D’Mia’s lip quivered as her mother waved from the doorway of her prekindergarten classroom. Teacher Berol Dewdney knelt next to her. “Are you sad Mommy had to leave?” she asked, as the girl’s brown eyes filled with tears. “That’s a really hard feeling.”

Dewdney reminded the girl that her mother would return. Then, slowly, emphasizing each word, she said, “And mommy’s always in your heart.”

Dewdney, the 2023 Maryland Teacher of the Year, often reminds herself of this. Her mother, Anna Dewdney, author of the Llama Llama series of children’s books, died of brain cancer in 2016. But the values she extolled in her beloved series — empathy, compassion and the power of play — live on in her daughter’s classroom at Commodore John Rodgers School, a public school in Southeast Baltimore.

“My mom would always say life is about growing your brain and giving your heart,” said Berol Dewdney, 33.

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There are subtle reminders of Anna Dewdney throughout the room: a stuffed llama doll snug in a pouch on the whiteboard. A red bin stocked with some of the bestselling titles, including the book that started it all, “Llama Llama Red Pajama.”

But Mama Llama’s legacy shines brightest in her daughter’s approach to teaching. At a time when elementary schools are often centered around testing and meeting rigid standards, Dewdney focuses on connecting with students and developing their ability to regulate emotions. In her classroom, play is not a reward or a break but the central engine of learning.

“Play is the way that young brains, and really all brains, learn best,” Dewdney said. “Through play, children explore the world and create the world.”

Berol Dewdney (center) believes in a play-centered teaching approach and channels her mother’s empathy when interacting with children. (Wesley Lapointe / For The Baltimore Banner)

Dewdney’s approach appears to work. Most of her classroom’s 4- and 5-year-olds can sound out words and write sentences in English, even as more than half of them speak Spanish at home. About three-quarters of the school’s students are economically disadvantaged, according to state data.

“Some people think that, when kids are a little behind, they need to be drilled on the basics,” Commodore John Rodgers’ principal, Marc Martin, said. “But the foundation of learning is engaging students and building community and relationships.”

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‘Llama Llama Red Pajama’

When Berol Dewdney and her younger sister, Cordelia, were growing up in Vermont, their family didn’t have much money. Their father was a carpenter, and their mother worked as the town postmaster, writing and illustrating children’s books in the evening.

“Her studio was in a barn. I remember lying in my bed, falling asleep, and seeing her silhouetted in a window in her studio,” Berol Dewdney recalled.

One day, the family passed a llama at a farm, and one of the girls asked their mother what sound it made. “Llama, llama, llama, llama,” Anna Dewdney replied, laughing, Berol recalled.

The word bounced around in her head until it spawned a story about separation anxiety. Little Llama is ready for bed, until Mama Llama leaves the room. As his mother tries to wash dishes and chat on the phone downstairs, Llama Llama grows increasingly distressed.

“Llama llama red pajama in the dark without his mama. Eyes wide open, covers drawn. What if Mama Llama’s GONE?”

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“Llama Llama Red Pajama” became an instant bestseller when it was published in 2005. Librarians and teachers praised Anna Dewdney’s ability to describe emotions from a child’s perspective. Children and parents loved the playful rhymes.

A bin of Llama Llama books written by Anna Dewdney sits in the classroom of her daughter, pre-K teacher Berol Dewdney, at Commodore John Rodgers School. (Julie Scharper / The Baltimore Banner)

The book changed the life of the Dewdney family. Berol Dewdney was a scholarship student at the prestigious Andover boarding school in Massachusetts when it was published.

As Anna Dewdney wrote more than a dozen sequels, each one exploring an emotional challenge of childhood — bullying, sharing, play dates — Berol graduated from Andover and enrolled in Colby College in Maine, where she majored in gender studies and became passionate about educational equity.

“Colby is where I found my righteous rage,” Dewdney said.

After graduating in 2013, Dewdney joined Teach for America and moved to Baltimore. In her second year, her mother came to Baltimore to cheer her on as she applied for an award.

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Shortly after Anna Dewdney returned home, she suffered a seizure. Tests revealed a devastating diagnosis: glioblastoma, a particularly lethal form of brain cancer. She died 15 months later.

