instruction for public speaking. It was not only a test of memory, but also necessary practice in enunciating clearly and learning to project one's voice. The student went on to have a distinguished public career. At the end of the year, each child received a book of poems he or she had written, lovingly put together by Mrs. Levin, and a copy of Memories of 5B (each year a different color cover), given out in a surprise party. In 1988 one of Jeanette's loyal parents, Caroline McNamara, organized the biggest surprise party of all, Mrs. Levin's Day, to celebrate Jeanette's retirement.

Henry said I was a teacher 24 hours a day. That made retirement quite a jolt. I just loved teaching. How could I turn myself off after twenty-seven years? Jeanette was wise enough to put literal distance between herself and 5B for the first year or so. Next she chaired the Former Faculty and Staff Organization and wrote their newsletter (1990-1992). Our luncheons in the drawing room at Zartman house were well attended, popular, and always delicious -- just for us.

The next step was to go back to school, of course. Jeanette had had a first-rate education in DC public schools and at the University of Maryland, where she'd been an (honors) sociology major with a minor in history and a fascination with economics. Some of her work appeared in the official publication of the American Sociological Society. Art and art history had also been life-long interests. Both the Corcoran and the Sackler museums had docent programs; Jeanette chose the Corcoran's, and began her training as a docent. In addition to the Corcoran, over the past 17 years one could have found Jeanette leading groups through the Octagon House or teaching visitors about Ellis Island at a special year-long exhibit at the B'nai Br'ith Museum. She also volunteers as part of Visitor Services at Hillwood. She is one of the main stays supporting the Sidwell Friends Retired and Former Employees Book Club, contributing good suggestions from her other book club at the Corcoran Gallery and bringing delicious cakes.

Jeanette constantly hears from her former students, but she keeps up with Sidwell through the best connection of all: a grandchild in 6th grade. She is honored to have taught in the Sidwell community, one that she loves so much.


Caroline Fulco, former Sidwell parent and Middle School faculty member, writes:

I first saw Jeanette at a meeting for rising 5th grade parents. The parents were concerned about their "babies" coming to Middle School, and we were all eager to see who our precious children might have as a home-room teacher. Each of the 5th grade teachers stood up, in turn, to talk about their classrooms, their approaches toward 10 year olds, and their thoughts about teaching.

Jeanette stood up and smiled her big, warm smile. Her eyes sparkled when she talked about her room and the activities she looked forward to doing with her class. She was so happy and energetic, and her warmth and enthusiasm for her students was clearly revealed. Honestly, one of my first thoughts was, "She can't be for real." But Jeanette was for real.

After the presentations in the auditorium, the parents were all invited to visit the classrooms of the 5th grade teachers. Jeanette's room was unbelievable! Once again her love for her work shone through. Her room was decorated with wonderful projects, books, pillows, blankets, mobiles − a veritable feast for the children's eyes and a place that was filled with adventure and warmth.

I requested that Jeanette be my daughter's 5th grade teacher, a request that was fulfilled. I was also the room parent for that class and I was delighted. Jeanette was a brilliant teacher, a wonderful example to the children, and she truly loved all of them. When I asked her about one particular difficult child, she told me that she always found at least one thing to love about each child and she really did (even the most annoying and obnoxious ones).

She was a wonderful teacher, a tireless champion of her 5th graders, and a delightful person. She worked incredibly hard with each child and with all the entire class to encourage them to ask questions and to think, and she inspired a love of learning. She was a great teacher and I am still delighted that Genny had her as her 5th grade teacher.

It's been a privilege and honor to know her.

Lisa Yockelson, one of Jeanette's former students, remembers:

Understanding, intellect, and patience: three critical attributes a good teacher brings to the profession in large measure − were in overwhelming supply during the initial weeks and throughout my first year at the Sidwell Friends School. Those qualities belonged to Mrs. Levin. 5B was a nurturing place (despite the dreaded Weekly Reader and that infernal test on its contents each Monday morning), filled with projects and stacks of creative reading materials. The room resonated with the compassionate voice of a woman who instructed, sparked, and challenged, all the while caring for each individual student.

A valuable and most critical tool I carried away from her class was the art of composing my thoughts on paper - the act of writing − in all its agonizing glory. When my last cookbook, Baking by Flavor, received the honor of winning the International Association of Culinary Professionals award for the best baking book in 2003, nostalgia set in and I began to recall all of the influences that somehow had contributed to the merit of this book. In 5B, each writing assignment became a test of my inner will, a struggle I embraced with Mrs. Levin's unwavering support and dedication to the craft. This is the contribution I now give to my readers, and I have the diligence of one teacher to thank for it.

