Spotlight: Debbie Bakan
Debbie Bakan, retired PMFS Primary Teacher, with her handknit Frog and Toad dolls
On a warm day last May, retired PMFS Primary Teacher Debbie Bakan came to see campus in bloom and talk about her memories of Plymouth. We were both vaccinated, and she gave me a big hug, my first from anyone outside of my family since Covid. Debbie’s career at PMFS spanned over 30 years, and former students remember her classroom as a place of security, exploration, and creativity. Her First and Second Graders enjoyed “Peoples of the World” and “Native American/Lenape” themed years, and knitting and finger-weaving also became an important part of classroom culture. Debbie was my teacher, and those years were very special to me — grinding corn in a giant mortar like a character from our story book, camping trips, popcorn Fridays, lots of time for creative writing, sitting in the loft full of yarn, playing math games for homework…
Reflecting back on her career here, Debbie summarized her teaching philosophy as perpetually asking, “How can I help them find their voice?” She remembers one student with an all-consuming interest in ants, and helping him pursue his passion in the classroom. She believes this curricular flexibility is one of Plymouth’s strengths. “We were on an intellectual journey together,” she said. Rather than telling a child that they got a math problem wrong, Debbie would ask them, “How did you arrive at that?” The classroom encouraged children to use writing as a reflective tool in all areas, even handwork and math.
Another of Plymouth’s strengths, according to Debbie, is knowing how to talk with kids about hard subjects. Sitting on a bench on the meetinghouse porch, she remembered the weeks after 9/11/2001, when her students played a game called “New York.” The children would build towers and knock them down. Debbie allowed this to go on for a while before redirecting them. “Children are constantly trying to figure out what the world is,” Debbie explained. She advises parents of littles and teachers to “be honest, and it’s okay to say, ‘I don’t know why.’”
Debbie reached into her bag and pulled out the exquisite Frog and Toad stuffed animals she had knitted, complete with their own tiny clothes. Her mother taught her to knit at eight years old, and Debbie has been knitting ever since. She remembers when a student, Rachel Forman-Rubinsky (‘02), now a Researcher in molecular genetics, asked Debbie to teach her to knit. Soon all the students in her class wanted to learn. So Debbie researched some rhymes for kids (if you learned to knit in her class, you’ll still remember “In through the front door, down around the back, out through the basement, off jumps Jack!”) and ended up teaching her Primary classes to knit for another 17 years. Over time, knitting became so much more than making a kitty; it was students teaching one another, feeling empowered as their fabric grew, practicing math, learning about other cultures with Debbie’s “Fiber Around the World” unit, and knitting for service learning projects. Debbie became an expert at reading a child’s knitting like a barometer (Anxious, tight stitches? Distracted, dropped stitches?) and using what she saw to better serve the child academically.
Debbie was pleased to hear that some of our classes are “vertical” (two grades learning together) again this year, as her First and Second Grades always were. She always considered her Primary to be one class, not two separate classes merged together. Debbie is a follower of Psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who said that children learn best through collaborative problem solving with more academically advanced peers than they do independently. In Debbie’s class, each student would get a chance to be mentor and mentee over two years. She can remember one student explaining to another during partnered reading, “Most of the letters are pretty okay, but some of them — I forget what they’re called, like ‘E’ and ‘A’ — you never know what they’re gonna say!”
Debbie is looking for her next challenge, probably having to do with literacy and justice. She enjoys walks with other retired PMFS teachers Megan Hess and Martha Wolf, and babysitting her grandchildren, Nico (6) and Greta (3). Every Monday night she reads them a story over Zoom. She keeps in touch with many of her former students, some of whom still have the same best friends as they did in Primary (and please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to catch up!). Debbie also spends time reading, writing, and collecting children’s books. She hopes to write a reflective book on her teaching experiences.
By Debbie Bakan
Whoopie cushions are perhaps
The most brilliant of inventions.
In its way so innocent and basic.
A noise we all laugh to hear,
Even babies laugh at fart noises.
Embarrassing, yes, but
Look at the glee on the face of the child
Who carefully buried the inflated sack in the fold of the sofa,
for some grown-up
to sit down.