Good News Blog


Monday, May. 7, 2007

Teachers: A special breed of heroes

Five Staten Island teachers were honored yesterday for their dedication and passion for the profession during the second annual Excellence In Education Awards ceremony at Staten Island Academy, Todt Hill.

“You are a special breed of heroes,” said James Dawson, keynote speaker and head of school at the Professional Children’s School in Manhattan. “You provide the tools to build the future.”

Dawson, who grew up in Great Kills, compared the importance of a good teacher in a student’s life to the importance of a lighthouse for a boat.

“You are the lighthouse at the edge of the sea of the future,” said Dawson.

Honoree Barbara Prideaux, a 26-year veteran special education teacher at Curtis High School, was so taken aback by the award, she initially mistook the notification by Staten Island Academy as a salespitch.

“I thought he was a salesman,” said Ms. Prideaux, of the representative from Staten Island Academy who left her a message at home asking her to call him back. “I thought he wanted to me to send my kids to summer camp or something. He had to track me down at my school.”

It was a similar shock for George Padula, a biology and environmental science teacher at Tottenville High School.

“There are so many teachers I know who are so good at what they do every day, that I thought it was just nice that they nominated me,” said Padula, who started teaching seven years ago, after his wife suggested he get into the profession.

It’s been a “whirlwind” of a time for PS 25 special education teacher Dorothy Guerriero, since she was named one of the honorees.

“I’m very honored,” said Ms. Guerriero, who grew up on the Island. “In my lifetime I have received many accolades for athletics, but this is the one I’m the most proud of.”

Constance De Francesco, a teacher at the Richard H. Hungerford School, said it was nice to recognized for doing something she loves, adding that she has to thank the numerous paraprofessionals who have worked in her classrooms over the years.

“A good paraprofessional is priceless,” said Ms. De Francesco.

The coordinator of Susan E. Wagner High School’s Institute for International Leadership, George S. Anthony, couldn’t stop smiling after receiving his award yesterday.

“Teachers are the bows and the students are the arrows,” said Anthony. “We shoot them on a path.”

Each of the five honorees received a $1,500 honorarium, provided by corporate sponsors the Staten Island Advance, Island Ford, SI Bank & Trust, Victory State Bank and the Staten Island Heart Imaging.

Quoting Aristotle, Diane Hulse, head of school at Staten Island Academy, said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.”

“If Aristotle were among us today, he would be happy to know in Staten Island excellence in education is not an act, but a habit,” she said.

Honorable mentions were awarded to Angela Gianino of PS 5, Jack Minogue, of the Staten Island Employment Education Consortium, and Paul Presti, of New Dorp High School.

Friday, May. 4, 2007

Show appreciation for teacher

American author and historian Henry Adams (1838-1918) once said, “A teacher affects eternity, he can never tell where his influence stops.” Like many people, Adams, the grandson of the sixth U.S. president, John Quincy Adams, thought of teaching as one of the most important jobs a person can seek.

Each May, we have an opportunity to say “thank you” to teachers on National Teacher Appreciation Day, which always falls on Tuesday in the first full week of May. Some parent organizations around the country show their appreciation by planning celebrations for each day of Teacher Appreciation Week, which is May 6-12, this year.

You might plan (with help from a few parents) a nice luncheon for your school’s staff. Or plan to serve teachers a special breakfast each morning, as a parent group in Texas did.

Small tokens of appreciation can inspire teachers as well as thank them. The students and parents in a West Virginia grade school gave their teachers thoughtful gifts each day, like a candy-filled plastic apple and a soup bowl with a package of soup. Or offer to help your teacher with the end-of-the-year cleaning of the supply closet.

If you feel your teacher is truly outstanding, nominate him or her for a national teaching award. You can find a list of them at on the Web.

While most educators claim that teaching is its own reward, the following suggestions were made by teachers and parents to Education World, a Web-based resource for teachers. They include: visits from former students, letters or cards from former students or their parents, a class-made scrapbook with memories of the past year, flowers and/or a cake to celebrate with students and school supplies for next school year.

This clever greeting card would be appreciated by any teacher. I found it at (type “watering can greeting card” in the search box). It holds a brightly colored packet of seeds as a bonus. This is a simple craft, easily made by younger children with help from an adult.

Supplies you will need:

• 1 8 ½-by-11-inch sheet of silver card stock.

• Scissors.

• Double-sided tape.

• Seed packet.

• Black marking pen.

Print out the watering can template on a sheet of silver (or gray) card stock.

Cut the can out and use a black marker to accentuate the details on the can.

Make a horizontal slit across the front of the can.

Insert a seed packet and attach it to the card in back with double-sided tape.

Write a message to your teacher on the can.

Teacher is a success in any language

If you can read this, the saying goes, thank a teacher.

Si también puede leer esto, agradézcale a la profesora Caridad Alonso. (If you can also read this, thank a teacher like Caridad Alonso.)

Alonso, AS ’91, CHEP ’96M, is the 2007 Delaware Teacher of the Year and the first teacher in a dual-language program to be named the state’s top educator in the 43-year history of the award program. Alonso is a reading specialist at William C. Lewis Elementary School in Wilmington, which is the state’s only dual-language public school.

“I feel so honored to receive this award, but it really isn’t about me,” Alonso says from her cozy, colorful classroom. “I feel I was given this opportunity so that I can tell people about dual-language programs and what a benefit they are for the students and the community.”

Lewis Elementary educates students from kindergarten through fifth grade, with those in the dual language program being taught in English half of each school day and in Spanish the other half. Although the program is designed to teach children from either language background, most of the students currently enrolled are native Spanish speakers.

Alonso began working at Lewis in 1998, teaching Spanish as a second language to English-speaking children, but she now works as a reading specialist, offering intensive literacy instruction to children in their native Spanish. She is quick to point out that English literacy is the goal but that teaching phonics and other word-decoding skills in Spanish is an important first step.

“Research shows that you need to have a strong literacy base in your first language so you can transfer those skills to a second language,” she says. “We have children in our school with widely different levels of English proficiency and Spanish proficiency. My focus is to teach in Spanish to those students whose literacy skills are low.

“It’s a real challenge, but there are strategies you can use that are effective. I teach letter sounds and syllables in a very specific and sequential way-I use Spanish to front-load the skills they need, so they can transfer those skills to English.”

Alonso’s students come to her classroom, where bookshelves and posters cover the walls, in groups of a half-dozen throughout the school day and sit at a horseshoe-shaped table facing their teacher.

While Alonso is preparing her students to become literate in English, she also is passionate about the value of being bilingual and bicultural. When she was born in the United States, her parents were recent immigrants who had fled Cuba, and she says she knew almost no English until she started school. Her mother was advised to help the children assimilate by speaking only English at home.

“My mother was an educator, and thank goodness she had a different
vision for us,” Alonso says. “She knew we’d learn English by living here, and she wanted us to also maintain our Spanish. I feel enormously fortunate to have come from
a bicultural home.”

In planning her career, Alonso says she initially resisted her mother’s suggestions to try teaching and instead studied anthropology and Spanish literature at UD. “I’m fascinated by different cultures and languages,” she says. “I can’t get enough of it.”

After graduation, she tried working as a substitute teacher while considering graduate school and found-much to her surprise, she recalls-that she loved it. She says she also noticed a high proportion of Spanish-speaking children in special education classes and suspected that some of them had difficulty with the English language rather than actual learning disabilities. She returned to UD to study elementary and special education and earned a master’s degree in instruction.

When Alonso learned that she had won Teacher of the Year honors, first for the Red Clay Consolidated School District and then for the state, she says the rush of pride she felt was for her colleagues in the dual-language program and for her students. Children with little knowledge of English often come to her classroom feeling embarrassed or unintelligent, she says.

“I tell them: Do you know how smart you are to become bilingual and how important that will be in your future?” she says. “These children are making connections between cultures. How can that not be an asset for them and for all of us?”

Friday, Apr. 27, 2007

This is what I was born to do

Wendy Gallegos stands before her class and writes “concer” on the board.

One of her students raises her hand.

“Ms. Gallegos, you should have written ‘concocer’ instead,” she said, referring to the Spanish verb for “to know.”

Gallegos looks at the board, smiles and quickly erases her mistake.

“You see, I have taught you so well, you pick up on my mistakes,” she said with a laugh.

To Gallegos, the scene in her classroom is typical of the children she teaches. They are the bright students of Immokalee Middle School.

To her students, Gallegos is the teacher who they think is most deserving of one of Collier County’s Golden Apple Awards.

Gallegos teaches high school Spanish 1 and 2 to Immokalee Middle School students. But she is quick to dismiss any assumptions one might make about her students.

