by Morgan Lawrence

Giving and receiving buttons are considered signs of good luck and symbols of a long and strong friendship. At least retired teacher and New Orleans native Millie Tanner-Latham thinks so. That’s why she used them to blend history, science, and math for her grandson’s kindergarten class through a project she calls “Mrs. Elouise’s Buttons.”

Tanner-Latham arranged the classroom project in the memory of Elouise Garner Yerks Joseph; the mother of a friend. She presented it to students in her grandson’s kindergarten class. Omari Louis Latham and his 30 classmates used Mrs. Elouise’s buttons to explore their imaginations as they learned more about the person behind the buttons.

According to Tanner-Latham, Elouise Garner Yerks Joseph was a retired interior designer and renovator in Houma. She died at 82 years old on March 16, 2015. While Tanner-Latham never met Mrs. Elouise in person, she has fond memories of their countless phone conversations. The two had a few things in common, including being Louisiana natives that lived in the Midwest, returning to the Pelican State later in life. By telephone, they often shared recipes and philosophies on life, Tanner-Latham says.

After she passed away, Mrs. Elouise’s son and Tanner-Latham’s friend, John W. Yerks Jr., found a box of buttons in his mother’s home. The various toggles, snaps, and fasteners were stored in a fancy sewing tin that traveled across country with Mrs. Elouise while she lived in Chicago and throughout the Midwest for many years before returning to Louisiana. The buttons were stored in a dome-shaped, red, tin box embellished with gold flowers and topped with a gold lid. Her son gave them to Tanner-Latham.

And she put them to good use inside classroom 105 at Esperanza Charter School, where the students used Mrs. Elouise’s buttons to strengthen their critical thinking skills, employ mathematical concepts, and conduct scientific experiments. Before the lessons started, Tanner-Latham shared a bit of history about Mrs. Eloise with the students, such as the year she was born, her occupation, and her family.
Preserving and sharing history is important to Tanner-Latham, whose interests also include documenting the oral history of African Americans in the Carrollton area. Currently, she is working to establish the James Andrews III and Ethel Andrews Tanner Foundation in honor of her uncle, a WWII veteran, and her mother, a gospel singer and nurse. She also hopes to establish the Ethel Andrews Tanner Center for Culture and Education in her mother’s honor. The efforts are part of a larger goal to promote literacy and intergenerational dialogue to serve as a vehicle for culture, arts and education in the Hollygrove community Tanner-Lantham calls home, she says.

For the students at Esperanza, Tanner-Latham created worksheets that directed them to organize Mrs. Eloise’s buttons based on common characteristics such as shape, size, color or number of buttonholes. Students were asked to identify and name the attributes that determined the groups—an exercise in both math and science. Tanner-Latham says one of the students’ favorite activities involved them pretending to be magicians as they chanted, ‘Rise, Button Rise!’ They watched a button rise from the bottom of a jar filled with carbonated water—making for a great lesson in physics, density and matter that the young students enjoyed.

The retired teacher also used the short film, “Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons”, in her presentation. It follows a cartoon cat that loses all of his buttons until he only has his belly button left. Tanner-Latham used this film to illustrate that no matter what you lose or how much you lose, you must always stay positive.

Tanner Latham left New Orleans in 1974 after graduating from Louisiana State University (LSU)-New Orleans (known now as the University of New Orleans). She taught school for 30 years in Ohio, retiring in 2004. She came out of retirement and returned to New Orleans in 2007 to take a teaching job in the Recovery School District (RSD), teaching at Joseph A. Craig School, Excel Academy and the Accelerated School at Booker T. Washington. Tanner-Latham says she felt compelled to return to New Orleans after Katrina, particularly because the school system lacked veteran teachers. Schools in Orleans Parish lost many of their veteran educators after the mass firing of the school system’s largely African-American, teaching staff.

Although Tanner-Latham has once again retired from teaching full-time, her creativity and passion for sharing information and history with young people remains.  She delights in the moments she shared with her friend Mrs. Elouise and in the lessons she shared with students at Esperanza. When the students graduated from kindergarten on May 17, Omari and his classmates received custom-designed certificates of participation, featuring a picture of Mrs. Elouise. As a special keepsake, each student also received a small bag of Mrs. Eloise’s buttons.

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