“A Fifty year-old Lesson Hits Home in Durham”

Muriel Smith teaches at Maureen Joy Charter School. Located on South Driver Street in east Durham, Maureen Joy is a Title 1 school. This means more than 40% of the students who attend the school face severe poverty at home.

Smith is a product of the Durham Public School system, a graduate of Jordan High School and Githens Middle School.

Graduation at Maureen Joy was last week.

Maureen Joy 8th Graders from Muriel Smith's class on park field trip

Maureen Joy 8th Graders from Muriel Smith’s class on park field trip

“A Fifty year-old Lesson Hits Home in Durham”

by Aaron Mandel

Smith came to our attention just before the end of the year through an Instagram post.

She had been teaching her 8th grade Social Studies students the final chapter of American History.

North Carolina, unlike most other states, crams all of our country’s history into a single year. This means Smith is tasked with getting through a tapestry starting with Native Americans and progressing all the way to the Cold War.

Maureen Joy 8th graders on a Fields Trip to Atlanta

Muriel Smith’s Maureen Joy 8th graders on a Field Trip to Atlanta

Her final unit of the year covered, in addition to the military build-up of the 1960’s and the space program, the birth of Suburbia as a notion and the idea of “white flight”.

Smith, with an assist from an AP Geography lesson plan she found on teacherspayteachers.com, helped students engage with these concepts through comparison to the rapidly gentrifying areas in Durham that the students call home.

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Smith’s units start with exploration of the concept on Day 1. Students explored gentrification through news articles and documentary footage. They used a guide question to help them take notes on the material.

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Day 2 is a Socratic student led seminar. Smith reported that the students were particularly engaged and emotional about this topic. The back and forth was a wellspring of ideas. Conversations became spirited. Stories became personal. The interplay of money and wider forces outside the community was raised. Students could feel these invisible hands in their own community. The parallels to the destructive urban renewal of city centers in the 1950’s and 60’s were evident and poignant to the 8th graders.

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Smith, a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, reports this kind of exploration is why she loves teaching 8th graders (middle schoolers are often seen as the bane of a teacher’s existence). Smith said, in fact, middle schoolers are really at a sweet age. They have a reflective curiosity without being as jaded as some high schoolers can be. She noted they ask for her input and she has an opportunity to help them speak through their strengths, their viewpoints. Their joy and light according to Smith makes them “fun people to know.”

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Janice L. Smith, of the education consultants, Mission 100%, notes, “A lot of the research on great teaching indicates that if we want to truly invest students in our classrooms and the content, teachers need to focus on the three R’s: Rigor, Relationships, & Relevance. By focusing on what our kids experience in their daily lives and what they’re interested in, and tying that into our academic content, we are far more apt to create classrooms and schools where students make significant academic gains- AND go on to apply that learning to make the world a better place.”

Congratulations Muriel Smith, it sounds like you are doing just that.

This is Smith’s second year teaching at Maureen Joy after five years teaching in Nashville, Tennessee.

Maureen Joy defines its mission as to develop the whole child through high-quality instruction, school-community partnerships, and the promotion of a positive self-identity.


photo by by Morgan Crutchfield Photography

photo by by Morgan Crutchfield Photography

Aaron Mandel

Aaron Mandel is a writer and an accomplished public speaker. He is the publisher of the Clarion Content. For more than a decade, the Clarion Content has covered Durham’s arts, politics, music, and cultural milieu. From breaking news stories to the hottest local acts, the Clarion Content is on the scene. The Clarion Content published more than twenty distinguished guest columnists and garnered nearly a million views. Mandel is a volunteer for the Durham Mighty Pen Literacy Project and serves as the President of the Board of Sustain-A-Bull Durham, a local small business collective with more than 200 members. He writes regularly on the Clarion Content and has been quietly writing fiction since the 4th grade. Mandel has been published in the Raleigh News and Observer. He has also produced numerous art shows, including, “Durham under Development”. He was a featured speaker at “The State of Publishing” conference. He has presented to Durham Chamber of Commerce, “Chamber U” on the “New Media”. He has also served as the play-by-play announcer for the D.B.L., a Durham youth basketball league. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Religious Studies from Indiana University in Bloomington. An avid policy debater at Indiana and a Nation Debate Tournament qualifier, Mandel was also a member of the New Jersey State Champion two-person Policy Debate Team. He has lived in North Carolina, New Jersey, California, Texas, Illinois, Colorado, Indiana, and Baja California, Mexico.

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