Penn State

PSU professor and filmmaker discovers transformative teacher

When Duval Elementary School in east Gainesville, Fla., received an “F” on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in 2002, shock waves jolted the administration, which faced cuts in state funding. That’s when long-time teacher Gloria Jean Merriex radically changed her approach and helped temporarily save the school.

With Duval’s future and her career on the line, Merriex orchestrated in one year a dramatic turnaround for the school, her students and herself. Using an unorthodox teaching method that focused on music and movement, she caught the eye of Don Pemberton, founding director of the Lastinger Center for Learning at the University of Florida.

Over the past 15 years, the center has grown into an educational research and development leader that annually raises millions of dollars in grant money to further its research through its Gainesville and Coral Gables offices.

When Pemberton discovered Merriex in late 2002, a deep friendship developed, which led to her methods being on the brink of national recognition. Her success also led to a documentary slated for release in 2018.

“Gloria was just an average teacher for much of her career,” Pemberton said. “But Gloria discovered what it was going to take to move student achievement in a positive direction, and she did it in a profound and transformative way.”

Shortly after meeting Merriex, Pemberton began working with her to develop a curriculum around her teaching methods. As the work progressed, Pemberton introduced the story to award-winning filmmaker and Penn State professor Boaz Dvir, who was teaching at the University of Florida at the time.

Dvir has produced and directed critically acclaimed films such as “Jesse’s Dad” and “A Wing and a Prayer,” and he said the opportunity to tell Merriex’s story was a perfect fit for his filmmaking style and philosophy.

“As soon as I began to learn about Gloria, I realized that yes, she taught math extremely well, but more important she transformed her students’ lives,” Dvir said. “As a filmmaker I aim to open people’s eyes to under appreciated possibilities and stimulate discussions about vital topics. That’s how I measure my projects’ success. It’s never about money or recognition. One of the reasons I connected with Gloria was because she lived her life in a similar way.”

During the first 25 years of her career, Merriex taught using standard methods. She followed guidelines provided by the Florida Department of Education and taught within the pedagogical space she was most comfortable. Helping kids to get across the finish line and simply graduate is what success looked like for Merriex, according to Pemberton.

When the FDOE implemented the FCAT in 1998, Duval consistently earned below average grades until the F in 2002. The assessment-based education model pioneered by Florida monetarily incentivized high test scores for individual schools. Merriex was demoralized by the effect the failing grade was going to have on her school, Pemberton said.

The FCAT results also dictated teacher salaries. The annual teacher evaluation considered student gains when renewing contracts and poor student performance could lead to layoffs in one of the most impoverished areas in the country. Gainesville has about 35 percent of its population living in poverty, according to census data.

Merriex grew up in east Gainesville. After she graduated from the University of Florida with a bachelor’s degree in education, she had a pathway out. She didn’t take it. She remained in her hometown and taught at Duval. When Duval failed the FCAT, she could have contemplated retirement or finished her career on the most comfortable path, one she knew for 25 years. Once again, she didn’t take it.

Strict guidelines

Facing incredible odds and pressure from the school district, Merriex applied methods that administrators didn’t quite understand — and neither did she at first, Pemberton said.

Schools in impoverished areas in Florida are often underserved and under-resourced, Pemberton said. The result is that state and federal departments of education mandate the schools to use strict pacing guidelines. Merriex stopped following them.

One visit to her classroom clearly showed why school administration trusted her to turn things around, Pemberton said.

“Her classroom was a glorious example of a pedagogue in command of the content and the culture of her students,” Pemberton said. “Until that moment, I had never seen anything like it.”

Emily Bonner, associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Texas San Antonio, was introduced to Merriex in 2005 when she was a doctoral candidate at the University of Florida. She began observing Merriex in her classroom for about seven hours a week. Bonner said she quickly discovered the power of Merriex’s methods and developed the observations into her dissertation topic.

“She was able to teach in a way that made all of us think differently about mathematics, education and labels that are often used in K-12 settings,” Bonner said. “She helped many of us reconstruct our identities around these ideas, and it was simply who she was.”

As part of her research that lasted about four years, Bonner studied film that was shot from inside of Merriex’s classroom.