“One of the last things that my mom said to me was, ‘Honey, I will always be here for you, but you will become your own mom,’” Berol Dewdney recalled.

An advocate for little brains

On a recent morning, Dewdney began the day by checking in with each of her 18 students, as the kids ate a school-supplied breakfast of yogurt, cereal and apple slices.

Then Dewdney and her longtime teaching partner, paraeducator Tamya Brown, led the class in a series of songs, games, dances and affirmations.

“Twinkle, twinkle, little star, what a wonderful friend you are,” the children sang, pointing at a buddy.

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The kids practiced counting by pretending to pick up and chew five pieces of bubblegum. They pantomimed roller coasters with their hands to show the beginning, middle and end sounds of words. Dewdney, Brown and two other teaching assistants continually praised students.

Then the real work began: play time, spread across several “centers” Dewdney had constructed in the classroom.

Pre-K students dress in medieval costumes during playtime at Commodore John Rodgers Elementary School. (Wesley Lapointe / For The Baltimore Banner)

“Today we’re going to open our castle center,” Dewdney said, showing off a bin of princess dresses, beaded necklaces, crowns, capes and wands. “If you don’t get what you want at the beginning, you can take a deep breath and wait your turn,” she said.

At the hair salon center, children styled the long braids of Damon White, an AmeriCorps Literacy Lab tutor working in Dewdney’s classroom this year.

Children in orange construction vests stacked bright foam blocks. Gabi Miranda, a paraeducator who works with students learning English, chatted with a little girl about the contents of her imaginary lunchbox.

At the daycare center, Sufyan and Troi busily tended to six baby dolls. “Time to eat some lunch,” Troi said. “I’m feeding your baby. OK, Sufyan?”

A disturbance broke out at the space center; two boys in spacesuits wrestled over a toy. Dewdney hurried over, sat on the floor with the boys and coached them on sharing. Within a minute, the boys had resolved their dispute and were back to playing happily. No tears, no threats, no punishments.

Dewdney employs a curriculum called Tools of the Mind, which uses imaginative play strategically to help young children regulate emotions. She instructs and mentors other city preschool teachers on the curriculum and successfully applied for a grant to expand the program to more classrooms.

“She’s an advocate for little brains,” said Maggie Master, a former Teach for America staffer who has known Dewdney since 2013.

Cordelia Dewdney, a Los Angeles-based actor, sees her mother’s influence in how her sister relates and speaks to her students.

“My mom was such a natural-born storyteller, and Berol is, too,” she said. “The chants and phrases and rhymes she invents — my mom would be so proud of her.”

Mama Llama’s always near

After playtime, Berol Dewdney and the other educators called the students to the carpet. The teachers recognized one little girl for her writing. They celebrated a boy for his play: “Joshua, Joshua! Way to be a leader! Way to be a scholar! On your way to college!”

Nearby, fifth graders were undergoing standardized testing, so Dewdney needed to calm the students before they walked into the hall for recess. She opened a bin of baby dolls, instructing each child to choose one and quietly rock it.

“Look at your baby’s eyes,” she told the class. “Say, ‘I love you, baby. I’ve got you, baby. I’ll keep you safe.’”

A student in Berol Dewdney’s class at Commodore John Rodgers Elementary School kisses her doll. (Wesley Lapointe / For The Baltimore Banner)

After the children tiptoed out for recess, Dewdney sank into a kid-size chair for a moment. She’d been hopping from one activity to the next for the past three hours, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.

After her mother died, Berol Dewdney drew peace from her classroom. Through loving and being loved by her students, she mourned and healed.

“What I now understand as an educator is we also let our hearts be held by our students and their families,” she said.

It is here, in her classroom, that Dewdney most keenly feels her mother’s presence.

As her mother wrote in her first book: “Mama Llama’s always near, even if she’s not right here.”

Julie Scharper is an enterprise reporter for The Baltimore Banner. Her work ranges from investigations into allegations of sexual harassment and abuse to light-hearted features. Baltimore Magazine awarded Scharper a Best in Baltimore in 2023 for her series exposing a toxic work culture within the Maryland Park Service.

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