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'A fun and inviting space

New Conway teacher awarded top district honor by Sam Pierce | June 7, 2020 at 12:00 a.m. | Updated June 7, 2020 at 12:00 a.m.
Susan Henderson, the media specialist at Ellen Smith Elementary School, was recently named Conway School District Teacher of the Year. This is her first year at Conway, having moved to Arkansas from Oklahoma prior to last fall. She has been in education for 15 years.

Susan Henderson has changed the way students view the library.

She remodeled part of the library at Ellen Smith Elementary School into a makerspace by taking out some of the old tables and installing a magnetic maze board, a Lego wall and a Lite-Brite peg board. Henderson said it is a way to infuse more technology and hands-on learning.

“It changes the idea of the library, especially for the struggling reader,” Henderson said. “It changes the whole atmosphere, and kids get excited to come to the library because it creates a whole different environment.

“It really helps our students succeed.”

Henderson said one of the reasons she became a librarian was because of the makerspace idea. She attended a professional-development session where she learned about the concept, and she wanted to combine two of her favorite worlds — education and reading. Henderson, the media specialist at

Ellen Smith Elementary School, was recently named Conway School District Teacher of the Year.

“I’m sure there were other great candidates, so I’m not sure why I stood out,” Henderson said. “I think I try to do a lot of innovative things in my classroom, but there are so many great teachers, so I am not sure why I stood out compared to them.

“It is a really big honor. This is my first year in the district, and it has a reputation for being excellent in education, but I feel like I am still learning about the district — so it feels even more special.”

Henderson moved to Arkansas from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she taught at Roy Clark Elementary School. Her husband, Travis, changed jobs and relocated to the area. His family lives in Maumelle. She and Travis have been married 17 years. Henderson has been in education for 15 years, and this is her fifth year as a librarian.

Henderson is originally from Locust Grove, Oklahoma, which is about an hour’s drive from Tulsa. She graduated from Locust Grove High School in 2000 and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond in 2004. She earned a master’s degree in 2005 and a library media and information technology degree in 2017 from Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

This is her first year as media specialist at Ellen Smith Elementary, replacing Judy South, who retired after serving the district for more than 20 years.

“I think it is so amazing, and it definitely speaks to her character, and her love and passion for kids and for the media center and reading,” Holly King, principal at Ellen Smith Elementary, said about Henderson. “She is very innovative, and she has made part of her library a makerspace — it’s just a very creative space.

“It has changed the students’ drive for wanting to come to the library. She has made reading fun, and that has been a huge benefit to teachers, too. She will pull students in and do a project in her makerspace lab that complements what teachers are doing in the classroom.”

King said Henderson has made the library a fun and inviting space by changing the way it looks and how it promotes literacy.

“She has gotten kids interested in reading again,” King said.

“The kids have a lot of choice in what they are learning or create, and it allows them the freedom to enjoy the space,” Henderson said. “It allows them to have a little more say. It is interesting that I get to see that.”

Henderson said she doesn’t have anybody in her family who is an educator, but becoming a teacher is something she has always been interested in.

“I have had some really great teachers, and I just wanted to be like them when I grew up,” she said.

King, who just finished her first year as principal at Ellen Smith Elementary, was part of the hiring committee when Henderson was interviewed for her position.

“She had a lot of energy and is always smiling, and she had a lot of knowledge,” King said. “She also had good experience as a classroom teacher and was a reading interventionist. She had done quite a bit during her time in Oklahoma.”

During the current COVID-19 pandemic, Henderson has joined different grades’ Zoom meetings and will read a book for primary and upper-

elementary students. She said she would read those books about once a week and discuss the books that have been read. Henderson said she would also help teachers with the technology and do different things on it.

“We would read different types of books, and the students would vote on which they would like to read and virtually discuss,” Henderson said. “I was definitely trying to get students involved as much as possible.

“We hosted a virtual spirit week, and that revolved around books as well. We asked students to post pictures on Facebook, and I sent out postcards to students because they might enjoy some snail mail.”

Because of the pandemic, King said, the school was not able to undergo the state testing as usual, but she does anticipate that the reading scores will increase as a result of Henderson’s diligence. King said just seeing the kids have a love for reading has been encouraging.

“I really enjoy those relationships that you get to have with students,” Henderson said. “It makes a difference in their lives, meeting the need of a loving adult in their life — a support system.

“I just feel like being a positive person in their life is a good thing.”

Staff writer Sam Pierce can be reached at (501) 244-4314 or


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