The Fabric of a Teacher’s Life

The first lines of Gail Mitchell’s poem ""Ode to the Quilt"" bring a great American craft to life: ""Fabric! The cottons, the calicos, the chintzes, the seersuckers, the silks, the flannels, the woolens, the denims, the cloth. The colorful hues, indigo blues, lovely lavenders, sunshine yellow, passionate purples, whimsical whites, ravishing reds, gradient greens, burnished browns, brilliant blacks."" Mitchell, a resident of West Windsor, read her poem at the U.S. 1 Fiction Issue Party at Barnes & Noble in MarketFair on Thursday, August 12.

This summer, Mitchell, a teacher at Millstone River School, has seen her first book published, ""Learning English the Cultural Way""; has several quilts on exhibit at Monmouth Museum, located at Brookdale Community College); and had a poem published in the U.S. 1 Fiction Issue.

Mitchell teaches English as a second language for fourth and fifth graders by incorporating diversity and intercultural customs and celebrations for all the students. One way she does this is by working with the students to create quilts representing their own ethnic group – some of which are part of the quilt exhibit.

Born in Newark, Mitchell moved to East Orange during third grade, graduated from East Orange High School in 1964, and went on to Trenton State College. ""I was good with Spanish in high school, and I wanted to be an interpreter with the United Nations,"" she says. ""I chickened out and became an art major."" That didn’t last long since Mitchell realized that she didn’t like working with clay. However she still works with pen and ink, watercolors, and oils.

""My mother and aunt were teachers, and my parents were proud of me when I decided to be a teacher,"" says Mitchell. ""I am happy with the profession I chose and have enjoyed the challenges of being a teacher.""

Other family members include her father, a laborer, and three brothers and two sisters. Mitchell was the first to graduate from college. None of them are in the education field. Her first teaching job was in East Orange where she taught second and third grade students for three years.

She met her husband, William, when she was in the eighth grade and they started dating in high school. ""He was drafted and went to Vietnam,"" she says. ""I was so thankful that he came back alive. He lost a lot of friends over there."" Married in 1968, they lived in Roselle, and then moved close to Wilmington, Delaware, because of his job.

While in Delaware Mitchell began working at Wiedener University as a nurse’s aide instructor. Many of the students – and patients – were Spanish. The instruction manual and the course was geared to bilingual students. It was during this time that she returned to school to earn her master’s degree in TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages) at Westchester University.

In 1983 the couple decided to return to central New Jersey and began building a home in Grovers Mill Estates. During construction, the family, now with two school-aged children, lived in East Windsor but the children were allowed to attend West Windsor-Plainsboro schools.

Their children are Jamal, who lives with his wife in Atlanta, Georgia; Janel, who recently moved to Fargo, North Dakota, with her husband and four children; and Sharon, who lives in Hamilton with her three children. William is an administrator with the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and is also the chairperson of the West Windsor Parking Authority.

After working with the adult ESL program through community education, Mitchell applied for a teaching position in WWP schools in 1989 and was hired to work at Dutch Neck School in the ESL program. She soon began commuting between Community Middle School and Dutch Neck to teach the students at both schools.

Mitchell, author and photographer of ""Learning English the Cultural Way,"" includes acknowledgments in the book to the parents and guardians of her English language learners, West Windsor-Plainsboro administrators and fellow teachers, her poetry workshops, and quilting groups. The book, written as a poem with a lively cadence, includes colorful photos of area students, quilts, and students making quilts are throughout the 40 pages. Published by Africana Homestead Legacy Publishers, the book is available for $20 through amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.

Quilting since 1989, Mitchell is mostly self-taught but does take occasional classes at quilt shops in Pennington and Allentown. Another hobby is photography. ""My husband loves to take photographs – he still has his old Brownie camera,"" she says. ""I usually take my camera wherever I go too. Taking photographs is fun for the students as they can see photos of children that have been with me over the years.""

Her popular quilt, Motherland, features photos of students with a symbol of their country of origin. Other quilts honor black leaders, historical matter, and one even incorporates Mitchell’s poetry.

The quilt on exhibit at the Monmouth Museum is ""Culture and Memories Threaded Through the Fiber Arts."" Mitchell and the ESL/bilingual students in the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District have seven quilts in the exhibit including ""First Photo Quilt, 1990""; ""The Motherland, 1996""; ""Culture Memories #1, 1998-1999""; ""ESL/Bilingual students Class of 2000""; ""New Jersey Symbols, 2000""; ""Culture Quilt, 2001""; and ""Culture Quilt, 2002."" Two culture quilts made by the ESL/bilingual adult classes are machine pieced with photo transfers.

-Lynn Miller

Quilt exhibit, through Sunday, September 5, is at Brookdale Community College, Newman Springs Road, Lincroft. Call 732-747-2266 or visit www.monmouthmuseum.org.