HELPING KIDS FIND THEIR ROOTZ
Recognized for going “above and beyond” for all her students, Clackamas High School teacher Laurie Thurston believes that student voices and their presence are crucial for learning to take place.
“Each class is its own community that I feel an obligation to nurture and I take that responsibility very seriously,” Thurston said. “In order for young people to learn, they have to feel safe and valued, trusted and respected, so I work to create a place where all voices matter, everyone can be heard and exclusionary language or behaviors are not tolerated.”
Thurston offered to create the Rootz program at Clackamas High School, where she said she continues to be challenged and grow as an educator.
“After 30 years working, I can honestly say it’s the kids who’ve made me a better teacher,” she said. “They are forgiving and challenging, questioning and inspiring.”
Thurston began her teaching career in an alternative education program within a large comprehensive high school in Rochester, New York. She directed a program for 50 students who did not have identified learning disabilities, but struggled nevertheless due to challenges in their home environments, with social and emotional needs, substance abuse and mental health challenges.
“Most of these kids never saw themselves as students. No one ever asked them what they were passionate about. The school seemed determined to push them out,” she said.
Thurston has worked to create a “safe space” for such students to discover who they want to be, a philosophy she took to her work at LEP Charter School after she relocated to Portland, and then again at the Rootz program.
Victoria Wriglesworth, whose child has been one of Thurston’s students, nominated her as an Amazing Educator, saying Thurston always talks enthusiastically about her students, their achievements and their frustrations.
“Laurie always creates a safe, welcoming space for all students: (that’s) especially challenging with the current distance learning platform,” Wriglesworth said.
Thurston said she was honored to be named an Amazing Educator, but doesn’t believe she’s all that “amazing” when compared to her colleagues.
“My school is filled with creative, passionate and dedicated teachers,” she said. “On behalf of all of us, thanks for recognizing educators.”
Working with freshmen has always been Thurston’s “sweet spot,” she said, since most of them step into high school “woefully unprepared. They are navigating rapidly shifting peer relationships, trying on new identities, questioning adults and their ideology. It’s such a cool time to witness.”
And for those kids who need a “little something extra,” she feels honored to be a mentor and ally as she helps them navigate their academic, social and emotional lives.
Recently, one of Thurston’s students stayed after class when the rest of the students had left the Google Meets call. In one of the many moments that keep Thurston motivated to continue her work as a teacher, the student told her “I don’t have a question, but I just wanted to thank you for helping me finish my essay. No one ever made me finish one before, so I never learned. You wouldn’t let me give up, so now I know I can.”
In another of Thurston’s special efforts, Portland author Renee Watson came to CHS in 2018 to speak to all of Thurston’s classes and some other students Thurston recruited as part of the Points of View/Diverse Voices grant from the North Clackamas Education Foundation. The NCEF awarded Thurston $500 to purchase books from diverse, young adult authors, while the school funded Watson’s visit to CHS, since grants don’t cover guest speakers. Watson had just won the Coretta Scott King and Newberry honors a couple of weeks before her visit.
“We were crazy lucky to get her when we did,” Thurston said.
In the pre-COVID-19 era, Thurston also organized annual field trips to Powell’s Bookstore to introduce kids to actual books.
“We’d take the bus downtown, where many have never stepped foot, never having left Clackamas their whole lives, and get a specially designed tour of the bookstore and then let them loose to buy up to $35 each in books,” she said.
“They’re always hilarious running around with their phones, calculating costs, looking for used books so they could purchase more.”
When school closed last spring, Thurston conducted a virtual field trip to Powell’s that allowed kids put in online orders for books. She then personally delivered the books to her students’ homes while keeping socially distanced.
“That was a special couple of days, being able to actually see and talk to my kids and give them books, to be sure they were doing OK,” she said.
Thurston is excited that next year, she will be teaching at the newly constructed Adrienne C. Nelson High School after Clackamas High School splits into two high schools.