“The assumption, because the majority of my students are Hispanic, is that they speak Spanish. I have a lot of second-, third- and fourth-generation students who don’t know any Spanish at all,” she said. “And for those who do, sometimes it is harder to unteach any bad language habits.”

It is not easy to be in Gallegos’ class. Students must be in the top of their class and have to pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). They must sign a contract, saying they will be committed to the program for three years, taking Spanish 1 over their sixth- and seventh-grade years, and Spanish 2 in eighth grade. They also must earn a B or higher in the class.

“I become part of their lives for three years. I become part of their families. If they forget their homework, by the end of that period, that child will call home,” she said.

Gallegos said she is willing to go out of her comfort zone to help her children succeed.

“I pay my mortgage in Naples, I sleep in Naples, but this is my home,” she said. “Why shouldn’t I do that?”

Maria Plata, 14, said after a couple of years, Gallegos’ class becomes like home.

“You learn a lot, but there is also some pressure to do well,” she said.

Gallegos’ Spanish class is taught mostly in English in sixth grade. By the time the students are eighth-graders, they are speaking fewer words of English and more of Spanish during the 50-minute classes.

“My goal is to get my kids to say something in Spanish every day,” she said. “I want them to be able to talk to me. That’s why I help them, I praise them, I recognize them when they do good work. And we have fun. The day I stop having fun is the day I am going to consider a different job.”

If a student needs help, Gallegos offers the student a “lifesaver,” which is help from a classmate. The lifesaver gets a piece of candy as a reward.

She also offers a 50-cent question of the day for a student in her class. One of her students asks if the question could be the $1 of the day.

“No, it can’t be a dollar,” she said with a laugh. “Gas prices are up!”

Sixth-grader Cheyenne Green, 12, said Gallegos’ class is anything but boring.

“She’s not like regular teachers,” she said. “She elaborates a lot. She makes sure we learn something. My sister had her, so I was really excited for her to be my teacher, too.”

Gallegos also doesn’t let her students get away with much. She reminds them that, no matter what their circumstances are, there is someone out there who has it worse. Her eighth-grade class sponsors a Colombian girl through the World Vision Program, which is a humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families and communities to tackle issues of poverty and injustice.

The students do not get extra credit for their participation in World Vision, nor do they have to participate. Gallegos has the students take home permission slips explaining the financial commitment — $2.50 a month for students — and the parents agree.

“I want to impact my kids in a positive way,” Gallegos said. “I don’t teach a subject. I teach kids. This is what I was born to do.”

Gallegos also knows where the kids are coming from. She grew up in the projects in the Bronx, N.Y. She is the first person in her family to graduate from college, to own her own home, to get her master’s degree. Her husband, Israel, grew up in Immokalee and she has heard about his experiences, leaving school early to go to the fields and pick.

“There was one way out and that was through education. I tell them that no one can take their education away from them. It’s how you break the cycle of poverty,” she said. “I have the authority to tell them that because I have been there.”

Gallegos, 35, met Israel, a physical education teacher at Immokalee High School, while working for the district. The couple have four children: Juan, Lissette, Tony and Ariana. Gallegos proudly says that her children attend Immokalee schools by choice.

“It is in the best interest of my family,” she said.

Gallegos said she is glad that her Golden Apple Award, which is the first for Immokalee Middle School, is bringing attention to Immokalee.

“People need to know good things happen in Immokalee and that good things happen at Immokalee Middle School,” she said. “They need to see we have awesome kids.”

Tuesday, Apr. 24, 2007

Teachers make a difference

Students and staff of Pocomoke Middle School are this week celebrating the success of one of their own as the county’s 2007 Teacher of the Year.

Tamara Krauch, who has been teaching visual arts at the school for the past six years, was honored as the county’s top educator Friday at a packed Teacher of the Year banquet at the Clarion Resort hotel in Ocean City.

As a visibly emotional Krauch took in what her predecessor and Maryland Teacher of Year Michelle Hammond promised would be a life-changing honor announced by board of education president Garry Mumford, family, friends and guests at the banquet cheered.

Krauch is an enthusiastic and energetic instructor and mentor, providing her students with more than just an opportunity to draw pictures or sculpt a clay pot.

She uses the hands-on nature of producing artwork to serve up an experience that ties the creative process to math, history, society and culture. More importantly, her approach helps foster in students a positive attitude toward school and education.

“Every child is like an uncut diamond and our job is to make it shine,” Krauch told the gathering.

Krauch is the visible symbol of the dedication and commitment to education of not only the 14 teachers who were this year’s candidates for the Teacher of the Year award, but all educators in the county.

The other teacher of the year candidates for this year were: Karen Benson of Stephen Decatur High, Stephen Boyd of Snow Hill High, Lisa Brady of Ocean City Elementary, Virginia Bullis of Snow Hill Elementary, Stephanie Caceres of Snow Hill Middle, Brenda Carney of Buckingham Elementary, Janet Corbin of Pocomoke Elementary, Jennette Mears of Showell Elementary, Christopher Miles of Pocomoke High, Victoria Radford of Cedar Chapel Special, Doug Romano of Stephen Decatur Middle, Lori Romano of Berlin Intermediate and Rachel Watson of Worcester Career and Technology Center.

“We have a terrific, fantastic, wonderful school system because of the people in this room,” Superintendent Jon Andes said at Friday’s celebration.

“These educators are absolutely fabulous and they teach each and every day to improve the lives of our students,” he said.

We agree and salute Krauch and all the teachers in Worcester County.

Our educators are often the unsung heroes in a child’s life, ambitiously, yet quietly, making a difference.

Wednesday, Apr. 18, 2007

Thanks to teachers, From worst to first

Waterford High School’s motto is “worst to first,” and that’s just what students have done since the campus opened six years ago.

“Waterford High School was at the bottom of the barrel,” The Bee reported in 2003 after the state released its Academic Performance Index rankings.

Waterford received a pair of “1” rankings on a scale of 1 to 10: well below average in test scores, and well below average compared with schools whose students had similar social and economic backgrounds.

“It was all over the front page, and we probably deserved it,” said Will Frey, who has taught science at Waterford since the school opened in 2001. “We decided not to make excuses and figure out what we can do.”

The low scores inspired the faculty to look inward rather than point to thesundry reasons why students might not do as well as those from more affluent areas with two-parent families.

“When you start making excuses, you just sound lame,” Principal Don Davis said.

Ultimately, Waterford’s pair of 1s propelled the school forward. Last week, the school won a state Title I Academic Achievement Award. And school officials expect to take home a California Distinguished School award this month.

Both awards take into account that the school rose to a 10 and an 8 in this year’s API scores from the state Department of Education.

“It’s very rare for a school to move up in ranks that much,” said Pat McCabe, director of the Policy and Evaluation Division for the California Department of Education. “What’s unique about that is, in order to move, you not only have to leap over everyone ahead of you, but do it at a greater rate than the rest of the state.”

Teachers aren’t complacent

The nerve it took teachers to accept the blame for low scores still is evident as they experiment with teaching aids and philosophies rather than settle into the perception they have achieved enough.

This year, an English teacher has divided classes by gender, to see if students perform differently without the anxiety and distraction the opposite sex might bring to the classroom. So far, boys and girls are scoring about equally on tests, and the classes separated by gender are outperforming mixed classes, Davis said.

Some experiments have been implemented schoolwide. Students use hand-held whiteboards to provide direct feedback to teachers in the classroom. The teacher asks a question and students write the answer on the boards.

Whiteboards help teachers spot those lagging behind without embarrassing them by drilling them during class. If at least 80 percent of the class gives the correct answer, the teacher moves on. Teachers identify those students who don’t understand and can work with them separately. And students who have trouble with a subject can take an elective class that helps them keep up.

If less than 80 percent of the class understands a lesson, the instructor teaches it again. The technique has helped students such as senior Krista Montgomery, 18, who wrestled with algebra.

“I knew I was struggling, but I’m not the type to go up and ask for help,” she said. “This way, teachers know if I’m struggling.”

To keep students alert, teachers also randomly call on students by pulling names written on Popsicle sticks.

“It keeps us more awake in class knowing we’d have to answer questions,” said senior Leti Dominguez, 17.

Middle schools prepare students well

Principal Davis also attributes success to getting students from good middle schools such as Hickman, which is a Distinguished School and just earned two 10s in state rankings for the second year in a row. Hickman has adopted many of Waterford High’s instruction techniques, said Vicki Porter, the charter school’s vice principal.

“Kids who don’t know (answers) try to be invisible, but you cannot be invisible here,” Porter said.

When Leti started attending Waterford four years ago, she said, she doubted the school would be noticed for anything but poor performance.