Dr. Ariel C. Hollinshead (Mrs. Montgomery K. Hyun), Professor of Medicine Emerita, another of Jeanette's parents:

I am the mother of two sons, Bill and Christopher Hyun, who were privileged to have Mrs. Levin for their fifth grade teacher. Their dad, retired FTC Chief Administrative Law Judge Montgomery Hyun, and I have maintained a fine friendship with Jeanette and her husband Henry. It is easy to recall good memories of the "Sidwell years." Both sons enjoyed the entire 14 years from Kindergarten and Transition through grades 1-12.

It is a delight to talk about Mrs. Levin. My first memory is about Bill's first day in fifth grade. "How did you like your first day and your teacher, Bill?" A little pause. "It was O.K. My teacher is pretty to look at." Another memory is the parent visit and the neat, inviting display of the children's work. Jeanette, always pretty, always attentive to questions, and caring equally about each child...this was a carefully raised, moxy young woman. One could trust her with these little individuals you cared about.

A precious memory is the discussion Jeanette and I had about the meaning of Valentine's Day at that age, fifth grade. We talked about the value of learning the true meaning of love. If we were to celebrate love day, why not set a goal earlier in the year of looking forward to a "class expression of love" in its truest sense. So that is why Mrs. Levin, who developed the concept and who also put it into action, had such a strong impact upon impressionable minds with regard to the giving of something special. One example was doing chores to raise money for a children's poster to hang in the ophthalmologist's hospital waiting room at Children's Hospital. The head of that department brought instruments and a demonstration to delight the Sidwell fifth graders with fascinating insights about "sight."

I could go on and on about Mrs. L., but I will end by remembering an alumni event where she was a chaperone for the dancing. One of my sons singled her out, asked her to dance, and reported that her dancing was skilled and "light as a feather." It was my honor to talk in depth about Mrs. L. at a ceremony celebrating her retirement. It was also my honor to participate in a recent dedication of the Jeanette Levin computer room.

Carol F. Peck, Lower School Music Teacher 1974-78 and Lower School Writer-in-Residence 1978-91 and Sidwell parent:

"If your daughter has Mrs. Levin in fifth grade, she will have a fantastic year that will prepare her for anything!" I was a brand-new Lower School parent, helping to sort out angel costumes for the Christmas play, but I pricked up my ears when I heard two other mothers discussing Middle School. It was several years before my daughter Wendy entered fifth grade and I actually met Jeanette Levin, but that mother was right: it was a fantastic year. Yes, there was plenty of homework, but Jeanette taught her students exactly how to tackle it. Yes, expectations were high, but they were never unreasonable. And every day was well planned. For example, when the class was learning multiplication, for the first five minutes of every day, students filled out a multiplication table grid as fast as they could, and every day they got a little farther on it, competing with their own records, not with each other.

Near the end of that school year, all but a handful of the students in that class elected to go to Echo Hill for a week-long camping trip; that was the week I really got to know Jeanette well, as I was privileged to help her plan meaningful activities for that handful. We visited the Harper's Ferry historical site, picnicked at Great Falls, visited Lower School, and wrote poems which we turned into anthologies with handmade covers. I saw first hand Jeanette's gentle manner, keen sense of humor, and utter devotion to her students − her dedication to inspiring them to achieve their personal best, whatever they were doing.

Wendy, now a young mother, remembers fifth grade with great fondness and recently remarked, "When I speak with various people about the many things that are missing from today's education, I reference my experiences in Mrs. Levin's class. I just wish my two daughters could have her as a teacher!"

Kira Meers, Sidwell class of '86, remembers:

Fifth grade was one of the most memorable times of my life. It was 1978 when Jeanette Levin came into my world. I had always been a zealous student, but my fifth grade classroom sent my mind into overdrive. Mrs. Levin instilled in me the power of discipline and focus. Her creative approach to teaching brought life to all subjects, encouraging me to feel connected to what I was learning. Whether we were creating content-rich scrapbooks, mastering math problems, or learning all the rules (and exceptions) of grammar, Mrs. Levin made it feel both exciting and empowering to learn. She engaged me more in the process of learning than any other teacher I've had, even in college or business school.

Mrs. Levin pushed me to think and to dream in ways that have since helped me achieve some of the most important successes of my life. When producing the first CD-ROM version of the kids' educational software game, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, I thought a lot about what I had learned from Mrs. Levin. My job − creating a multi-media experience that got kids throughout the U.S. excited to learn about other places and cultures − was challenging. But, summoning all that I had learned from Mrs. Levin's example so many years before, it was also fun and deeply rewarding. The game was a big hit, touched many lives, and will always be a meaningful reminder to me of the enduring impact one woman can make on the world