It’s a Wednesday morning at Junipero Serra Elementary School, and a group of first graders in Ms. Jennifer Moless’s English language development class are listening with rapt attention as she reads aloud a book about arctic mammals. She comes across a random fact about the musk ox: Its hair can extend about two feet long. She asks her students if they’d like to see just how long that hair would look. The children nod their heads, and she calls upon one student to take out two rulers and lay them from end to end.
Ms. Moless has a talent for bringing books to life, even the ones without fictional stories, according to school volunteer Helen Recinos.
“She was reading this book about animals that live deep under the sea, so it was a fact book, but she was reading it with so much enthusiasm and emotion,” said Helen, who tutors two of Ms. Moless’s students through the San Francisco Education Fund’s Literacy Program. “I mean the kids were riveted listening to her read.”
Ms. Moless, who has been a teacher for more than 15 years, simply encourages students to love what they’re learning.
“She gets them engaged in cool topics like the rain forest,” Helen said, adding that the students she tutors constantly love to tell her about what they’re learning in class. “She works very hard to ensure that her students, many of whom are from families with limited means, have access to opportunities that are fun as well as good educational experiences.”
Others in the community seem to think so too. In 2013 Ms. Moless took home a Mayor’s Teacher of the Year Award, back when she was teaching kindergarten at El Dorado Elementary School.
Ms. Moless wasn’t always sure she wanted to be a teacher. She was in graduate school studying linguistics and African studies when she started teaching college-level courses as part of a fellowship, and she found she enjoyed the job even more than what she was studying. After catching the teaching bug, she decided to take after her sister, who at the time had been teaching kindergarten for more than 10 years.
“Working with young kids, I could hopefully give them a foundation that could help pay off in college,” she said.
But like many other teachers, Ms. Moless cites the lack of resources for schools and their students as a big challenge. At Junipero Serra, 84 percent of students qualify for free lunch. Nearly 60 percent are English language learners. So Ms. Moless raises money from the community and applies for grants to develop projects for her students that blend math, science, language and art. Her DonorsChoose page, which she uses to crowdfund her ideas, boasts 119 completed projects. Examples include a “Physics of Art” project in which children studied how force and motion affects the art of painting, a dramatic workshop that taught language skills through theater and an engineering project that helped students learn science and language through interactive play with toy cars.
“She has lots of fun art activities, and [the students] are always showing off their art activities to me,” said Junipero Serra Elementary School Principal Eve Cheung. “There’s so much joy in the classroom.”
Ms. Moless also collaborates deeply with other educators and serves as a mentor for new kindergarten teachers, Principal Cheung said. She received a grant from the San Francisco Education Fund last year to provide professional development to her colleagues, which sent her and another teacher to Columbia University to study a particular curriculum called “reading and writing workshop” and bring back the knowledge to other teachers at the school.
Principal Cheung also praises Ms. Moless’s ability to work with families to create parent-teacher partnerships that help students succeed both at school and at home, as well as her knack for differentiated learning.
“If the child has a weakness in a particular area she will target that area, and if students are excelling, she knows how to push them to the next level,” Ms. Cheung said. “This year several of the students have zoomed beyond first-grade reading levels. They’re just doing extremely well.”
Ms. Moless said she loves learning from her students their creative ideas and stories. Though it’s a huge undertaking to teach students the concepts that will set them on a path for life, Ms. Moless makes it look easy.
“It is just a fun thing to do, and every day is different,” Ms. Moless said. “It’s very intellectually challenging.”
We’re telling stories about San Francisco teachers throughout the month of May as part of Teacher Appreciation Month. If you love this story, share with your friends on social media and spread the word about the amazing work teachers like Ms. Moless do in our schools. Want to learn more about how you can thank a teacher in San Francisco schools? Visit thankateachertoday.org