“I knew it wasn’t going to be the best, but it was a quick turn,” she said. “I’m excited to see how much we’ve grown since then, and know I was part of it.”

Monday, Apr. 16, 2007

Golden Apples honor top educators

Room 315 of Senior High looks as much like an art studio as a classroom. The white dry-erase boards have detailed drawings of sea life and humans, and the directions penned on the board look as if they were done by an expert illustrator.

The designs are the work of teacher Dan Bartsch, who teaches biology and anatomy.

He designs the text and illustrations for worksheets and tests and, according to Senior High Principal Dennis Holmes, has found innovative ways to catch students’ attention and keep them engaged until the minute they leave the room.

His class was interrupted Tuesday when he was surprised with a Golden Apple Award for outstanding teaching. He was nominated for the award by several students and a fellow teacher.

“I have the best job in the world, so it’s kind of hard to be rewarded for that,” Bartsch told his class.

His sentiments were probably shared by the four other Golden Apple winners and the five Billings Education Association honorees who were also surprised Tuesday.

Teacher Leslie Jimmerson of Eagle Cliffs Elementary; Aaron Roberts, a music teacher at Will James Middle School; Maureen Klaboe, a counselor at Broadwater Elementary; and Ryan Truscott, a teacher at Poly Drive Elementary, were also chosen.

The Golden Apple honorees were selected from more than 100 nomination letters from parents, students, fellow educators and community members. The annual awards give the public a chance to recognize teachers.

“It’s the extra things. I think if you look at any teacher they’ve all done something great, and this recognizes teachers for going above and beyond,” said Mary Keeley, a member of the Golden Apple Committee that chose this year’s award recipients.

The BEA award winners were nominated by their peers and chosen by a committee of teachers.

This year’s BEA Teacher of the Year is Eileen Sheehy, a West High American government teacher. She’s National Board Certified, serves on the National Council for Social Studies board of directors, judges the U.S. Institute of Peace Essay Contest and is a recipient of a Madison Fellowship. But all those accomplishments aren’t the reasons her husband thinks she was honored as the teacher of the year. He said her hard work evenings and weekends, her love of children, enthusiasm for the classroom and excitement for the subject are what deserve recognition.

Sheehy said she loves teaching high school seniors and training them in citizenship, which she believes is one of the most important jobs they’ll have throughout their lives.

“It’s like they’re the end result of all those teachers that have worked with these kids,” Sheehy said. “They embody the hopes of our country, and I’m around them when all those hopes come to a head. It’s exciting.”

Other BEA award recipients included Skyview High teacher Mike Walz, for his dedication to the community. Walz sponsors the Skyview Honor Guard and is a Boy Scouts leader. He volunteers for Little League baseball and Little Guy football as well as YMCA sports programs.

Liz Fulton, a parent volunteer at Poly Drive, was recognized for her involvement in the school, where she started a book club for every grade level and recruited parent volunteers to lead discussions during lunch.

Lewis and Clark Middle School secretary Julie Reichert was honored for her strong work ethic and dedication to the school.

Jay Lemelin, the principal at Rose Park Elementary, received the Exemplary Administrator award for his leadership and inspiration of staff and relationships with the children at the school.

Middle school science teacher wins award

This week, Alisa Smits, life science teacher at Fremont Middle School, will help 108 seventh-graders dissect sheep eyes into various parts — cornea, lens, retina and all.

Ever the thrifty teacher, Smits uses ovine orbs.

“They’re cheaper than cow eyes,” she said. “You do what you can.”

Evidently, Smits can do a lot.

Now in her third year at FMS, she recently received the Maitland P. Simmons Memorial Award for New Teachers.

Simmons, a 1925 University of Rhode Island graduate, worked for many years as a science teacher. He and his wife, Antoinette Simmons, also a Rhode Island graduate, set up a planned-giving endowment in the 1970s. From that endowment, several scholarships are now drawn, including the national teaching award won by Smits.

The $1,000 prize paid her expenses to the National Conference on Science Education, held Saturday-Monday in St. Louis.

“It was great,” said Smits. “The exhibits, the hands-on technology. I brought home lots of ideas to incorporate in the classroom.”

And outside the classroom, too, it seems.

Monday afternoon found Smits and her students examining square-meter areas outside the FMS building. Each student has been assigned a space, Smits said, to observe existing flora now and predict what will happen later.

“Some of these kids don’t really know how things grow,” she said, noting students had suggested, upon examination, that the brown and dried weeds would turn green again.

Smits hopes to use the enthusiasm and skill that earned her the Simmons award to broaden the scope of her students’ scientific knowledge.

“I’ve always loved school,” she said. “I have a passion for learning. If you go to these conventions, if you learn one big thing for your classroom, it’s a huge success.”

Smits, 25, grew up in Omaha, graduated from Ashland-Greenwood High School and majored in natural sciences at Wayne State College where she earned a bachelor’s degree in education. She is now pursing a master’s degree in education in curriculum and instruction at Wayne State.

Smits said the human body is her favorite area of scientific study. The thought of becoming a doctor crossed her mind, but she decided against the field after considering the years of schooling required.

Then she chose a career that may lead to years of schooling, anyway.

Only this time, she’s the teacher.

“I like where I am now,” Smits said. “The atmosphere here is great. I student-taught here, so it was an easy transition.”

She also appreciates the nearby Johnson Lake, which provides a natural classroom for learning, something she says some districts cannot provide their students.

“They struggle as far as educational opportunities,” Smits said.

Lake or no lake, Smits has unique ways of teaching her life science classes.

Next year, she will help the seventh-graders plant Wisconsin Fast Seeds, radish-like plants which mature in 35 days, long enough to show students a complete cycle of plant life.

As a life science teacher, Smits said she doesn’t get to use what she calls the “toys and explosions” employed by chemistry and physics instructors.

But she does have a plan to make the seed project especially interesting.

The Fast Seeds kits come with frozen bees which the students can use to pollinate the flowers.

“That’s a definite hook for the kids,” Smits said. “To put a bee on a stick and pollinate.”

Thursday, Apr. 12, 2007

St. Mary’s College to honor 89-year-old biology professor

Lawrence Cory peers intently into a burbling stream under a canopy of oaks, then jumps to the other side, looking for salamanders.

Seeing none, he nimbly leaps back to the other side and gazes into the water. Not bad for a man pushing 90.

Colleagues say not much has changed for the 89-year-old St. Mary’s College biology professor who continues to teach 55 years after he arrived on campus and who still leads students on field trips into the hills.

“Most of the students don’t have any idea how old he is,” said Margaret Field, chairwoman of St. Mary’s biology department. “He’s pretty hard to keep up with.”

Today, the college will honor Cory as its professor of the year.

Cory is miles away from the tweed-suited professors of his college days. His salamander forays demand denim jeans, shirt pockets jammed with pens and pencils, a windbreaker and sneakers that once were white.

“Our washing machine at home gets filled every few days with four pairs of muddy pants,” Cory said as he drove his beat-up Honda sedan to a newt-breeding site near St. Mary’s campus. A fossil-laden rock he wanted to show his students rested amid a litter of dirt and leaves.

It would be an understatement to say Cory knows St. Mary’s College.

When he was 10, Cory and his father attended the 1927 groundbreaking of St. Mary’s Moraga campus. The elder Cory was a die-hard football fan who had been impressed by the college’s 1926 victory over the University of California, Berkeley, which led to the family’s train trip from Oakland to Moraga the following year.

Cory attended the college less than a decade later and joined the Christian Brothers, the Catholic order that runs St. Mary’s. For nearly 40 years, Cory would be known as Brother Lawrence and wear the order’s black frock.

He received his bachelor’s degree in zoology from UC Berkeley in 1942.

After a stint as a football coach at Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep in San Francisco, he completed his graduate studies in biology at the University of Notre Dame before returning to teach evolutionary biology at St. Mary’s. He hasn’t left since, although he did leave the Christian Brothers in 1972.

In the early 1970s, after finding traces of the pesticide DDT as high as 12,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada, Cory published evidence of DDT’s effects on fly DNA in the influential journal Nature. Cory’s studies led to testimony before federal lawmakers, which in turn led to a ban on the pesticide.

“I had this impression that all these politicians sitting up there reminded me of bullfrogs,” said Cory, ever the amphibian expert. “All they knew was how to get elected.”

Cory said chemicals are more of an environmental risk than ever.

“There are all kinds of chemicals being synthesized all the time that never existed before,” he said, standing in rubber hip waders next to a Moraga pond. “With most of these chemicals, we don’t know what the effects will be on organisms, but it probably won’t be good.”

Cory is nearly a quarter of a century past the age when most people retire, but he doesn’t plan to leave the college. Studies tell him that the aging human brain functions better when it’s challenged, so he plans to continue splitting time between the classroom and the field.

