For the love of language: Scholarship continues to honor emeriti professor

April 12, 2013

"My heart is warm with the friends I make,And better friends I'll not be knowing,""Travel" by Edna St. Vincent Millay

In each class, Vanita Gibbs would stand before her students and recite words pieced together by poets such as Edna St. Vincent Millay.

"I wanted them to take in language and the beauty of words," she recalled more than two decades after retiring from Indiana State University in 1992.

Gary Cornwell still has notebooks in which he scribbled those poetic words and quotes written on the chalkboard. The now-retired science education teacher would often refer back to those quotes during his days in the classroom.

"Every day she left her class with a quote or a thought for the day," he said.

She also left them with something stronger - a friendship that has stood through years. In 2012, she received more than 100 Christmas cards and she estimated 90 percent of them came from former students.

"I'll stay in contact with those who want to," she said.

Cornwall sends cards during the holidays, but he also speaks with her during the year.

"She's just an amazing person," he said. "She was my favorite college professor. She was there to make you a better teacher, but also a better person."

***

Gibbs grew up in Terre Haute with a chalkboard in the kitchen. Each of the five children had space on which to write vocabulary words and figure math problems.

"All of us start learning when we're born," Gibbs said. "It can go in lots of directions from the influence of parents."

Gibbs older sister, Wanda Ramey, '44, grew up to be the first anchorwoman in the United States and received numerous awards for her pioneering journalism work.

"She was the teacher in the family home," Gibbs said. "She read to us all the time."

Gibbs traces her desire to be a teacher to kindergarten when her teacher, May Barry, pulled a chair next to her desk and began to read with her finger under the words in the book. Barry then had Gibbs read along with her before releasing Gibbs to read the lines on her own.

"Plain as day, I can see it. ‘I have a pony. His name is Dan,'" she said, reciting those first words that she read. "I've always said that's the way reading should be taught: individually, interestingly and rewarding."

After graduating from Indiana State Teachers College in 1958, Gibbs spent one year teaching at Sandison Elementary School. Then the principal at the college's Lab School invited her to teach second grade and she returned to Indiana State. Her classroom sat in the southwest corner of what is now University Hall. There she not only taught children, she began working with future teachers who would visit her classroom to practice their growing repertoire of skills.

In time, she moved from the elementary school to the university classroom and began preparing future teachers for their careers. Along the way, she continued her own education, earning a master's degree from Indiana State College in 1962 and was one of the first three doctorates awarded at Indiana State University.

As she taught in the elementary and early childhood department for 33 years, she became recognized as an expert in education. She developed curriculum for schools across Indiana. She spoke before the Indiana Senate and conducted workshops for parents on reading to their children. Through it all, she tried to impart her love of words to the college students who passed through her classes.

"I read something of worthy language to them every day," said Gibbs, whose husband Maver worked as principal at Woodrow Wilson Middle School for 25 years.

Frequently, she would turn to poetry. Gibbs would open books by Elizabeth Barratt Browning, John Keats or Edna St. Vincent Millay. She now easily recites the opening of Millay's "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver," which begins with this verse:

"Son," said my mother,When I was knee-high,"you've need of clothes to cover youand not a rag have I."

"It's powerful," she said of the poem. "It's the story of life."

**

Gibbs recently shared a book of quotations with Bayh College of Education Dean Brad Balch. One quote from Muppet-maker Jim Henson reminded him of Gibbs: "Kids don't remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are."

"Her love of teaching inspired others to learn and many of her former students became teachers as well because of her positive role modeling," Balch said. "At a time when much negative narrative surrounds education, great teachers like Dr. Gibbs remind us that teaching is a noble and rewarding profession and the heart of democracy."

Former students of Gibbs, including a former elementary student who led the effort, started a scholarship named in her honor for her gentle demeanor, intellectual curiosity and individualistic teaching style. The scholarship assists students who aspire to be innovative and inspirational teachers like Gibbs.

Good educators must find ways to help children learn within their different learning styles, Gibbs said.

"The acquisition of the skill of learning is the goal of the educator," Gibbs said. "We want it to be with joy."

Cornwell recalled Gibbs as the most passionate and professional person he met while at Indiana State.

"She taught classes with enthusiasm and wit," he said. "When you saw Dr. Gibbs teach, you wanted to teach like her."

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Vanita Gibbs ISU Photo/Tony Campbell

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Vanita Gibbs talks with Bayh College of Education Dean Brad Balch. ISU Photo/ Tony Campbell

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, associate director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or jennifer.sicking@indstate.edu