31 Days of Revolutionary Women, #17: Sarah Dietz

In honor of Women’s History Month, we present 31 Days of Revolutionary Women; a series of daily essays by local authors documenting, honoring and celebrating powerful women who inspire us in South Seattle and beyond.

by Isabel Wang

One long-ago September night, I landed in Bloomington, Indiana after a series of long flights. The next morning, I began my new life as an American first grader. Back in Taiwan, all of my kindergarten classmates looked just like me. Here? Not so much. I also spoke zero English.

The first thing Ms. McKenzie taught me to say was “Go Big Red”.  The next additions to my vocabulary were “Fox in Sox”. The average 6-year-old understands 20,000 words. I had a long way to catch up. But time and again, Ms. McKenzie insisted that tomorrow I would get a little better.

Meanwhile, in Southern California, another little girl was training for her future vocation. Sarah Harleman loved gathering her younger brothers into her make-believe classroom and pretending to be their teacher. Later she moved to Lynnwood and Yakima and finally Seattle. Today she is Ms. Dietz of Room 230 at Graham Hill Elementary School.

This year, half of Sarah’s 24 second-grade students are English Language Learners (ELL; English is not their native language). They hail from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Mexico, Samoa… There are also two kids on the autism spectrum and others who face difficult family circumstances.

The public often under-rates early education because the curriculum isn’t rocket science. But let me tell you: as an MIT student I lived with several future rocket scientists. Their coursework covered far less ground than what Sarah teaches.

inline image Dietz
Motivational poster in Room 230 [photo courtesy Sarah Dietz

A typical day in Room 230 begins at 7:50am with Number Corner, followed by Writer’s Workshop. This week the kids are practicing how to write like scientists, documenting procedures for an experiment they did. Then comes phonics, a yoga break, then Reader’s Workshop. After lunch and recess, they’re back at it with Mood Meter Journaling, followed by quiet time, during which Sarah reads to the class from a chapter book. Then it’s time for PE or music, followed by an hour of math, then finally science or social studies.

Mood Meter Journaling, you ask? It’s part of the RULER curriculum developed by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and taught throughout the Seattle Public School District. RULER stands for Recognizing emotions in self and others. Understanding the causes and consequences of emotions, Labeling emotions accurately, Expressing emotions appropriately, and Regulating emotions effectively. For many students in Sarah’s class, these skills help them find outlets when they feel overwhelmed.

Elementary teachers are said to have 1,200-1,800 exchanges with students during each whirlwind school day. Many of these interactions are unpredictable and call for instant decisions. Sarah finds herself constantly switching gears: How can she make lessons accessible to ELL students in spite of language hurdles? Which emotionally wounded kids need reassurance at any given moment so that they feel safe and loved? And most challengingly, what analogies and examples can she offer to help bridge the gaps between the life experiences of children who live in poverty and those who are financially secure? Last year she discovered that not one single student in her entire class knew what a ferry is.

The overarching theme that Sarah wants to impart is The Growth Mindset, which was exactly what Ms. McKenzie taught me back in Indiana: learning how to learn. Another priority is building community. As a part of the RULER curriculum, Sarah starts each school year by asking her class to collaborate on a charter that describes what they, the citizens of Room 230, want life to be like in their realm.

Her husband Ted, en route to making chicken fettuccine for dinner, compares education with grown-up workplace management. Great teachers, like successful CEOs, know that it takes the right classroom culture and team identity to support each individual’s success.

Sarah’s latest challenge is mentoring. An alumna of UW’s Seattle Teacher Residency (STR) program herself, she is hosting an apprentice from the program who will spend 4 days a week throughout the school year in her classroom.

Imagine the pressure of having another person watching, analyzing, taking notes on your every action. Imagine having to rationalize each of those 1,200-1,800 daily exchanges with students. Lologo, her student teacher also joins her at staff meetings and triage sessions with the ELL specialist and math interventionist. Most importantly, they spend each afternoon reviewing how the day went and planning the following day’s lessons.

Mentoring essentially involves doing her work twice, from both her own perspective and through Lologo’s lens. Sarah calls the experience very rewarding. She’s a believer in STR’s social-justice-oriented mission to improve educational access among immigrant and high poverty student populations like Graham Hill’s where the needs are staggering. Since she herself had the benefit of an apprenticeship, it’s now her turn to give other new teachers the same opportunity for guided practice.

This month, as we celebrate the Revolutionary Women around us, let us give thanks to all the teachers and mentors who’ve contributed to their success. And the next time you run into Sarah at Graham Hill, in yoga class or around the neighborhood, tell her she’s awesome! If your kid is in her class, I’ll bet you 40 years from now, they’ll look back on their time in Room 230 and say “Ms Dietz! What I learned from her made a huge difference in my life.”

isabel wang author bio

Isabel Wang is a co-working partner at the Hillman City Collaboratory. She lives with 3 cats and plans to get a dog when (if) she grows up. She and Sarah look forward to meeting you at the Revolutionary Women Potluck on Tuesday, April 18th at the Collab! 


featured image and inline image courtesy of Sarah Dietz




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