“I like teaching, I like the students,” he said. “I want to drop dead in the middle of teaching.”

Former students remember him fondly. Concord resident Richard Smith said Cory was the best teacher he ever had.

“He kind of cracked the whip, but when you got out of his class you really knew what the class was about,” the retired physician said. He took his first Cory class in 1959. “When I got to medical school, it was easier than being in his class.”

This semester, Cory is teaching one class — biology for nonbiology majors. Although he has relished his influence on students with medical school plans, he has warmed to his current role.

“I’m getting more interested in teaching nonscience majors,” he said. “People are more and more being called upon to vote on scientific issues, and the population in general doesn’t understand science.”

The lighter-than-usual schedule has allowed him to delve into intriguing genetic differences he has found among local newts, which are species of salamanders. He returns nearly daily to several streams and ponds to check on the newt population, wading among the reeds to find the jellylike egg sacs left by the amphibians, which resemble rubber lizards. Occasionally, he will snip a tiny piece of newt tail for DNA testing.

His renewed research focus, Cory said, has limited another hobby: making violins. A hand injury forced him to give up his longtime love of playing them, but he is trying to craft the instruments out of madrone wood.

Despite Cory’s range of interests — he also has made beer and helped prompt the college to take up its distinctive Great Books Program — he is revered primarily as a scientist

Cory was “the court of last resort” in the early 1970s, the person on campus who could answer any biology question, said St. Mary’s alumnus Steve Edwards, who directs the Tilden Regional Park botanical garden.

“We looked at him almost like he was another Gregor Mendel,” Edwards said, comparing Cory with the father of modern genetics. “It was a wondrous thing to have this person walking around in a Catholic order’s habit and know he was a world-class geneticist.”

Field marvels at Cory’s probing intellect and willingness to adapt.

“When you look at someone who doesn’t get stuck in their method of research, then you know you have a scholar,” she said. “He has a lot to teach all of us.”

Old age and decades of accomplishments aside, Cory has no intention of spending more time in his cramped Brousseau Hall office than necessary. His most immediate concerns are the newts, most of which have not returned to local waterways this breeding season as in past years.

Standing next to the Moraga stream, he watched as a male salamander climbed a steep bank, waiting for the clumsy amphibian to tumble back into the water. Normally, he said, the animals would climb into the hills much later in the spring.

“I don’t know where he thinks he’s going,” Cory said. “Maybe he says, ‘There are no girls, so I’m going back to the sticks.'”

Tuesday, Apr. 10, 2007

Teaching students to think

Janet Glancy knows when her students need a change of scenery.

About an hour into first period, she tells the class they will be going outside to work.

“I like to bring them outside a couple of times a week,” she said. “They may be quiet in class, but when we come out here, they get very involved in the literature.”

Once outside, the students break off into groups of four and begin talking to each other about Albert Camus’ “The Stranger.” Tough reading, but necessary as she prepares her students for the Advanced Placement (AP) literature and composition exam.

Glancy knows group work is critical to her students’ understanding.

“It is an effective teaching tool,” she said. “They not only get to share what they learn, but they also hear things that they might not have thought of.”

In her 38 years of teaching, including the last 30 at Naples High School, Glancy had to learn a thing or two about adapting her classes.

But it is her ability to do so that has helped her garner the county’s top teaching prize: The Golden Apple Award.

Glancy began her teaching career at Naples High School as a science teacher, educating children on everything from botany and marine science to biology and space science.

Suddenly, she found herself without a science teaching position.

“I was covering for someone who is on leave,” she said. “I realized I was one course short of a certification in English. I have always loved literature, so I got my certification.”

Glancy has spent the last 19 years teaching AP literature and composition. But whether she is teaching AP or a regular course, Glancy said it is important to always engage students.

“I love the whole process of learning. It is a quest I am on for life. I learn continuously through my students and for my students,” she said. “It is amazing to watch the moments of recognition in their faces. I love creating independent thinkers.”

Still, it is not an easy job. Glancy has to make sure her AP students know about literature from the 1500s to poems and novels that were written a few years ago.

“They really have to be able to look at all different styles and philosophical perspectives,” she said. “On the AP exam, they might have to compare an Elizabethan poem versus a free verse poem that was written a couple of years ago.”

Glancy tackles different perspectives, too. The Thursday before spring break, her students were discussing existentialism in literature.

“I tell them that some people view the world this way. The choices of how they view the world are theirs to make,” she said.

Glancy helped start the district’s Advanced Placement Laureate Program, which allows students to earn a Laureate Diploma if they complete six or more AP courses and present a major paper to a school/community panel, among other things. She started the program in 1994.

“We started at Naples High School with three kids. It has grown to six high schools, and we have 38 students this year at Naples participating,” she said proudly. “It’s just grown exponentially in the last few years.”

Senior Lune Dormond said she appreciates Glancy’s efforts with the Laureate program.

“She will stay here until 8 o’clock at night working with us,” she said. “She is dedicated. I definitely made her stay late a couple of nights.”

Glancy smiled at the compliment, but insists she is only doing what any teacher would do.

“I love them and they know it,” she said.

Senior Kevin Tipton echoed Lune’s statements when Glancy received her award.

“She works nights, weekends,” he said. “Without her, my senior year would not be the same.”

Glancy, who has previously been recognized as Teacher of the Year, said her Golden Apple Award means that she is representing so many wonderful teachers in Collier County.

“Educators are not recognized enough for the wonderful things that they do,” she said. “I am honored to represent them.”

She is married to Donald. The couple have six children and four grandchildren.

Four named Teachers of the Year

Lisa Braren stood in front of about 10 children dressed in Hawaiian shirts, top hats and canes.

“My name is Lisa Braren and I am the music teacher here. These are my morning musicians and they are going to sing to you,” she told a group of Tommie Barfield Elementary School volunteers. “Boy, do I have the best job in the world.”

Braren’s job got a little better Thursday when she and three other teachers were named Teachers of the Year for Collier County.

Braren was named Collier County Elementary School Teacher of the Year.

“This does not happen very often, but I am speechless,” Braren said with a laugh. “This is such an honor. I am honored to teach at this school. You have made my bouquet complete.”

Also honored Thursday were North Naples Middle School science teacher Mary Jane Nardulli-Clark, who was named Collier County Middle School Teacher of the Year; Gulf Coast High School math teacher Susan Hemrick, who was named Collier County High School Teacher of the Year; and Debbie Graham, a fifth-grade teacher at Avalon Elementary School who was named the Macy’s Teacher of the Year.

The teachers were nominated and then chosen by a panel of previous Teacher of the Year winners. Each year Collier County recognizes the elementary, middle and high school teachers of the year.

The Macy’s Teacher of the Year award, which is sponsored by Macy’s department store and the Florida Department of Education, recognizes a teacher from each county in Florida who demonstrates a “superior ability to foster excellence in education and contribute to the continuous improvement of student learning and the school environment.”

The Macy’s Teacher of the Year is chosen from the same pool submitted for the Collier County award.

“I love teaching. I love you guys,” Graham told the fifth-graders as she accepted her flowers and a plaque from her students. “I appreciate that the district does honor teachers.”

Graham, who was surprised by Chief Academic Officer Cynthia Janssen and Principal Marilyn Moser, acknowledged that she would not have received the award unless Carmen Lopez, a fellow fifth-grade teacher, nominated her.

Lopez said Graham, who has been teaching for 15 years and has been at Avalon for five, inspired her.

“She doesn’t just think of her own students, either. She thinks of all of our students,” said Lopez.

Case in point: Graham was surprised in front of the entire fifth-grade class at Avalon because she brought in a guest speaker from Ethiopia to speak to the children.

“She exemplifies good teaching,” said Moser. “She does a fabulous job. She is very deserving.”

One by one, each recipient was surprised at school Thursday morning as they were acknowledged for their outstanding work.

Nardulli-Clark was the first to be surprised with the middle school teacher of the year award when assistant superintendent Eric Williams and staff carrying eight flower bouquets walked into her sixth-grade science class.

“I don’t know what to say. I thought I was in trouble,” wiping away tears Nardulli-Clark, said when she saw the administration group, including her husband Mason Clark, also a science teacher at North Naples Middle.

The sixth-graders cheered.

Paul Lauster, 11, and Steven Dekevich, 12, were among the students who said Nardulli-Clark is a good teacher.

“She’s patient,” Paul said.

Upon receiving the award, a shocked Nardulli-Clark, 30, said “these are great kids and they give to me as much as I give to them.”

North Naples Principal Frank Zencuch said she was deserving of the distinction.

“She’s excellent,” Zencuch said, adding that she is a creative teacher.

