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Morse Code for Kids: A Dot Leads the Way

August 18, 2005 By:
Carin M. Smilk, JE Feature
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Carole (Hamburger) Beitchman
You can glimpse a lot from the inside of a person's home. Art, books, music. Souvenirs and framed photos. An armchair tilted toward the light. A multi-level enclave in the city, within walking distance of cultural sites and the corner grocer.

These are the things that are important to Carole Beitchman. These - and education.

Beitchman (nee Hamburger) took the straight-and-narrow path toward a career. Born and raised in the Jewish haven of Brookline, Mass., she attended Boston University and Boston State Teacher's College, graduating with a degree in elementary education. She followed the man who was to be her husband, Carl Beitchman, to Philadelphia, where she promptly got a teaching job at the David Newlin Fell School at Ninth Street and Oregon Avenue, in South Philly.

In 1970, she earned a master's degree in guidance and counseling from Temple University.

She taught fourth, fifth and sixth grades at Fell for more than 34 years (the last 18 of those in the kindergarten class). She briefly taught sixth grade at the William M. Meredith School at Fifth and Fitzwater, but retired from it all in 2002, after 36 years in the Philadelphia public-school system.

And all along, she and Carl lived in the city, too - 14 years in an apartment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and, after that, nearby on 22nd Street, off Cherry. Their sons - Eric, 31, and David, almost 29 - grew up there, became Bar Mitzvahs at Rodeph Shalom Metropolitan, and lived a thoroughly urban lifestyle. (David, in fact, has followed his mother's footsteps with a private tutoring business.)

Still, Beitchman admits that she would have loved to have been an artist.

"But I knew I wanted children, and teaching could incorporate both," she explains. "It was the perfect job. I love teaching, but I loved not being married to it, like other jobs."

All these years later, art has met educator in the form of a 32-page children's book, Beitchman's first, and one she wrote, illustrated and published herself. She also chose to use her maiden name on the book, which, if anything else, is decidedly kid-friendly.

A Quest to Find Its Place
The Star Pupil, printed in May and now hitting the local market, is a labor of love, something Beitchman felt she always had within her. It's the story of a dot and its quest to find its place in life. Not surprisingly, it symbolizes children, says the author, "and how small they feel in this big world. It aims to simplify and demystify the world around them. I think that's what a good teacher does."

She also notes that despite the fact that she worked mostly with kindergartners, the curriculum wasn't all fun and games.

She talked a lot in class about life, about the fact that "just because you're little doesn't mean you're not as important as the others around you." She talked about what lay ahead for kids and what they were experiencing, with the goal of "living an authentic life. That's the biggest thing anyone can accomplish."

"There's such pressure for success," she laments, "especially in Jewish circles. But there's no magic bullet - you need to create your own passion in life and in what you do."

It all sounds rather lofty for a 5-year-old. But even at that age - especially at that age - a passion for learning is crucial, as is the ability to make yourself heard.

"Words are important," the educator insists. "Rhyming and poetry are important. It's necessary to encourage kids to express themselves, so they can figure out and identify who they are."

Her own favorite author? Robert Louis Stevenson. Works that inspired her book? Oh, the Places You'll Go! by Dr. Seuss and The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. In these classics are great words - sophisticated ones - many with double-entendres.

Take The Star Pupil, for example. Sure, the pupil is a student, but "it's also something more universal," explains Beitchman. "It's also an eye - what you see the world through."

And how is that world viewed today? Beitchman thinks before answering, somewhat carefully: "I don't think people are taught to question themselves, their happiness. They follow trends, wear labels, need to be accepted, do the same as everyone else. They weren't given an opportunity to find out who they are.

"I love asking kids, 'What does this mean to you?' and 'How do you feel?' I like to get them thinking about themselves as unique individuals. That, in essence, is what school should be - learning the tools to find your place in this world."

As for Beitchman, she appears to have found hers. At 61, she's enjoying this time to herself, time to write more books. She wants her dot to have a sister (The Zippidy-Do Dot) and a brother (The Razzle-Dazzle Dot).

She wants the exploration to continue.

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