Dvir uses clips of the grainy video in his film, “Discovering Gloria.” The relics show Merriex leading her students through a wide range of mathematics exercises using song, dance, chants and writing. The movement never stopped as the room was lit with bright pupils that Merriex turned even brighter.

A typical lesson would begin with a rap song sing along that Merriex wrote to include essential math concepts. She also choreographed several dances where geometric symbols would be pantomimed to help students visualize the formulas. The students would return to their seats to write on their journals, but before too long they were back on their feet at the chalkboard to explain reasoning and interact with their classmates.

“I found my kids coming in and just singing and singing,” Merriex said in an interview used in Dvir’s film. “Even in and around my household. My little grandbaby’s 3 years old, and I noticed that she can sing a song over and over and all these words. So, we can’t say that kids can’t learn. So I say, well, let me come up with the math rap.”

Less than one year after Duval received the “F” and Merriex implemented her teaching method, the children were approaching the next round of FCATs. The scores came back and Duval earned an “A.” The grade raise meant about $100 per student from the state, which equated to about $30,000 for Duval.

“Gloria wasn’t satisfied,” Pemberton said. “She was courageous in her conviction and she deeply believed that being a teacher went well beyond the classroom.”

Providing support

As her curriculum flourished, Merriex became a support structure for the impoverished community. Without any desire for adulation, she provided food, books, clothes and even money for the kids who needed it the most.

“On top of her teaching duties she became a hero in the community,” Pemberton said. “But it was taking a toll on her health.”

Throughout her life Merriex struggled with diabetes, but during the transformational year the amount of time and energy she devoted to Duval worsened the condition. After a visit to the doctor that year she was told to rest, but the next day she was back to class.

“What I say, goes. And they understand. What I say, goes.” Merriex said in footage used in Dvir’s film.

Building on the success of her students, Merriex formed a traveling math team, whose performances gave colleagues around the state the opportunity to see her methods in action. The team was invited to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s national conference in Coral Gables.

Founded in 1930 by breakfast cereal pioneer Will Keith Kellogg, the foundation funds educational research and child development with grant money awarded each year.

Following the math team’s performance in early 2008, Pemberton wrote a grant proposal asking the Kellogg Foundation to fund the development of her curriculum for national application.

The Kellogg Foundation awarded Merriex $100,000 to develop the curriculum in conjunction with Pemberton and the Lastinger Center.

Merriex visited Pemberton in Coral Gables to sign the grant paperwork and about one week later, following a full day of teaching, Merriex died on May 16, 2008 of a brain hemorrhage. She was 58.

“Here was a human being that was demonstrating what it takes to be able to help students achieve their potential,” Pemberton said. “What it took unfortunately was Gloria’s life.”

Shortly after she passed away, Pemberton reached out to Dvir with the documentary idea.

“Every Friday afternoon, without fail at about 3 o’clock, my phone would ring and on the other side was Gloria saying, ‘hello my old friend,’ ” Pemberton said. “I lost my dear friend and I knew he would be able to tell those parts of Gloria’s remarkable story with grace and empathy.”

After receiving a grant from the Kellogg Foundation, Dvir began filming in 2008. For almost one school year after Merriex’s death, he filmed Duval teachers and students using her techniques.

Dvir became a permanent fixture around east Gainesville as he interviewed friends and family to fill the void created in the film by Gloria’s absence. His cameras were rolling when the first FCAT results since her death came back. Without Merriex, Duval failed again. A few years later it closed its doors.

“I thought Duval would have a hard time maintaining its academic excellence without Gloria. But I felt as shocked and upset as everyone when it failed,” Dvir said. “It was almost an entire year of filming down the drain, but it was a learning experience. It was one of the many lessons I learned from Gloria.”

Almost 10 years after her death, Merriex’s methods continue to impact research at the Lastinger Center, but without her the pedagogical theories lack the only woman who could make them come alive, according to Pemberton.

“I learned something while making the film that captures the essence of her incredible story,” Dvir said. “Gloria didn’t even like rap.”

Leon Valsechi: 814-231-4631, @leon_valsechi