SCHENECTADY -- For the first few weeks of the school year, Schenectady High School English teacher Lori Lebel keeps her expansive classroom library hidden behind butcher paper.
“Every year, the kids are like, 'We know those are books. You are an English teacher,' " said Lebel, who has taught ninth-grade at the high school for eight years. “ ‘Those books,’ I tell them, ‘You are not ready for them.’”
As days and weeks tick by, she keeps the book cases covered, seeking to build curiosity and excitement for the books in her classroom. Then during banned book week – which usually falls in the final week of September – Lebel and her students rip open the shelves.
Schenectady English teacher Lori Lebel with her classroom library. Photo: Zachary Matson/Daily Gazette Reporter
“Kids come into her class in ninth-grade and say, ‘I don’t like to read,’” said Val Smith, who works with Lebel in the school’s Smart Scholars program. “She’ll say to them: ‘I’ll change your mind.’ She helps them love to read.”
Lebel, who has been with the district since 2000 and also taught at Central Park Middle School, was surprised Tuesday by Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul's presentation of an Empire State Excellence in Teaching Award. She was among 60 teachers statewide to receive the honor and $5,000 for professional development during Teacher Appreciation Week.
She and her students had gathered in the high school cafeteria during the first period of the day, waiting for the surprise. As Hochul spoke, it gradually dawned on Lebel that the gathering was for her, and she fought back tears.
“I saw her crying, and I just wanted to cry,” ninth-grader Dajeana Williams said.
Lebel sees her job as finding for students the books that will make them fall in love with reading -- the books that spark new interests or deepen a student’s existing passions. There’s a book out there for everyone, and she won’t stop asking students about their interests, what kind of movies and shows they watch and whether anything they’ve ever read moved them until she finds the books for them.
“If they identify as a non-reader, it’s only because no one has ever given them the right book,” she said. “It’s my job to find the right book for them that opens doors.”
Lebel has organized reading competitions that pit class against class and students against teacher and administrators. They race to finish the most books and plaster printouts around the school about who has read what.
“The reading competition -- we need to win this reading competition,” ninth-grader Abigail Brown said, as she and a group of classmates explained why Lebel was their favorite teacher. “She makes us want to read.”
She employs “Do knows” -- creative writing prompts – and riddles to get kids thinking in creative ways and stretching their imaginations. But she also plays the role of caring confidant and counselor, staying late to talk with students stressed by English, geometry or friends.
“She’s there for us,” ninth-grader Taylor Reed said. “If I’m having a bad day, I can go here, even if it’s just teenage drama stuff.”
Sometimes she stakes out a tough position with her students, the ninth-graders said.
“She wants us to succeed, and she’s not gonna be nice about it,” Reed said.
“Her being tough is what helps,” ninth-grader Williams agreed. "She helps us figure it out on our own."