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Joyce P. Wheeler, innovative city teacher who made learning fun for students, dies

Joyce P. Wheeler, innovative city teacher who made learning fun for students, dies
Joyce Wheeler was an elementary school science teacher and curriculum specialist who kept a menagerie in her classroom. (Handout)

Joyce P. Wheeler, a retired Baltimore public schools elementary school educator who made teaching fun for her students, died March 21 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease at her family farm in Sequim, Wash. The former longtime Govans resident was 78.

“She must have been a decent teacher, because she stuck it out for such a long time,” said Neil T. Ross of Freeland, a former city public schools science teacher, who is a field representative for the Baltimore Teachers Union, AFT Local 340. “I knew her back in the 1980s and 1990s. She was outgoing and had a bubbly personality.”

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The former Joyce Provost was born in Honolulu to Roland Francis Provost, a career noncommissioned Army officer, and his wife, Leatha Smith Provost, a schoolteacher.

She was reared in Orlando, Fla., Caldwell, Iowa, and Bickelton, Wash., and graduated in 1959 from St. Paul’s Girls School in Walla Walla, Wash.

While attending the University of Washington, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1963 in anthropology, she met and fell in love with her future husband, Timothy L. Wheeler, after joining the Student Peace Union. They married in 1963.

Mrs. Wheeler, who later received a master’s degree from what is now Notre Dame of Maryland University, began teaching kindergarten in 1969 at Highlandtown Elementary School at Gough and Eaton streets after moving to Baltimore from Arlington, Va.

After a year, she joined the faculty of Grove Park Elementary School in Northwest Baltimore, where she used structured phonics to teach more than 1,000 children, mostly African American youngsters, to read, family members said.

Having grown tired of teaching reading in language in a conventional way, she decided to turn to science and transformed her classroom into a miniature zoo with gerbils, rabbits and a red-tailed Colombian boa named Naga-Ina, who she named after the two evil cobras, Nag and Nagaina, from Rudyard Kipling’s classic children’s short story “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.”

She added guinea pigs, two anoles, tropical fish, a goldfish and a brown tarantula to her zoo.

“Slowly I began bringing in animals into the room. One winter break the engineer took in a stray cat. He gave him to me. We named the cat Mr. Harvey for the engineer,” Mrs. Wheeler wrote in an unpublished biographical sketch.

She wrote that Mr. Harvey, who had a cat box in the classroom, liked to sleep during the day in her students’ lap and chase mice at night. After Mr. Harvey gave birth to a healthy litter of kittens, they renamed the cat Harveyette, and the cat and her offspring were given to a good home.

Her classes always ranked first or second in classroom attendance because of her teaching zoo, family members said.

“Fourth grade classes hatched chicken eggs and we watched peeps become poulets. Several rabbits have lived in my classrooms over the years with the obligatory fish,” she wrote, as well as a snake that went missing.

“I have since lost three snakes and never told a soul at school … I often have classes with twenty-four boys and eight girls,” she wrote. “When one teaches reading with a snake wrapped around an arm or stretched out along a chalk ledge or twisted up on a pointer, one can imagine that every boy has his eye in the right direction. The mind may wander from the topic [but he] is focused on me and the snake.”

Not only were her students responsible for caring for their classroom menagerie, but they were also required to write essays about it.

“One of her lessons was that teachers had to get their hands in the mud,” said her husband, a retired reporter, who had worked for the People’s World.

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Mrs. Wheeler’s teaching was guided by what she called “inquiry teaching which requires jumping off into the unknown.”

“There have been a number of times in my own classroom when a discussion or a line of questioning started in a direction which surprised me,” she wrote. “I have been very uncertain where the class was going. I was no longer in control. Those are the exciting times in teaching. Times when students are excited and driven by ideas — times when they are learning.”

In 1999, a visiting science supervisor from city public schools headquarters was so impressed with Mrs. Wheeler’s teaching and classroom that she offered her the position of citywide elementary science curriculum specialist, a job she held until retiring in 2006.

“We’d be in a grocery store and a former student from years ago would come up and say, ‘Mrs. Wheeler, do you remember me? I was in your kindergarten class or studied science with you,’ ” her husband said.

Mrs. Wheeler had been an active member of the Baltimore Teachers Union, AFT Local 340, and had served as its treasurer for several years. During the 1975 teachers strike, she had been picket captain at Grove Park.

“Joyce was a strong unionist, and you’d see her at all the rallies and demonstrations,” Mr. Ross said.

For 37 years, the couple’s home on Beaumont Avenue in Govans had been the setting for celebrations and elaborate New Year’s Eve parties, and a gathering point for those attending peace marches and social justice demonstrations in Washington.

In 2007, the couple moved to the Wheeler family farm in Sequim, where she “loved to garden in her front yard with the sweeping view of the Olympic Mountains in the distance,” her husband said.

She was an active member of the Clallam County (Wash.) Democratic Club and worked locally on President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, ringing doorbells, her husband said. In 2015, the club named Mrs. Wheeler and her family Democrats of the Year.

Mrs. Wheeler “celebrated,” her husband said, when two years ago the North Olympic Land Trust in Port Angeles, Wash., placed their 60-acre farm near the Dungeness River, which had originally been the Ward family farm and continually farmed since 1858, into a land conservancy. It had been in the Wheeler family since 1957, when Don Wheeler, her father-in-law, purchased it.

Plans for a memorial service in Baltimore are incomplete.

In addition to her husband, she is survived by two sons, Morgan Wheeler of Sequim and Donald Nicolas “Nick” Wheeler of Bainbridge Island, Wash.; a daughter, Susan Wheeler of Govans; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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