English teacher LaTanya Burke Credit: Photo by Jason Reblando

Students at South Shore’s School of Entrepreneurship admit to cutting class when they feel tired, bored, frustrated or simply in the mood to hang out with friends.

But Ms. Burke’s English class is one they don’t want to miss.

And it’s not because her class is all fun and games.

On a Tuesday in mid-October, LaTanya Burke chides her third-period seniors for their sloppy writing habits, in particular the hackneyed introduction, “In this paper I will talk about …”

That’s like telling a friend, “In this conversation, I’m going to tell you about my boyfriend cheating on me,” says an exasperated Burke, as her students chuckle. “You don’t do that.”

Burke, now in her sixth year of teaching, is not easy to please. Poorly done assignments, like this latest round of essays, get returned for revision. Cursing in her presence brings a 25-cent fine.

But through her no-nonsense, often sarcastic demeanor, shine a warmth and enthusiasm that connect with kids.

“She comes at us like she’s our momma,” explains freshman Jacqueline Thompson, who asked Burke to call her by the nickname, Princess. (“As long as I can be the queen, we’re fine,” Burke responded.) Jacqueline says that she’s cut other classes, but not Ms. Burke’s.

“If she knows you can do your work better, she’s going to be tough,” says senior Kaneisha Evans. “I love Ms. Burke.”

But the best thing about her, Burke’s students say, is how thoroughly she explains things.

“She is very detailed in her explanations, so we understand the work,” says senior Larry Mayne. “And that makes it easier to do.”

Done scolding, Burke has her seniors read and critique six sample introductory paragraphs, culled from student essays, giving special attention to sentence structure, punctuation and thesis statements. The exercise will help them on the next essay, a comparison of Mayan and Biblical creation stories. Then she distributes charts to help them organize their ideas into an introduction, a body with three points of comparison and a conclusion.

Burke says that in her first year of teaching, a colleague who taught special education stressed the importance of breaking assignments into small steps. “Don’t expect them to do anything that you did not teach them how to do,” she recalls hearing. The advice flabbergasted her at first, “You mean I have to tell them what a sentence is?” But taking responsibility for what they don’t know means less frustration for them and for her, she figures.

For the last 10 minutes of class, students write their introductory paragraphs as she circulates, answering questions that she knows many, even the loud ones, are too self-conscious to ask in front of peers. Burke ends most classes with a jump-start on homework. “If they go home and they’re confused, they’re not going to do it.”

Kids say they appreciate the personal attention. “She’ll go over work 100 times if you need it,” says freshman Dyron Smith, who thinks kids sometimes cut to avoid classes that they don’t understand.

Burke’s class suffers some cuts, she acknowledges, expressing the hope that her strict yet supportive style keeps it to a minimum. “I’m cool, but I’m firm,” she says. “I’m not some mousey teacher that they can whine to.”

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