Clark, who has been a teacher for eight years, is the school’s science department head and a Naples Zoo liaison.

“She’s very deserving,” said Curt Witthoff, coordinator for science and environmental education for Collier County schools, who joined the staff to surprise her. “Definitely one of the top science teachers in the county.”

A few miles away, Williams surprised Hemrick, who has been teaching 30 years, of which 26 years have been in Collier County.

More than a dozen faculty members, including three generations of principals at Gulf Coast High and her husband, interrupted her algebra II class during a quiz.

“Holy smackers,” Hemrick, 52, said upon receiving the award.

“I’m very happy because there are so many qualified teachers in Collier County, so it’s wonderful to be honored like this,” she said.

Students sitting in the class agreed Hemrick was deserving of the award.

“She’s probably the best teacher in the school,” Gulf Coast senior Tom Sisca, 18, said.

Hemrick’s husband, Joe echoed students’ thoughts.

“She’s certainly deserving,” Joe Hemrick said. Their daughter, Caroline Hylemon, is also a teacher.

Tommie Barfield Elementary School Principal Jory Westberry said Braren deserved her honor.

“She’s fabulous, just fabulous. She gives up her morning planning to work with the kids and help them enjoy music and flourish,” she said. “No music teacher equals this one.”

Also honored today was Carolyn Rice who as a general secretary for New Beginnings, an alternative school in the district. Rice was honored as Collier County’s Florida School-Related Employee of the Year nominee.

All five employees will be recognized by the Collier County School Board at 4 p.m. Thursday, April 19, at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Administrative Center, 5775 Osceola Trail.

Monday, Apr. 9, 2007

Pine Teacher Gets Hero Award

The gym teacher who helped disarm a 14-year-old boy in a shooting at a Reno middle school last spring has been named the Red Cross Hero of the Year for northern Nevada.

Jenice Fagan was preparing to teach her gym class at Pine Middle
School when shots rang out in the hallway on that morning of March

She ran out to find James Scott Newman with a .38 caliber pistol that he’d already used to shoot a pair of classmates – one in the arm and chest and another who was hit in the leg by shrapnel.

Both victims recovered from their injuries but it could have been much worth had Fagan not been able express empathy with Newman and persuade him to put the gun on the floor. When he did, Fagan immediately bear-hugged him until more staff arrived.

Police said at the time Fagan had de-escalated a very dangerous situation. She says she believes anybody in the same situation would have done what she did.

Teacher’s unique way of educating inspires students

Ashley Currie, Brock Country Day Early Education Center teacher, is planning on letting one of her students cut her hair.

The day care and learning center has been teaching students from kindergarten through sixth grade about community service.

The students have been bringing items to the school to be donated to Manna Storehouse Inc. and the Weatherford-Parker County Animal Shelter.

To motivate her students, Currie added a bit of challenge to the project.

As each student brings in their items, they will receive a ticket to be placed in a bucket. Monday, March 19, a student’s name will be drawn to see who gets to cut their teacher’s hair.

Currie planned on donating her brunette tresses to Locks of Love for a wig to be made for a child who suffers from cancer or a disease which leaves them hairless.

She got the idea after a few of her students did the same thing.

“Some of my other kiddos have donated their hair and it inspired me,” Currie said. “It was a really awesome way to help someone in need and I wanted to do the same thing.”

So far, about 20 students have brought in non-perishable canned goods, animal food, collars and kitty litter for both organizations.

“Having the kids help out teaches them community service,” Currie said. “I just thought it was a really neat way to get the kids involved and they’ve been doing really well with it.”

After school on Monday, she will pull her back in a rubber band and let the designated hairdresser whack away.

She said she will donate a minimum of 10 inches of her hair.

Currently, Currie’s hair extends to the center of her back, which took her two years to grow. Monday, however she has braced herself to have short, sassy locks above her shoulders.

“It will be a big change, but it’ll definitely be worth it,” she said.

Day Care owner, Barbee Phillips, said each year she chooses a different organization for school projects. In previous years, the school has adopted an angel child, donated to local food banks and Goodwill among other local activities.

Phillips said by participating in the projects, students learn that their efforts are part of the Christian way of life.

“We express that it demonstrates a lifestyle of giving,” Phillips said.

She described Currie as an educator who teaches by giving of herself.

“She was meant to be a teacher,” Phillips said. “She does it in a personal, creative way. She has brought cupcakes for the children to decorate, has patience with them and lets them decorate their rooms with their art.”

Phillips encourages Currie’s enthusiasm among other teachers and students and said the project was a great idea.

“It’s awesome,” she said. “It makes them feel involved. By doing this, it lets them know that she loves them and trusts them enough to be a part of this project.”

Ashley Reynolds of Out West Hair Salon in Brock has offered to donate her services to cut and highlight Currie’s hair following her student’s task.

Monday, Mar. 26, 2007

At 75, ‘I Love the Art of Learning’

Maria Patti just can’t stop teaching.

After serving in the Army, teaching for 35 years in schools in Germany, Escambia County and Elberta, Ala. – and after raising four children of her own – Patti is back in the classroom.

The Pensacola native came out of retirement recently at age 74 to teach fifth grade at St. Michael Interparochial School in downtown Pensacola, where she was a student from 1938 to 1946.

“We’re not surprised that my mother has returned to the classroom,” said Michael Vann, one of Patti’s four children. “Teaching has always been her passion.”

Patti was a teacher from 1966 until her retirement in 2001.

Her passion for teaching was reignited late last year when St. Michael hired her as a substitute teacher to finish out the quarter.

“When I interviewed her, I saw that Ms. Patti had the experience and enthusiasm for teaching,” school Principal Lloyd Kinderknecht said.

“I’m glad that we’ve been able to keep her on as a full-time teacher.”

Patti, too, is excited to be back in the classroom.

“I couldn’t stand the boredom that’s associated with retirement,” said Patti, who turned 75 on Saturday.

“I love the art of learning, and I love children and teaching just seems the natural thing to do.”

Patti has brought with her an old-school, no-nonsense approach in her classroom.

Students have to raise their hands to ask or answer questions and must show respect for their peers.

Her current crop of fifth-graders seem to respond to her tack just as generations of students have before them.

“She teaches us very well, especially when it comes to reading, which is my favorite subject,” Louis Gomez said.

As much as she loves it, teaching was not Patti’s initial career goal.

As a youngster in the 1940s and 1950s, she loved to sing and entertain on the local scene.

“I wanted to be a singer when I grew up,” Patti said.

Patti honed those skills during the Korean War, when she served in the Women’s Army Corps in Germany. She was the lead singer for an Army nightclub band and the only person licensed to drive the band’s truck.

After returning to the United States, Patti thought of becoming a nun and briefly entered a Benedictine Catholic Convent in Cullman, Ala.

But those plans soon were dropped after she met and married James Vann, who worked at the Navy Yard as a plant technician. The couple divorced in 1978, and Vann died in 1987.

Teaching became a new career focus for Patti at the urging of her younger sister, Josie Merritt, who, at the time, was a teacher at a Catholic school in Alabama.

Merritt encouraged Patti to pursue higher education at the University of West Florida, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in education.

“I knew that Maria would love teaching because she has a way with children,” said Merritt.

“Maria wants each child she comes in contact with to succeed and reach their full potential,” Merritt said.

Patti’s first teaching assignment took her to St. Benedict Catholic School in Elberta, Ala., where all four of her children also attended.

“I remember when we would all pile up in the car and drive 20 miles each way,” recalled James Vann Jr., who now lives in Virginia.

Her latest teaching stint has even put Patti in touch with former students who have grown up to be co-workers.

Gina Williams is a former Patti student from St. Benedict. Williams now works as a bookkeeper and office manager at St. Michael.

“I was pleasantly surprised when I got her resume for the substitute-teaching job last year,” Williams said.

“Ms. Patti is vivacious and a wonderful teacher and today’s students are going to benefit a lot, just as we did when we were her students.”

Fifth-grader Krysta Moody agrees.

“Ms. Patti is the best teacher in the world. She’s just awesome,” Krysta said.

Thursday, Mar. 22, 2007

Teachers honored with ‘Golden Apple’ awards

If it hadn’t been for a nasty dog bite, teacher Melinda Wilson would not have been standing in front of her dance class Wednesday holding a basket of apples.

That bloody bite—which made her faint a decade ago—convinced her she didn’t have the stomach to go to medical school. So she turned to another love—teaching dance—and spent the next nine years pushing students to new heights at Curie Metropolitan High School in Chicago.

The extraordinary academic rigor of her classes and her personal commitment to students made her one of this year’s 10 winners of the Golden Apple Award—an honor Wilson called the “Super Bowl of teaching.”

