While working for the Newton-based Education Development Center, Susan Christie Woodward found innovative ways to create school curriculum for a wide variety of topics.
One lesson taught students about the effects of war by asking them to design refugee camps.
“She could have done it by writing an essay or a quiz, or by interviewing someone,” said Robert Spielvogel, a vice president of the center, a nonprofit funded by government and foundation grants and contracts, “but she really pulled it together so kids had to think through what the impact of being a refugee would be.”
Mrs. Woodward, who was also a musician and formerly a community activist in the South End, died of pancreatic cancer Jan. 4 in Community Hospice House in Merrimack, N.H. She was 76 and lived most of her life in Boston and New Boston, N.H.
In a eulogy during a memorial service last month, her friend and colleague Barbara Powell described the range of Mrs. Woodward’s career and talents as an educator.
Mrs. Woodward taught English to Charlestown High School students during desegregation in the 1970s, Powell recalled, and last year, she taught a class on spinning wool into yarn “with the help of her spinning wheel, a lamb, and her husband, Frank.”
In her work with the Education Development Center, Mrs. Woodward had a talent for “coming up with activities that really got kids engaged in learning,” Spielvogel said.
She was a “wonderful wordsmith, extremely finicky as a red-pencil editor, but that tenacity was just one aspect of what she brought,” he added. “She really cared about the quality of the learning experience.”
Mrs. Woodward, he said, was especially skilled at creating materials that teachers were able to use, even without special training.
The final project she worked on for the center was a program funded by the International Committee of the Red Cross titled Exploring Humanitarian Law. Completed about a decade ago, it is now taught in countries around the world.
Powell, who worked on the project with Mrs. Woodward, called it the “culmination of her career” and said it “allowed her to continue her lifelong commitment to open, but rigorous, education with a strong social and civic purpose.”
The curriculum, Powell said, “raises the question: ‘What is human dignity?’ ”
She added that it “addresses tough issues involving torture, refugees, and bringing war criminals to justice,” and recalled a meeting in Geneva, where the International Committee of the Red Cross proposed simply giving students a “list of laws” set forth through the Geneva Conventions.
“Susan argued for more,” Powell said. “She said that we had to teach kids what a humanitarian act is by giving examples. We had to show them the devastation of war, and tell stories about bystanders who put their own lives in danger to protect somebody.”
Mrs. Woodward helped introduce the curriculum in classrooms in South Africa, Thailand, Morocco, and Jamaica.
Born in Montreal, Susan Christie grew up in Scarsdale, N.Y., in a family that fostered a love of music.
Her sister Janet Christie Hurd of Williston, Vt., described Mrs. Woodward as “an incredibly talented, creative, warm-hearted, and friendly kind of girl.”
At Scarsdale High, where classmates voted her most talented, “she looked like a young Doris Day, and was very outgoing and very active, particularly in singing,” her sister said.
In 1958, Mrs. Woodward graduated from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., with a bachelor’s degree in English. She taught and attended graduate school in Essex, England, before enrolling at Harvard University and graduating with a master’s in education.
Mrs. Woodward taught high school in Newton for two years, married George Boyd Thomas, and settled in the South End.
When her children were young, she became involved in the rejuvenation of the South End and improving the neighborhood’s public schools. She also performed in musical theater and opera productions.
She worked as an editor of educational materials before taking a teaching job at Charlestown High School in 1971.
In 1975, she joined the staff of the Education Development Center, where she developed curriculum and began creating and implementing programs in areas including language, citizenship, being a foster parent, and environmentalism.
She began developing educational software and other materials for a start-up company in 1980, and returned to the Education Development Center whenever she was called upon to work on a new program that interested her.
In the 1990s, she traveled to Yaroslavl, Russia, as part of a group that “used music to bypass government,” her sister said. She taught Russian students enough English that they were able to stage an American musical, and brought a band of young musicians to the United States to perform.
“If there was something that needed to be done, Susan was sure that it could be done,” said her sister, who added that Mrs. Woodward “always had a lovely temperament, and was so intelligent, and just a delight.”
When her marriage ended in divorce, Mrs. Woodward moved to the family’s summer farm in New Boston, N.H. She met Frank Woodward while contra dancing and they married in 1993.
She retired a decade ago and soon “became busier than ever,” said her daughter Megan Thomas of Boston.
In New Boston, she organized a farmers’ market, cofounded an annual fiddle contest, and with her husband created New Boston Fancy, a quartet that played weddings and contra dances all over New England. Renowned for her singing voice, Mrs. Woodward also mastered the guitar, the ukulele, dulcimer, and bodhran, an Irish drum.
“She always felt that singing had a healing quality,” said her daughter, who recalled that during her own childhood, Mrs. Woodward produced pageants with neighborhood children every Christmas.
“She loved to expose kids to all the things she loved,” her daughter said.
In addition to her husband, daughter, and sister, Mrs. Woodward leaves another daughter, Christie Boyd Thomas of Los Angeles; another sister, Carol Christie Medinger of Savannah, Ga.; and four grandchildren.
“Susan was a fantastic teacher all her life, whether she was in the classroom, volunteering, making sachets and gathering eggs with her grandchildren, or working at the farmers’ market,” Powell said. “She was a smart woman with very broad interests, who always believed fervently in what she was doing.”Kathleen McKenna can be reached at email@example.com.