Retired Henley Teacher Still Sparks Student Writers

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Former Henley Middle School English teacher Jane Webb continues to teach writing to local students. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

After more than forty years spent happily teaching English to two generations of middle schoolers, educator Jane Webb has launched her own creative classroom in Crozet. Her new venture, located in the Crozet Speech and Learning Center on Jarmans Gap Road, is called Studio13 The Art of Acceleration, and Webb is thrilled to be back with her young tribe.

“I love adolescents, I think they are hilarious,” said Webb, who taught sixth grade English at Henley Middle School for most of her career. “I think they have depth that sometimes we don’t readily see because they are figuring out so much about life in the world. I’m challenged by them, I’m fascinated by them, and I’m highly entertained by them. They have a sense of independence—one day they’ll need attention and the next they’re very mature—and I like that range of emotion.”

When she retired after the 2019-20 school year (a plan made the prior summer), Webb thought about the things she might do—start a blog, travel, play more golf—but the pandemic caused a panic among families unsure about virtual learning. “In July of 2020, my phone started ringing,” she said. “Parents began calling to ask ‘do you want to teach again?’ and ‘are you interested in doing pandemic pods in Albemarle county and teaching on porches?’” 

Though she’d dreamt of one day hanging out her own shingle to continue some form of teaching, she said, “I felt like whatever business I started, it was going to have to be on my terms. It would be academically challenging enrichment, not remediation,” she said. So, Webb began to teach herself the ropes. 

Former Henley Middle School English teacher Jane Webb and her students outside the Crozet Speech and Learning Center. Left to right: (back row) Ethan Kesser, Sydney Sever, Jane Webb, Ika Gottlieb, Kat Gott, (front row) Asher Nathan, Gray Tracey. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

She formed an LLC and made arrangements with Crozet Speech and Learning Center to use an open space in their building to hold classes. “[Owners] Alison [MacCleery] and Nina [Schoeb] are just incredible,” she said. “I still like the feel of chalk in my hand, and they painted one wall with chalkboard paint for me.” She spent August and September of 2020 planning what to offer and how to meaningfully compress her course content, and in October began teaching two classes of eight students each on Fridays (an asynchronous learning day where students had no class meetings).

“My approach to teaching hasn’t changed, but what’s been challenging is how to concentrate the units into instruction and practice that they can absorb, that’s memorable and effective,” said Webb. Now that she’s moved to an after-school model this year, she offers classes in language analytics (grammar), Shakespeare, free verse poetry, and even bookbinding, all with a focus on writing, each running for seven or eight weeks. As the name of her new studio suggests, Webb is a big proponent of infusing art into her English curriculum.

“I love colors; I’m a wannabe artist,” she said. “I’ve always had my students paint with watercolors in their composition books, and we did a huge art research project each year where they would research the life of an artist and the movement to which the artist belonged. They’d write a research paper ‘letter’ to me introducing that artist, and they’d paint a masterpiece in the style of the artist they’d researched.” Studio13 is inspired by her classroom number at Henley. “Plus,” she said, “I like odd numbers.”

Webb’s passion is challenging her students. “I have three principles in teaching,” she said. “First, when you walk into my classroom, I want to teach you something you didn’t know before—a new skill, new content, new technique. Second, I want to encourage your curiosity so that you want to take that knowledge deeper on your own. And then third, I’d like to entertain you just a little bit.” She maintains that it’s possible to accomplish these goals in any class, from diagramming sentences to learning the art of revision, and that the mix has produced students who are willing to experiment.

“When I meet a child, often writing is [a subject] that they don’t like, or they don’t have the confidence that they have as a reader,” she said. “I can always see a writer within the child, and I see it as my task to remove whatever the obstacles are. Maybe the obstacle is the blank page, and so we can think about it as just words—you’re playing with words. Or maybe it’s how to write an introduction, and I can show you a few better ways to do that.”

She also recruits parents as partners in the job of demystifying writing, and at Henley’s Open House she would read aloud to them two passages written by a former student from the beginning and end of his school year to illustrate both her high standards and that they are achievable. Webb said that showing her students the work of prior students and describing how she graded those papers has been “incredibly transformative” to her teaching. “I am such a believer in a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset,” she said, referring to the work of psychologist Carol Dweck. 

For instance, she explained, “Instead of asking a child [who has received a poor grade on an assignment], ‘why did that happen, did you wait until the last minute?’ etc., what if you asked them ‘what did you learn from that grade?’ And sometimes you hear, ‘I learned I don’t know how to study,’ or ‘I learned I don’t know how to write,’ and so I’ve had a lot of success in trying to get parents to partner with me so we can be bookends in support of their child.”

Jane Webb at Studio13. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Webb has always used humor to disarm even the most recalcitrant students. “I draw a little bird on the chalkboard every day who sort of mimics the life of a sixth grader and what’s going on with them, and I think they connect with him.” The little bird’s name is Beaufont, and he’s often battered by the uncertainties of middle school life in a way that’s relatable to Webb’s students. “A lot of times Beaufont is making fun of me,” said Webb, “but most of the time we can make fun of him, which is just in turn getting the kids to laugh at themselves. We can say, it’s okay, so you got lost on the way here, but Beaufont is far more lost than you are.”

In her new venture, Webb is making her vision work. “It’s been quite the ride,” she said. “Some sleepless nights, but I’ve actually loved it.” No matter where she’s teaching, she’ll stick with what has served her students best over the decades. “I’ll be as academically challenging as I possibly can be, but also as supporting and loving and helpful as I possibly can be. That’s been a really good combination for me so far.” 

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