“She’s always pushing you to be the best, not only in dance, but in everyday life,” said Curie senior Dario Martinez, who nominated his teacher for the award. “When I came into her class, there was such a sense of relief and freedom where you could just be yourself.”

Six Golden Apple teachers were honored Wednesday—two from private schools, two from suburban schools and two from Chicago public schools. Three more will be named Thursday, and fine arts teacher Gina Williams of Lake Forest Academy was surprised last week with the honor because her school is on spring break this week.

“I value academics and discipline,” said Wilson, 45, whose students turn in 20-page term papers for their midterms. “I love my kids, and I want them to realize that there are no limits to what they can achieve in my room.”

Meanwhile, when Golden Apple presenters arrived at Evanston Township High School, Aaron Becker, 38, and his students were sitting on rugs and pillows, studying their lesson in a classroom filled with ornate drapes, maps and Middle Eastern memorabilia.

On some days, the students help themselves to hot tea that the history teacher has brewed, sometimes with tea leaves he had bought during a visit to an exotic locale.

Senior Peter Brody stopped by to give his teacher a hug and said the Middle Eastern-themed classroom is just one way that Becker makes students feel comfortable. “You can tell he absolutely loves the subjects he teaches,” Brody said.

At Fenwick High, a Catholic school in Oak Park, Rev. Joseph Ekpo leaped into the air when he learned of his award. The Nigerian-born theology teacher was forced as a child to fight in a rebel army, was ordained as a priest in 1986, and later fled to the United States after he was marked for execution.

“I am dedicating this to God, to Jesus, to America, to Nigeria and to Catholic priests,” said Ekpo, 45. “God sent me to make religion meaningful, for students to experience God and to help them relate to God.”

Friday, Mar. 16, 2007

Science with a ‘Boom’

“The Boom” is bouncing around the classroom like an overgrown kid. With his bushy gray eyebrows and mad scientist’s grin, he’s demonstrating the density of methane to 25 rapt teenagers at San Lorenzo Valley High School.

“Let’s see if we can do this without burning the place up again,” he says.

“Again?” gasps one girl.

Explosions are nothing new to Preston Q. Boomer’s physics and chemistry classes. Neither are flash fires, electric shocks, spark-spitting transformers or deafening gongs, sirens and klaxons. He begins many lectures with the subversive come-on: “Want to blow something up today?”

It’s the Boom’s Big Bang Theory of teaching: Noise is fun, even instructive. But his wacky experiments can go awry. One day the cops showed up as a result of a half-baked Boomer stunt. The teacher was testing whether a 1.5-million-volt Tesla coil could shoot a spark across the room. In the process, he cut off all police radio communications for miles.

Boomer’s reaction: “Neat!”

Preston Boomer is 75.

He’s been teaching science at the same school near Santa Cruz since 1956, the year Elvis Presley released “Heartbreak Hotel.” He’s had 8,000 students in the past half-century – three generations of some families. Many teachers and administrators once sat in his class. He often hears from former students long retired. But like the Robert Crumb cartoon posted in his class, he prefers to “Keep on Truckin’.”

High school graduates everywhere can recall a teacher who was a favorite despite the generational divide. Boomer is that teacher taken to the next level. He is one of fewer than 20 California instructors with 50 or more years in the classroom. It’s not just his longevity that amazes colleagues and students; so does his energy.

Boomer’s pension now outpaces his salary, so he’d make more money if he called it quits. Yet with no mandatory retirement in his district, he says his goal is to remain “until they drag my corpse off the lab table.”

There’s this thing about retired teachers, he says: “Before you know it, they’re dead.”

Boomer says he has missed work only twice in five decades, – once for a conference, the other time for his grandfather’s funeral. He often walks with a cane and likes to riff on his advancing age, telling students he was conceived in the rumble seat of a 1931 Model A.

The Boom (the nickname is short for Boomer, not an explosion) is a master teacher, stand-up comic and circus showman. To the kids, he’s Yoda with a chemistry set. Or a character from a “Far Side” cartoon.

He’s also an innovator – the first instructor in his district to use computers and PowerPoint demonstrations as teaching tools – and a tough disciplinarian who bills his “Big Chem” and “Mighty Physics” classes as rigorous college boot camps.

The lessons don’t stop at school. The grandfather of two often hosts students at “Boomeria,” a Disneyland for science geeks that he and his students have created over the years at his home in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Boomeria features a wooden castle and guard towers, a 2,000-pipe organ housed in its own chapel – even a working guillotine with a steel blade that students use to cut watermelons, not necks.

Students often wage “war,” marauding through Boomeria’s hand-dug catacombs, firing water cannons and hurling eggs and water balloons from catapults.

There’s a method here: Teens learn about concepts such as water propulsion and the fact that it takes just a tad of zinc mixed with sulfur to make an explosion. All while the self-proclaimed “King of Boomeria” plays a dirge on the mammoth pipe organ.

His tutelage has paid off. Ex-students e-mail to say his lessons primed them for their toughest college classes. Many Boomer graduates have gone on to lucrative careers. Most attribute their continued love affair with science and technology to the teacher they call their most influential childhood mentor.

One of them, Hoyt Yeatman, became a Hollywood visual-effects supervisor and in 1989 won an Academy Award for the special effects in the film The Abyss.

“The most important thing I learned from Boom is that you don’t have to grow up to grow old,” said Yeatman, 52. “He still plays in this fantasy world, even as an adult. Many of us eventually lose those childlike abilities, but he’s stubbornly held on to them. I’ve used his inspiration throughout my entire career.”

Yeatman’s mother, Marie, now 81, at first worried about the eccentric teacher – enough to check out Boomeria for herself.

“It didn’t look dangerous,” she said. “Of course, that was before the guillotine.”

Before Boomer’s ankles gave out, janitors each summer had to replace floor tiles worn down by his incessant pacing.

In a fast-moving lecture, he handles such dense concepts as the Doppler effect, shock waves and sonic booms. In a spiel on beat frequency, he plays a few notes of the Sonny and Cher song “The Beat Goes On.”

“You guys were born in the wrong time,” he tells his class. “The hippie era was really fun.”

Next he’s using a contraption called an equalizer to measure the harmonics of various sounds. A student blows his nose.

“Good tone,” Boomer says. “Bring it up here and let’s put in on the equalizer.”

The room is a shrine to science and Boomer’s warped humor. Next to posters showing the Periodic Chart of Elements and Fundamental Particles and Interactions is a photo of a young Boomer in the Navy Reserve and a hand-drawn sign reading: “Time will pass, you may not.”

Most students stay riveted. There’s no whispering or note-passing, no gum-chewing condescension. They know their roles: The Boom is the performer, they’re the attentive audience.

They preface questions with “Hey, Boom,” reveling in his off-the-wall answers.

“No teacher comes close to him,” said Cammie Dueber, 17. “He’s so weird.”

In class, Boomer will command “OK, write this down,” and all heads will plunge toward their notebooks. Students must write in ink and in complete sentences. All submitted papers must be stapled; names printed legibly, not scribbled. Late arrivals or in-class bathroom runs are not tolerated. He’ll reduce grades on papers for including what he calls “Baloney Stuff (BS).”

He refuses to approve most field trips during his teaching hours, insisting that nothing is more important than his class.

“In my day, he fanatically rejected blue jeans for some reason, to the point of kicking people out of school dances for wearing them,” said former student Bill Gervasi, 50, now a computer hardware executive.

As the story goes, Boomer’s backyard fantasy land was born the night a carload of students tried to egg his home as payback for bad grades.

Boomer was ready: He set a booby-trap of honking horns and water guns in what became known as the first epic battle for the soul of Boomeria.

Students still make pilgrimages to his home, laughing at the front gate as his voice booms over the loudspeaker: “Who goes there?”

“The Boom loves science with a deeper passion than anyone I’ve ever known,” said student Lance McVay, 39, now a high school teacher. “He’s like a little kid with a chemistry set. His just got bigger and bigger. Boomeria is one man’s ode to childhood.”

Boomer’s two sons recall their father as a mix of Mr. Rogers and David Lynch. “My childhood was defined by all-night water battles, people sneaking around in the woods, alarms going off at all hours,” said Alex Boomer, 49, an electrical contractor. “I thought it was normal until I got out in the real world.”

Friday, Feb. 23, 2007

A lesson learned from these award-winning teachers

Stephane Cote has already spent $11,000 of his own money to develop innovative programs for his students at Ecole primaire Lalande in Roxboro.

Now the Grade 6 teacher will have $5,000 more to work with. He’s won the prestigious Prime Minister’s award for excellence in teaching, the only Quebec teacher to win the national distinction this year.

The money goes to the school, with the winner deciding how it will be spent – on education projects or equipment, for instance.

