Alice Charkes, who is retiring this summer after more than three decades as a language teacher at Windham County schools, is shown in this 2016 file photo reviewing spelling bee words with three of her Green Street School students: Thomas Hyde, David Berkson-Harvey, and Sylvie Lann.
Wendy M. Levy/Commons file photo
Alice Charkes, who is retiring this summer after more than three decades as a language teacher at Windham County schools, is shown in this 2016 file photo reviewing spelling bee words with three of her Green Street School students: Thomas Hyde, David Berkson-Harvey, and Sylvie Lann.

A tireless foreign language teacher bids au revoir

Alice Charkes retires after 33 years of teaching students young and old throughout Windham County

BRATTLEBORO-After a varied teaching career of 33 years, Alice Charkes, language teacher, is retiring on June 14.

Since 2007 she has taught French to all grades at Green Street School.

"It's important to understand the pulse of whom you're teaching," she said. "You have to know who the American kid is in the 2020s. My approach is to teach kids stuff that they can access and use, or that relates to them. It has to be interesting and immediate and with a certain playfulness."

With first-graders, she continued, "we might talk about farm animals and the sounds they make in French. Or tell fairy tales in French, or sing songs and play games. With fifth- and sixth-graders, we did a huge unit on the 56 Francophone countries around the world, where French is one of the official languages and the colonial legacy."

Her experience includes nine years teaching French at Brattleboro Union High School, a year of teaching French literature at Putney School, and teaching adults at the School for International Training.

A world of languages

Charkes traveled a winding path to becoming an educator. Though she grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, she traveled extensively as a youth.

"I lived in London, England, with my family for eight months when I was 13," she said, "and did a lot of traveling in Europe with my family then. I also spent a week at horse camp in Devon, England, that summer." She started horseback riding at 8 years old.

After high school, Charkes "spent a couple of weeks traveling in England with a high school friend - a trip that I designed myself for just the two of us."

Her language studies began in middle school.

"I started learning French in seventh grade and kept up with the study throughout college," she said. "I spent a summer in Avignon, France, at the end of college."

Charkes started studying Russian in 11th grade. She majored in the language at Bryn Mawr but chose not to pursue a doctorate.

"It was the Reagan era and the Cold War," she said, "so there weren't many opportunities other than academia or the CIA."

After graduation from college, she held a series of jobs.

"I worked in restaurants, at a kitchenware store, in a horse barn," she said. "Then in my late 20s, I decided it was time for a career."

Charkes earned a master's degree from Harvard's Graduate School of Education in order to be able to teach French and Russian at the high school level.

"I also was able to get my certification in social studies because of my many college courses in history, art history, and economics," she said.

Language and travel

Charkes began her search for that first teaching job, and that's when fate stepped in.

"Frank Spencer, who was principal at Wilmington Middle High School in Vermont, was a Harvard College graduate," she said. "He offered me a job, and I accepted."

Thus, Charkes began her career at Wilmington Middle High School, where she taught French I, II, and III. The next year, she taught French and Russian - one semester of each - to grades four through six, two days a week at nearby Deerfield Valley Elementary School.

"I developed a whole program for elementary school," she said. "I was teaching seven different grades and seven different levels. I had to make sure the students progressed developmentally."

Based on both her knowledge of pedagogy and her own experience, Charkes believes strongly in linking language study to related travel.

"My junior year of college," she said, "I studied Russian language and literature abroad: a semester in Moscow and a semester in London. At that time [1982-83], Moscow was a very oppressive place to be."

She noted that "any Soviets we met could by law have been arrested for speaking with us."

"We felt spied upon," she continued. "There was a feeling of paranoia. The education system was very rigid. In London, there was a very different approach. There they have tutorials - you sit and listen, and then the professor or lecturer leaves the room."

It was "a tremendous experience, both linguistically and culturally," she said. "I learned a lot."

Seven years later, through the Experiment in International Living, Charkes traveled again to Moscow, as well as to St. Petersburg and two other regions.

"By then, it was the time of glasnost [an intentional loosening of government control] under Mikhail Gorbachev, and things were very different," she said. "I saw books for sale on the street - that was banned before. And there were Russian Orthodox priests walking around, which I had not seen the first time. It was a more lively, cosmopolitan place."

To help her own students become more engaged in the world, Charkes said there are two things she has done a lot of: taking kids on trips, and cooking with them.

"Two years in a row," she said, "I took 15 sixth-graders from Green Street School to Magog in Quebec. I wanted to provide that opportunity for those who might not otherwise have it. I'd also taken high school kids there in the 2000s, so I knew the town really well."

Cooking activities demand a different kind of preparation.

"It requires lots of organizing," Charkes said, "and there is always the potential for chaos. At Green Street we cook 10 or 11 dishes, with no kitchen. I put the kids in pairs and we create an amazing meal."

Outside the classroom

With retirement allowing more time for her other interests (gardening, knitting, reading, classical music), Charkes plans to continue her study of the violin. She's taken lessons for the past 13 years.

"I've played instruments all my life," she said, "including the saxophone, piano, and guitar. In 2010–2011, I was teaching part-time and finishing courses for [my] master's, and I took an adult beginner violin course with [renowned regional violin player and teacher] Michelle Liechti. I fell in love with the instrument."

Charkes is also an avid cyclist, both as her daily mode of transportation and as her preferred mode for touring trips in the United States and abroad.

"I have always cycled," she said. "When growing up, I used my bike to commute to summer jobs. I started bicycle touring in the mid-1980s when a friend in Vermont introduced me to it."

Since then, she's gone on one or two bicycle trips a year for almost 40 years.

"I've cycled across the United States; down the Pacific coast from Washington state to the border with Mexico," she said - the trip was "the length of the United Kingdom."

"I've done three extensive trips in Europe, and cycled in Ontario and Quebec," she said. "Many thousands of miles!"

Charkes has done a lot of advocacy work for Brattleboro and statewide to improve roads and highways for bicyclists and pedestrians.

She is also keeping up her language studies.

"During the pandemic, I started studying Yiddish," she said. "It's yet another alphabet and another language family (Germanic), and it's the language of my ancestors."

Reflecting on a teaching life

With retirement imminent, Charkes has taken time to look back.

"I've enjoyed every level I've taught," she said. "Each age group is so different, with different challenges in how to present information."

At BUHS, she said, "I liked that with teenagers you get to see them blossom as young adults, at the end of their public education career, which you miss with elementary students."

"Some of the students I've reached over the years are now adults and parents," Charkes said. "I'm glad this is the profession I've had."

This News item was submitted to The Commons.

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