Madison teacher uses book to help students navigate through kindergarten; reunion at hay bales
Every child goes through their own metamorphosis as they enter school wide-eyed and eager to learn, then leave at the end of the year transformed.
At least, that’s what Kelli Bridwell, a kindergarten teacher at Madison Avenue Lower Elementary School, hopes for her children as they leave her classroom and go on to first grade.
Bridwell, a Pachuta native, has taught kindergarten at Madison Avenue for 16 years. Each year, she uses the Eric Carle book “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” in her lessons.
When she began teaching, she knew she needed a theme for her classroom décor.
“Everyone told me, ‘Oh, you need a theme so the kids will know you,’ ” she said. “So, my first thought was that I had to do the “Hungry Caterpillar.” I just love that book and everything it represents.”
The book has been her theme since day one. Even when her son was born, his nursery was also Hungry Caterpillar-themed.
“I love Eric Carle, and I love that book,” she said. “It’s awesome. I love the colors and the story behind it. Everybody starts out as a little, innocent creature that evolves into this beautiful person. It shows the evolution of life and the joy of childhood.”
She said her children love the story. Each year, she brings in caterpillars and her students observe the process as the caterpillars turn into butterflies. “The caterpillar is like our kindergarteners,” Bridwell said. “They come in and they’re not real sure what to do, and it takes them a while. But by the end of the year, they turn into these beautiful butterflies and soar on to first grade.”
Each year, the city of Madison creates some sort of art with hay bales.
This year, the theme was the Very Hungry Caterpillar, complete with several hay bales lined in a row and painted to look like the caterpillar on the cover of the book.
“One afternoon, my phone just started blowing up,” she said. “There were texts, emails, phone calls saying, ‘You’ve got to see what they’re doing this year.’ ”
She knew she had to get her kindergarten class over to the hay bale creation to take a group photo.
As she started to get that organized, she got the idea to invite all her previous students as well.
“I got to thinking, why not invite all of my classes from years past?” she said.
Bridwell reached out to the mother of one of her former students, and she agreed to help her get it organized.
“We set up a Facebook group and invited all my children, who are not so little anymore,” she said.
According to Bridwell, 100 of her former students showed up. Each class from her 16 years of teaching was represented.
“It was the most humbling experience I’ve ever had,” she said. “It was just humbling that all of those people came for me. It made me feel like I am doing my part in the community. It reinforced that I made the right decision of becoming a teacher.”
Bridwell credits her band director from high school for inspiring her to become a teacher.
Because of his example, Bridwell knew she wanted to give her students the same experience that she had.
“He just loved his kids,” she said. “He loved us, not because we did well or didn’t do well. He just was loving. He was more worried about the person for who they were as a person, not for how well they did in school or how well they behaved. He just kind of inspired me to want to do that.”
However, she started school with the intention of becoming a nurse. She did not immediately pursue teaching because of the pay.
“When nursing didn’t work out, I said to heck with the money, I want to be happy,” she said. She went to the University of Southern Mississippi and was the first in her family to graduate from college.
Deciding which age group to teach was a no brainer for Bridwell. She did her student teaching in kindergarten and sixth grade.
“Day one in kindergarten, I knew,” she said. “I said, ‘I have to do this.’ It was just my calling. I had to teach little ones. They love their teacher. They love to learn. It’s amazing.”
While the work is tiring, Bridwell takes pride in it.
“People always say there is no way you’ve taught kindergarten for 16 years,” she said. “When you chase around five-year-old children all day, they keep you young.”
She loves teaching kindergarten also because it is the year that sets a child’s foundation in education.
“I love it because I want to set my kids up for success,” she said. “My top priority is that they love school. I tell their parents that when we first meet every year in August. Because when a child loves school, they’re going to learn.”
She and her husband Wes have one son, Aiden.