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Categorized | IN OUR COMMUNITY

From student to teacher, local school has played life-long role

Posted on 09 June 2015 by Calvin

Gwen LarsonOnce a student there, Gwen Larson will be retiring after teaching 26 years at Hamline Elementary

By JAN WILLMS

Hamline Elementary has played a primary role in the life of Gwen Larson, who grew up in a house four blocks from the school, located at 1599 Englewood.

As a child, she walked to the school, winding her way through the Hamline University campus.  The school was then called Hancock, and Larson said she still thinks of it by that name.

Her mom was very involved with the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) and worked for the school as a secretary for 15-20 years, according to Larson. Larson graduated from college, taught school in a couple Twin Cities locations and then moved away for awhile.

When she returned, she began teaching at Hamline Elementary in 1989 and has been there ever since. She will retire in June from the school she has loved so much, and that has meant so much to her.

“I have taught first grade for all but the last two years,” Larson said. “The last two years I have been library support for K-2, teaching six to eight classes a day of reading and writing and providing remediation and tutoring.”

Larson also taught as an adjunct instructor at Hamline University from 1991 to 2005, quitting then because both she and her husband were caring for aging parents.

One class she took over from another instructor was Retelling, in which she instructed students on how to retell information. Hamline offered a one-week literacy institute, a project that continues to this day, according to Larson. For that, she was one of the workshop instructors, teaching several classes in writing and reading. “There were other classes with literary strategies and lots and lots of ideas,” she noted. She explained that as children, we learn to listen and that is how we learn to speak.

Larson said she has a lot of memories surrounding Hamline Elementary.

“The original school, built in the late 1800s, was an old brownstone,” she recalled. As the years passed, there were many additions, and now the original building is gone. A sign that hung in the old building is in a garden courtyard of the current school.

“The oldest part of the school now is an addition that was built in the 1960s,” Larson said. “It is currently the cafeteria area and office center. The cafeteria has doubled as an auditorium.”
She said originally, the school was K-8 and changed to K-6 in the mid-60s. Two years ago it became K-5, but then a preschool was added. Other additions in the mid-to-late 70s and as recently as 12 to 15 years ago include space for grades 3-5 and a learning center.

“The school has changed,” Larson said. It began as a community school. Kids would walk to school and over the noon hour go home for lunch. “Now the kids are served breakfast, lunch and a snack at the school,” she noted.

The nearby rec center offers an extended day program, and many of the students go there before and after school.

Larson said that in 1989, there was some diversity at Hamline Elementary, but not a lot.  There has been a gradual growth of students from different ethnicities attending. “There are a lot of cultural differences, and the kids mix well and have a good education,” she said.

Larson was a part of the school’s collaboration with Hamline, which began in 1991. “We had many meetings, and the principal and I went to faculty meetings at Hamline University,” she explained. “Hamline Elementary was the premier school in the country to have this collaboration.”

Each grade level at the elementary school is paired with a department of Hamline University. For example, the fifth grade is paired with the law department.  As part of this pairing, they take part in a mock trial on the Hamline campus. Other grades are paired with the art department and the gymnastics department.

“There is another program, Hand in Hand, that is similar to Big Brothers and Sisters,” Larson related.  Hamline University students serve as friends and mentors to kids who need them.

From a community school, Hamline Elementary became a magnet school. Today it is back to being a neighborhood school.

Larson said that in the past, there was a strong PTO organization, with a lot of special events. “When we became a magnet, that kind of fizzled,” she said. “Now that it’s back to a neighborhood school, we are re-developing that organization.”

Teaching children reading and writing has been a serious task for Larson, but according to one of her colleagues, Elizabeth Srigley, she also has a lighter side.

“Gwen has always been a great storyteller,” Srigley said. “She can describe things that make you smile and you want to hear more.”

“I always thought Gwen was a serious person who was always in control, but I found a different side to her when she did a retirement skit for another first-grade teacher,” Srigley continued.

“She could have been an actress or stand-up comedian. She was so funny–everyone was surprised and laughing.”

A combination of serious purpose and an ability to make others laugh are strengths that Larson brings to her teaching.  She said that reading was always a part of her life.

“I remember that my dad always had a book he was reading,” she said. “I remember being read to.”

She said she had always wanted to be a teacher, her mom was a teacher, and she played school at home.

“Having gone through my elementary years at Hamline Hancock, then my mom worked there and to be hired there as a teacher, it felt like home,” Larson said. “It was my school; that’s where my heart is, and teaching there was a special opportunity to give back.”

Larson and her husband both plan to retire from their jobs in June and spend time with their grandchildren, three boys in the Twin Cities and two girls in London. They also have lots of volunteering lined up. “We won’t be idle,” Larson noted.


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