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"I hate to sound cliché, but it's all due to my eighth-grade teacher. He was an extraordinary manthe first black person I ever knew. He opened my eyes to a world outside my own experience."

Joe Cushing comes from a family of educators that date back three generations on his father's side. But his decision to teach eighth-grade American history was inspired from outside that circle of influence.

"I hate to sound cliché, but it's all due to my eighth-grade teacher. He was an extraordinary manthe first black person I ever knew," Cushing said. "He opened my eyes to a world outside my own experience."

In the eighth grade, however, Cushing didn't ponder Clinton Collins' intellect, his teaching style or the high bar he set for his students. Cushing was in college declaring his major before he realized the gift Collins had passed along to him.

"It took another five years of maturing for me to ask, 'When did I begin to think critically; to look around and think about my world?' "

Cushing continues to think critically about his world today, 12 years after he was hired at West Jefferson Middle School to teach history.

He is on the board of the Colorado Association of Middle Level Education and just spoke last weekend at an annual conference in Beaver Creek. The nonprofit is essentially a middle school advocacy organization, and members stay abreast of state trends.

Junior high school models focus on core academic areas with staff organized by departments, Cushing explained. Middle school models focus on adolescent development, and teachers are organized in teams and have the same students in common.

"It's a social thing," Cushing said. "How do you go from being a child to being a young adult? (Middle schools) tend to address those needs as well."

Most middle schools in the Jeffco district have two grade levelsseven and eight. West Jefferson Middle School is one of only three in the district to have three grade levels, sixth, seventh and eighth.

Every year, Cushing teaches his new students about the 1800s and 1900s in American history and Colorado historythe Civil War, gold mining and frontier towns. But his favorite two units come every spring when he and other teachers tackle a colossal undertaking to reenact the first great wave of immigrants to Ellis Island.

Students dressed in period costumes are herded like cattle to classrooms that serve as checkpoints, with teacher or parent inspectors. The experience of standing for hours to learn their fateacceptance or deportationopens the students' eyes to a world outside their own existence.

"It's probably the best thing I have come up with during my career," Cushing said.

Last year, a former student came by the school to see Cushing. He was 24 and had just been accepted to The Second Citya long-running improvisational comedy troupe in Chicago that has launched the careers of many noted movie stars such as Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Martin Short.

The focus of the student's comedy is politics and current events, and he hopes to take his talents on the road as an entertainer.

Before he left, he came to thank Cushing for his influence. He remembered that it was in Cushing's eighth-grade class that he really started to think about his role in society, his country and the world.

"That was probably the most humbling experience of my career, thus far," Cushing said. "The realization that this occupation can have that kind of an impact on a person."


Side bar details:

Joe Cushing
West Jefferson Middle School
Subject: Eighth-grade American history
Age: 40
Time in classroom: 12 years
Littleton native; fifth-generation Coloradan










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