“I’m very excited and pleased,” Cote said of his certificate of excellence, one of 15 handed out across Canada this year. Three other Montreal teachers were awarded lesser certificates of achievement, which come with a $1,000 prize.

“I believe in the projects I do but sometimes I’m ahead of (the Quebec Education Department’s curriculum) reform so it’s nice to have this affirmation.”

In a recent Quebec history project, for instance, Cote had the students become filmmakers in order to learn their history.

Students had to calculate the cost of renting equipment and hiring actors. They had to prepare a storyboard, shoot the movie with a digital camera, then edit it on the computer, adding special effects.

It culminated in a gala party and screening, where students got awards based on how much they had improved, not on how good their movie was.

The filmmaking “is something that seems to interest the students,” Cote said.

“I’m not sure I really teach,” Cote explained. “It’s about offering a situation where a student can learn.”

It’s the second time he’s been recognized by the Prime Minister’s awards. Two years ago, he won a certificate of achievement.

– – –

In an age of World of Warcraft and online dating, motivating kids in public school to play and practise viola can be daunting.

Theodora Stathopoulos, a music teacher at FACE School since 1991, has found a way to energize music students to practise:

She insists on hard work, but lards her lessons with serious praise that makes her students strive for excellence.

For that she was awarded the Prime Minister’s certificate of achievement this year.

During a classroom visit, it was apparent she is the kind of teacher who can make a difference in a young person’s life. She was rehearsing string players when we dropped in on the University St. school and heard her mix calls for more vibrato with lots of encouragement.

Parents and her colleagues admire her success at motivating students. Stathopoulos said she’s been able to get “the kids to stay with the program and attract students who are more serious about string playing.”

Since founding FACE’s symphony orchestra in 1998, she has conducted its 60-plus members. She also conducts the school’s junior and intermediate orchestras, as well as junior and senior chamber ensembles.

Emilie Gelinas-Nobel, 15, a viola player at the school, has known Stathopoulos “since kindergarten” and finds she’s “really very organized.

“She stays on top of five or six orchestras, and expects us to be very devoted to music.”

Gloria Chalupovitsch knows why she won her certificate of achievement:

“I never repeat myself. I try to get to know the kids before I even know what projects we’re going to do,” she said at Merton elementary school in Cote St. Luc.

Her specialty is cross-curricular and project-based learning, a fancy way of saying she uses media to get the students to learn their math, English and moral education lessons.

To help make the kids “more technologically savvy,” Chalupovitsch just finished a project where students created clay models they later used in an animation film.

In moral education classes, the students saw the silent Charlie Chaplin movie The Great Dictator, with its anti-racism message. And they listened to Where’s the Love?, a rap song by the Black Eyed Peas with lyrics:

“But if you only have love for your own race,

“Then you only leave space to discriminate.”

Chalupovitsch makes her point about racism: “The problems are still not solved and the kids are becoming more aware of that” through these projects.

The whole point is to help students discover their talents, she added. “Some kids really don’t know what they are good at, and if you only do just the reading and writing, they never find out.”

Ahmed Bensaada’s winning formula is to use computers to bring the basics of physics and chemistry to life.

That way his Grade 10 students learn their physical science course and computer applications at the same time.

He earned his certificate of achievement for his innovative work over 10 years at Ecole secondaire La Dauversiere on l’Acadie Blvd.

“I began using the project-based approach to teaching before it became part of the curriculum,” he said.

He has created a website where students at the multi-ethnic school display highlights of their science projects. Students design their own projects and work at a pace that reflects their ability.

“Often it is not just the strongest students whose projects get published, but those who put in more work and come up with something really interesting.”

Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2007

Top teacher honored

Palm Vista Elementary School third-grade teacher Jennifer Smith was taken completely by surprise on Tuesday, Feb. 13 when she became one of three California teachers awarded the $25,000 Milken National Educator Award for 2006.

Smith’s award was presented during a morning assembly held at the school on Baseline Road.

Milken Family Foundation Executive Vice President Richard Sandler kept those in attendance, including several school board members and representatives of the city of Twentynine Palms and the Twentynine Palms Chamber of Commerce, in suspense until he named Smith as winner of the award.

With help from some of the assembled students, he dropped hints that the surprise he had to reveal was about excellence and the teachers who help their students achieve excellence.

“The teachers have the hardest job in America,” Sandler told those in attendance, noting that the Mil-ken Family Foundation, recognizing the importance of the work teachers do, created the national educator award 20 years ago.

He explained that, at most, 100 awards are given out each year. This year, he said, just three California teachers, including Smith, were honored.

“You can’t apply for this award. We find you. That’s how special this award is,” he said.

Later, Sandler explained that the foundation works with state departments of education, which submit names of possible award-winning teachers to the foundation.

Selection, he said, is based on excellence in the classroom, student achievement, accomplishments outside the classroom and the teachers’ inspiring personality.

Smith, Sandler said, has been a leader at Palm Vista Elementary School, helping at-risk students and acting as a mentor to other teachers.

“Her other staff looks to her,” he said. “She’s a great leader.”

According to information provided by the foundation, Smith’s students share literature through book clubs read-alouds and writing stations.

Smith also generates excitement about books by acting out characters as she reads to her students.

Smith’s students, foundation officials said, have consistently scored in the top percentile of the district on asses-sments, with most scoring proficient or basic.

Between her teaching and her activities on several school committees, Sandler said, Smith has gone “above and beyond,” for her students and for her school.

“She’s a good representative of the profession,” he said.


“It feels really good,” Smith told those in attendance of her work as a teacher.

“We are at ground zero for these kids.”

“I didn’t see it coming,” Smith said after the awards presentation was over.

“Setting the bar and expecting my students to meet it,” she said when asked what she thought earned her the award. “I tried my hardest to help them to understand that they could.”

Asked what she planned to do with the money, Smith hesitated and said she would have to wait until she got the mon-ey, which will happen during an awards ceremony in Los Angeles in the spring.

“I probably will go shopping,” she joked. “My husband wants a winch for his Jeep. I guess I can’t say we don’t have the money for it now.”

Monday, Feb. 19, 2007

Substitute teacher saves Somers student from choking

Mabelle B. Avery Middle School art teacher Elizabeth Abbott has been in unsettling situations before, but none like what she encountered Wednesday Feb. 7 just as third period class ended.

One of her students, seventh-grader Brianna Damon, was talking to her friend while eating candy when suddenly the candy got stuck in her throat and she began choking.

Abbott, who had just recently completed training in CPR and the Heimlich maneuver, quickly swung into action, ordering the other students to get the nurse as she began performing the Heimlich maneuver on Damon.

In a matter of a few moments, or what seemed like forever to Damon and Abbott, Abbott was able to dislodge the candy from Damon’s throat.

“It was scary. It was definitely scary,” Abbott said Monday as she recounted those harrowing moments.

Damon was scared, too.

“I could not stop thinking this thing is not going to come out,” Damon, 12, said Monday. “I really felt like I was passing out and fading away. Everything was blurry.”

In honor of Abbott’s heroics, the Board of Education called on Fire Chief William Meier Jr. to present Abbott with a Heart Saver Award at its meeting on Monday.

Abbott brought along her parents, grandfather, and fiancee to watch her receive the plaque. Damon and her parents were also in attendance.

“Thank you for your dedication to the students,” school board Chairwoman Terri Henderson told Abbott.

Abbott, who lives in Tolland, was hired about three months ago as a long-term substitute art teacher at the middle school.

“We are very proud of Beth,” middle school Principal Nancy Barry said at the meeting.

While school officials showed their appreciation, no one was more grateful to Abbot than Damon and her parents.

“She’s our hero,” said Damon’s mother, Barbara.

“I feel like it’s as if she actually gave me a second chance at life,” said Damon, who, the day after the incident, presented Abbott with two dozen purple tulips and a box of chocolates.

Abbott had just recently completed training in CPR and the Heimlich maneuver during a professional development day at the high school since she wants to get involved in coaching softball.

“I think every teacher should do that,” said Abbott, who received official certification for completing the training from the American Heart Association on Monday.

Damon, who now plans to go for similar training when she’s older, told Abbott, “You are a very special teacher.”

Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2007

He’s not ‘just a regular classroom teacher’

Rafe Esquith’s classroom is dingy and cluttered, but it hardly matters. Within seconds inside it, it becomes clear why Esquith has been anointed as one of those magical teachers who propels his poor, immigrant students to impossible heights.

In under an hour on a recent Tuesday, his fifth-graders, many of whom speak with traces of Korean or Spanish accents, recited from memory the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. They played “Riders on the Storm” on guitar, keyboard and drums. They discussed the Constitution and described vivid details of Civil War battles. Then, when they sat down to take a geography test, many politely informed their teacher that Honduras was in the wrong place.

