For Children’s School teacher Denton, being a ‘big’ kid means starting small

Matt Burkhartt | Staff Photographer
John Denton, a teacher at Children’s School, sits in his classroom

John Denton looks down at 5-year old Caroline, who has just managed to pull off a second-long handstand near the playground.

“Perfect, Caroline,” he said. “You’re almost there.”

Caroline smiles back, laying face up in the grass. Michael Sammarco, 5, tries one himself and falls over. Denton looks down at a blond-haired boy tugging excitedly at his sweatshirt, pointing to the kids lining up before the door.

“Yes, Dylan?” he said.

Back in the Yellow Room, it’s story time. The radio is playing a low, narrative voice, which calms the room of 5-year-olds spread out on the floor. Denton, at 6-foot-4, sits hunched over in a 2-foot-tall chair, listening attentively along with his group.

It’s his last day at Children’s School.

Denton, 28, has been with the Chautauqua Children’s School for 13 years, and has been coming to the Institution his whole life. His grandmother was the first one to bring the Denton family to Chautauqua. He was once a student in the Blue Room where he now teaches, and he eventually graduated to the Boys’ and Girls’ Club, then the Senior Athletic Club. When he reached the “really awkward” age of 15, he opted out of his final year of SAC, chose to volunteer at the school and, he said, “that was that.”

Now pursuing a master’s degree in education at Brooklyn College, Denton said his interest in helping kids extends far back — even before he knew that he wanted to teach professionally. Denton said he would come home repeatedly from class to tell his mother about the tough course work, struggling to help classmates with their long division. Teaching, he said, just came naturally to him.

But what seems to come most naturally for the teacher of the 5s is his sense of humor, one that matches well with the 5-year-olds who listen.

On a recent trip to the “Taco Bell Tower,” Denton pulled the beach wagon blaring bluegrass, discussing favorite milkshake flavors with his students. During creative time, the children are encouraged to draw mustaches and goatees on his face. Other days, he may be covered in paint, or prancing around in a child-sized tutu. One time, during the “Clean-Up Song,” Denton noticed that one boy, instead of putting away his blocks, just wanted to dance.

So he joined in.

“You can carry blocks and dance at the same time,” Denton said.

He swears by the Montessori motto: “Play is the child’s work.”

And Denton doesn’t seem to see his job as work. He said he’s “not in it for the money,” and owes a lot to what he learns from fellow teachers. What Denton makes seem natural, he said, comes mainly from his experience teaching, a lot of it which “is spent on one knee.”

“He just gets right down on the kids’ level,” said music teacher Gretchen Hathaway. “And they just love him for it. And his reactions with them are so genuine.”

Gretchen Parker, the coordinator at Children’s School, has recognized the natural bond Denton has with his students. She said he knows well how “to speak their language.”

“Kids respond so well to the silliness,” she said. “And John is just so quick, clever and so witty. It’s those one-liners that he says that kids react to the most.”

It’s a given for Denton.

“What, am I going to make 5-year-olds be serious?” he said. “Hardly ever.”

And there’s a method to all Denton’s antics — or at “least a madness to it,” he said.

Five-year-olds, Denton said, are at the stage of mental growth when they’re becoming more cognizant of word choice, how to experiment with communication, even trying “joke-telling.”

Since “most kids know if you’re baby-talking them,” matching their level — figuratively and literally — isn’t optional, Denton said. It’s absolutely necessary.

Matt Burkhartt | Staff Photographer
Denton says goodbye to students on his last day at school Thursday.

Although one can often find “Jungle” John Denton on the same playground as the children he teaches, the 5s teacher affirms that his job is both educational and filled with “silliness.”

When children are talking during one of teacher Kate Zarou’s book readings, Denton will ask “to put on listening ears.” When kids throw water at each other at the beach, he reminds them about the “no splashing rule,” hunching over. For his “Estimation Jar,” a playtime counting exercise, Denton reveals the correct number of items in the container to the kids by counting out “one, two, three” with his “loud voice.”

The kids respond automatically, cheering: “Now! Let’s! See!”

Denton said he “has some structure” in his teaching “because 5-year-olds need some practice getting ready for kindergarten and being able to listen for just a minute.” Yet it doesn’t always work out as planned. Usually, he said, it “starts out with screaming at the top of your lungs.”

But structure to any method isn’t Denton’s shtick. He said that having any strict plan won’t cut it with kids — structure isn’t really their language.

Denton teaches middle school special education during the off-season at Mary McDowell Friends School, which is more rigorously demanding, yet he carries with him the same pep and energy he brings to Children’s School.

From the 13 years Denton had as practice, he said it comes down to teaching kids the fundamentals of friendship and how to help each other learn, all while having “as much fun as possible.”

Denton said there are three “rules” of the Blue Room at the Children’s School: Be good friends, follow directions and stay with the group. It’s Denton’s lovable humor that fills the cracks in between.

At the end of the day on Aug. 7, Denton, his fellow teachers and the 5s had just finished cleaning paint palettes, picking up scattered blocks and placing them neatly into plastic bins. Denton holds Caroline’s hand as they walk out to the bus together. The rest of the kids follow, including Michael Sammarco, who is one of the last to get on. Denton makes sure to squeeze out one more laugh before his friend heads off to kindergarten.

“I will miss John,” Michael had said earlier that morning.

And before Denton hopped on his road bike for the last time this summer, and off to another year of teaching in Brooklyn, he recalled one of the final lines of a song he’ll never forget.

“I’ll be back next year,” he said. “You bet.”