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Amidst the chaos, Loren Hill fostered a love of learning

Loren Hill reads to his students on his second-to-last day of teaching. - Amelia Heagerty/staff photo
Loren Hill reads to his students on his second-to-last day of teaching.
— image credit: Amelia Heagerty/staff photo

Loren Hill strolled leisurely across the front of the classroom, thumbs in his belt-loops and shoulders thrown back, “moseying” for his third-grade class at Chautauqua Elementary School.

“It’s a cowboy walk, not too fast, and you gotta have boots so I can’t really do it,” he said to his 23 students, all of whom were in attendance on the second-to-last day before summer vacation. “Come on, you show me how to mosey.”

And within seconds, half the class was up and strutting with Hill, who retired last month after teaching second- and third-grade in Vashon elementary schools for three decades. The adults in his life say he’s easygoing and would do anything to help out a neighbor (on this Island, many of us are); his students say he’s nice, tall, has a mustache and doesn’t give too much homework. They agreed on one thing — “he was fabulous,” as parent Ann Dulfer said.

His classroom is anything but orderly; the ground is littered with crayon wrappers, pencils and sweatshirts, but it’s also filled with laughter, and the chemistry between instructor and students is palpable as he reads “Meanwhile Back at The Ranch” aloud. Hill engages his students at every step, seeking their reactions to the jokes in the picture book, which range from plays on words to outright irony.

“Laughter should be in every classroom,” said Chautauqua Principal Kate Baehr. “(Hill) has that wonderful balance of knowing when you need to have humor and nurturing.”

Hill, who turned 61 June 19, first taught second-grade at Burton Elementary School in 1978, after one year as an industrial arts teacher in Oregon and seven years with the Air Force in Vietnam. He came to Chautauqua when it opened in 1994; he moved to third-grade and back to second before finally settling on third-grade.

“Third-graders like school. They really like it, and so that’s fun, to teach kids that really want to be here,” Hill said.

He said he’s helped develop curriculum including a unit on geology and minerals, because his students were passionate about the subject.

“Kids love rocks,” Hill said. “It’s just fun to teach them about the rocks and where they come from. They pick up rocks and want to know what they are.”

A significant aspect of the third-grade curriculum is preparation for the Third Grade Program. All the third-grade classes spend many months learning songs, from the 1920s on, and the year culminates with a performance of those songs put to dance.

This year students learned songs including “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “Seventy-Six Trombones” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”

“It’s really the highlight of the year for them, and us,” Hill said.

At this year’s program, Hill pulled out all the stops, donning a wig and belting out his own rendition of Roy Orbison’s classic “Cryin’ Over You” — only he changed the refrain to “retirin’ over you.”

“The kids were just dying,” said parent Jenna Riggs. “He strikes me as being someone who’s not super gregarious, so to get out there and do this kind of thing was funny. To be all silly — the kids really liked it.”

Third-grade teacher Sharon Boyer has been collaborating with Hill for 25 years, ever since she began teaching second-grade alongside Hill at Burton Elementary School. While there is nothing formal designating the pair as teaching partners, she said when the two began working together, they “just clicked” and began creating new curriculum together almost at once.

“It’s been wonderful,” Boyer said. “We’ve just collaborated and cooperated forever. He is one of the kindest, gentlest, most patient human beings I have ever known, and it’s been a delight to work with him all these years.”

She said the most memorable curriculum the pair developed together was the “living solar system” they acted out with their second-grade classes on the lower field at Burton Elementary School, in which the students were planets and “orbited” the sun.

“He’s always gone the extra mile, the extra 10 miles, the extra 100 miles,” Boyer said. “And he’s very clever at figuring things out. We were doing a unit in simple machines and he rigged up a pulley system so I could raise and lower the children.”

Boyer said she’ll likely teach for two more years before she retires and wishes Hill could have stuck around for those last years with her.

“It’s been the most amazing experience for me to work with him for so long and to have such a close, kind friend for so long,” she said. “It’s terrible, I don’t know what I’ll do without him.”

Parents said they appreciated Hill’s teaching style, in which he followed his students’ lead instead of rigidly following a predetermined lesson plan.

“One of the best things about him is he was so easygoing,” said Dulfer. “And he could just follow the flow of the classroom at that moment,” encouraging his students’ passion in a subject even if it was “tangential” to their original lesson.

Riggs concurred, saying he’d never discourage students’ interest in a far-flung topic.

“At the end of the year, the kids got really into potato bugs, crazy into potato bugs,” she said. “They had little habitat aquariums on their desks. It may not be in the lesson plan, but he kind of rolled with it. The kids had printouts about potato bugs; they learned they’re actually related to crabs — they’re terrestrial crustaceans.”

She said her daughter, Grace Riggs, has “absolutely loved third-grade,” and enjoyed and looked forward to going to class.

“He seemed really concerned with their feelings and they was that they related to the other kids,” she said.

Grace said she enjoyed learning about topics as diverse as whales and a woman who traveled on the Mayflower.

“He’s done a really good job as a teacher,” she said. “He’s really nice, he’s good at math, and he’s good at reading to us. He’s also told us some funny stories about his childhood.”

Her classmate Ashton Dulfer said his favorite topic this year was “fish — we learned about their bodies and their skeletons and their guts.”

((In describing his teacher to someone who’d never met him, he explained, “He’s nice, he’s tall and he has a mustache. He doesn’t give you that much homework.”))

At the end of the year, the class gave Hill a beach chair, because hopefully he’ll have some time to relax in his retirement, and students made cards.

“We’ll miss him; he was great,” said Dulfer.

Hill said he’s got plenty of projects around the house to keep him busy, and he’s looking forward to traveling to Italy and taking a cruise of the Mediterranean in September.

“Mr. Hill is just one of those people you want to get to know and keep in touch with,” Dulfer said. “I hope he has a great time on his new ventures.”

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