Editor's note: This story is part of an ongoing series on the careers of retired Long Island teachers and where they are now. If you are a retired Long Island teacher and would like to share your story, click on the link below.
By the time Denise Kass began teaching third grade at North Oceanside Elementary School in 1988, she had plenty of experience. She had taught for six years in public schools and private schools, in New York City and on Long Island. But she was always looking for ways to improve.
“As a teacher, I always wanted to grow,” she said.
The school district encouraged Kass and other teachers to take courses at Columbia University’s Teachers College. She said a class on teaching reading and writing helped her realize how influential the right book could be for a student and the importance of establishing authors as sources of inspiration.
“To be a writer, you have to be a reader,” Kass, 67, said.
So she decided her students would read even more than they already were. A lot more.
After one class, she was so excited to apply those lessons that she went to her local library and asked for every picture book by authors whose last names started with “A.” Her plan was to go letter by letter through each book in the library. She soon realized this was an impossible task, settling on books by some favorite authors like Georgia Heard and Cynthia Rylant. Still, she came away with a new perspective.
“It changed everything about the way I taught, the way I looked at things,” Kass said.
The biggest idea that grew out of the courses was the Poetry Café. Each year, Kass would decorate her classroom as a “little hipster cafe” and her students would read their own poems.
“The kids would get dressed up, and the parents would always cry because the poetry was really good,” she said.
Kass said the Poetry Café gained such popularity that parents were excited when they found out their children would have her as a teacher. Some parents even took part in the event. Emily Metcalf, the mother of two of Kass’ students, played the cello at the cafe each time one of her daughters, Briana and Kira, was in Kass’ class. In addition to Emily’s musical talent, the whole family was artistic, Kass recalled.
“They were extremely creative, fabulous writers and lovely, spiritual girls,” she said of Briana and Kira.
Tragedy struck, however, when Emily Metcalf died of cancer while her daughter, Kira, was a member of Kass’ class. In response, the rest of the class drew pictures and wrote messages to Emily on a quilt, which was displayed at her funeral.
Kass helped her students cope with loss in times since then thanks to a book she wrote and had illustrated by a co-worker. She book, titled “I Know I Can Be Happy Because,” is about how life goes on after death. The book proved useful when students were at their lowest moments, particularly after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
“It was a comforting tool to let people know everything’s going to be OK,” she said.
Kass retired in 2011, but she continued to be around young people. In addition to spending time with her four granddaughters, Kass channeled her passion for teaching into politics and found herself working with plenty of young voters. She and her husband, Joel, worked on President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, going door to door encouraging people to vote, and have stayed politically active ever since.
“I traded the 8-year-olds for 25-year-olds,” Kass said jokingly. “Being with all these smart kids was energizing.”
Kass noted that her jump from teaching to politics was interesting, but it’s in line with her personality. As a teacher she was always willing to try something new for the sake of innovation, and she brought that mentality to this part of her life as well.
“It’s exciting to stand on the edge of a cliff,” she said of new experiences. “I never felt like I had it all. I had to keep learning.”