Sarah Wheeler’s motto, one of the few that doesn’t adorn her colorful, jam-packed classroom walls, is: “Over my dead body will you be bored.”
As the language arts and social studies teacher for the 36 students in the Horizons gifted program at Randolph Middle School, Wheeler, 52, describes what she does as a “dig-deep” program rather than an acceleration program.
“Instead of moving at a faster clip, we’re mining for gems,” she said.
The sixth- through eighth-grade students with whom she mines must test into the county-wide program and be performing at least three grade levels above the norm.
“You have to need this program,” Wheeler said. “It has to feel like a haven, an oasis – not just a scholastic fit.”
When screening students, Wheeler looks for “not just a high IQ, but a type of learner. Someone who is comfortable with less structure,” she said.
In fact, Wheeler, who describes herself as a Socratic teacher who asks lots of questions, wants creation rather than imitation.
“If you like structure,” she said, “I’ll be your worst nightmare.”
The middle school Horizons program was first housed at Marie G. Davis Middle School, with Wheeler as its first teacher, in 2001.
When the program moved to Randolph Middle School, along with the IB Magnet program the school inherited, Wheeler was given the opportunity to redesign the program’s approach.
“It couldn’t be just an elective or enrichment class” the way it was taught in its first year, said Wheeler. “It had to be part of the core instruction.”
Wheeler credits Jackie Menser, Randolph’s principal, with understanding that, for the Horizons students, “this was not icing on the cake. This was it.”
Wheeler tries to structure her classroom like a collaborative academic community.
She groups students by skill level rather than grade level, and has all three grade levels intermingle and pair together on projects and assignments. She follows the North Carolina curriculum as far as what each grade level is supposed to study, but she teaches it in a different way.
“We are not whipping through the prescribed curriculum,” she said. “We are taking the time to ask questions and go off on tangents.”
Those questions, however, are best directed at fellow students.
Wheeler is a strong proponent of peer reviews and edits, and encourages her students to collaborate and consult with each other rather than play a game of “mother may I?” with her.
“The point is to not see the teacher as the expert or source,” Wheeler said, and she wears a hat proclaiming, “I am not the first responder” when she thinks students have lost sight of her role as facilitator.
Almost everything Wheeler assigns has a scholarly requirement and a creative requirement, because she wants to encourage her gifted students to use both parts of their brains.
“I am trying to advance the whole person,” Wheeler said. “Knowledge plus ethics, intellect plus art, affective plus cognitive.”
The walls of Wheeler’s classroom are adorned with the colorful bulletin boards she assigns as group projects, where students teach each other a subject or theme of their choosing that follows the curriculum – such as the Negro Leagues for Civil Rights – and calls for art and creativity as well.
For someone for whom teaching was Plan B (if she couldn’t pursue her dream of becoming a professional ballerina), Wheeler has found her niche. She sees a poetic justice in teaching middle school gifted students, since she was “bored and miserable” at their age.
The Horizons students must demonstrate a need to be in her classroom, but thanks to Wheeler’s innovative program, they also demonstrate a love for it.