The students were also sophisticated enough not to take any notice as a photographer and reporter crowded into their cramped classroom. They are used to it, after all. Over the years, Esquith has been recognized by Queen Elizabeth II and President Bush. Ian McKellen, the British actor, pops by to visit when he’s in L.A. Oprah Winfrey gave him a van.

This month, Esquith has a new book out, his second, Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire, and the media have again come calling to Room 56 at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School, a crowded, somewhat bleak campus that is one of the biggest elementary schools in the nation, with 2,000 students, more than three-quarters of whom come from families subsisting below the poverty level.

The book, and the media whirl it’s taking him and his students on, is an opportunity for Esquith to crystallize the lessons from his 24 years in the classroom. It’s a chance, as well, to confront a sometimes troubling paradox: The more Esquith’s students achieve, the less he seems to resemble his self-description as “just a regular classroom teacher” whose success any instructor can emulate. The myth of the hero teacher, Esquith is finding, dies hard – especially when most people consider his example, well, heroic.

It is a topic that renders his amiable face fierce and puts an edge into his mild-mannered voice.

“I’m not a heroic teacher,” he said, leaning forward over his hamburger at a downtown restaurant. What happens in his classroom, he said, is “not changing the world. It’s one small corner doing things the way it ought to be.”

He leaned back in his chair, relaxed. “I’m just a regular fifth-grade teacher.” (It is a point he repeats endlessly over the coming week, as he goes about doing things most regular fifth-grade teachers never do, like sitting for interviews or addressing well-heeled crowds of potential donors.) Esquith’s book is, not surprisingly, striking a chord: At a signing at a Manhattan Barnes & Noble last month, he drew a standing-room-only crowd of star-struck teachers.

Still, sometimes, when teaching experts, such as Bruce Fuller, an education professor Bruce Fuller at the University of California, Berkeley, hear about teachers like Esquith, it makes them sigh.

“The heroic teacher is important to remind us that it comes down to the motivation and inspirational quality of individual teachers,” Fuller said. “But we’ve got this institution called public schooling … and we think we can magically resolve its problems by hiring more heroes, and it’s just a simplistic way to think.”

Esquith concedes that not everyone can, or is willing to, work 12-plus hours a day, every day, all year long the way he does. But anyone, he writes, can, say, visit Web sites that offer good ideas for teaching novels.

He is also the first to agree that the public education system needs more than a few fanatically dedicated teachers. At times, his book reads like an indictment of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the public school system and, more broadly, 21st-century America. And he concedes that he encourages his students to go to private or charter schools after they finish his class.

But despite offers to leave the classroom for the lecture circuit or found his own school, he said, he decided a long time ago to remain on the front lines, pushing 10-year-olds from working-class families to dream big and doing everything in his power to help them achieve their goals.

Esquith, 52, looks like a Central Casting male teacher. Round cherubic cheeks and engaging smile? Check. Geeky white tennis shoes and blue sweater vest? Check. Incredible warmth. Undeniable enthusiasm. Endless patience. Check, check, check.

He grew up in the Fairfax district, the son of a social worker who read Shakespeare to him each night before bed. He went to UCLA, then began teaching in 1982 at Ivanhoe Elementary School in Silver Lake. But after two years he went to Hobart because, he said, the students at Ivanhoe didn’t need him.

Each year, his students perform one of Shakespeare’s plays. (They rehearse after school.) He also takes them on at least one trip to visit colleges and take in cultural institutions in other cities. And, of course, they go to the Shakespeare festival in Ashland, Ore. His earlier book, There Are No Shortcuts, described, among other things, how he nearly bankrupted himself and ruined his health working extra jobs to pay for his students’ extracurricular activities.

Not all of Esquith’s students go on to great things. “I fail all the time,” he writes, and he tells of being heartbroken when former students broke into the school and set off smoke bombs.

But for many, the year in Room 56, where the walls are lined with the names of former students who have gone on to college, seems to have been a turning point. “You believe in him and it helps you believe in yourself,” said Matt Parlow, a former student who graduated from Yale Law School and is now a law professor at Chapman University. “You start to figure out who you are and what you want to do and the type of work ethic you need to get there.”

Esquith acknowledges that he sometimes clashes with colleagues and administrators. And some find his approach off-putting. One Internet post in response to his first book put it like this: “The guy’s martyr/megalomania level is off the charts. He so desperately needs to be these kids’ uber-father figure. … And despite the occasional bone he throws other teachers, he is very clear that NOBODY is even in his league as a teacher.”

Esquith said he finds such criticism “very hurtful” and “a bit unfair.” But he comforts himself with the idea that “if I offend people, maybe I’m doing something right. … Remember, the best teacher who ever lived was Socrates, and they killed him.”

Esquith said he’s learned not to overextend himself disastrously, according to his wife, Barbara, who met Esquith when her daughter was in his class and is now nearly as dedicated as Esquith to his students. But still, from before dawn until late in the night, Esquith is with his students. He took 16 with him on his cross-country book tour. A few days before he departed, they went to a palatial house in Pacific Palisades to talk about his class and – Esquith hoped – raise funds to pay for the tour. It was a meeting of environmental and social-justice activists who had read about Esquith and wanted to meet him and his students. Fashionable-looking folks nibbled grape leaves and creamy cheeses, then watched open-mouthed as the inner-city kids at the front of the living room vanished into the personas of Hamlet and Ophelia, kings, shrews and knaves.

While his students waited in the cavernous hallway, Esquith took the stage himself to give an introduction. He had forsaken his trademark sweater vest for a suit and tie, and he had brought along a video of himself and his class on the Today show. And there was Esquith on television, insisting yet again: “I’m just a regular teacher. Just an ordinary teacher.”

Honored teacher inspires readers

It’s never too late to follow your dreams. For living proof, look no farther than Emily Simpson, West Pender Middle School reading teacher and Pender County Educator of the Year.

“I kinda got a late start, I did everything in reverse,” Simpson said with a laugh.

In 1988 she got her Bachelor of Arts degree in education from the University of North Carolina Wilmington after she had married, given birth to two children and worked as a substitute teacher.

“After my boys were in school I started substituting, and with a lot of encouragement from the teachers around me, I went back to school,” Simpson said.

Every year, Pender County honors teachers from each school for outstanding service and commitment to students. From this group, one individual is selected as the Pender County Educator of the Year. As a result of the award, Communities In Schools of Cape Fear, in partnership with the Dunlea group, presented Simpson with a brand new Dell computer.

Simpson went to the regional competition for educators of the year in Jacksonville on Oct. 27.

“I had a wonderful time,” she said. “I didn’t go any further, but it was a good experience and I learned a lot.”

Simpson came to West Pender Middle School three years ago from Penderlea Elementary. After 19 years teaching in Pender County, the years run together, but her drive is still strong.

“You go home at night and you are tired, but you are contented,” Simpson said.

Children come to Simpson for 45 minutes a day for additional tutoring in basic reading skills. “The kids love her,” said June Robbins, principal of West Pender Middle. “She loves the kids, and she creates a love of reading.”

Simpson uses a combination of hands-on skill building, computers, drills, patience and old fashioned reading aloud. “The neat thing about it is that I get to sit and listen to each child read,” Simpson said.

She also has some extra special help in her classroom: Her 80-year-old mother volunteers to listen to children read. They call her “Mama Dora” and fight over who gets to read with her.

Simpson gives lots of credit to the staff and her colleagues, but at the end of the day, it’s the kids she loves the most, she said.

“I love teaching,” she said. “My husband says I’d do it even if they didn’t pay me.”

Monday, Jan. 22, 2007

Teacher Of The Year Connects With Her Students

A middle school teacher from Estes Park was named the Colorado Department of Education’s 2007 Teacher of the Year.

Susan Ryder, a 13-year teaching veteran, teaches language arts to seventh graders at Estes Park Middle School.

Even though she’s an English teacher, Ryder’s students learn through drawing, painting and talking through their feelings. Ryder said her teaching philosophy focuses on diversity.

She said she knows that in seventh grade, teenagers are still discovering their voice and learning who to entrust with their words.

“When you’re becoming an author you have to understand your own style and it has to be appreciated,” Ryder said. “I see that with middle school students a lot, if they don’t feel like you appreciate their authentic self, they don’t have any buy-in to what you’re doing in the classroom.”

Ryder said she’s very proud to be Teacher of the Year and her students seem to be even more proud of her. After her award announcement, students and staff congratulated her with colorful cards and a special assembly.

“I walked into the gym and had all my sixth, seventh and eighth graders on one side screaming, and sitting on the floor with big smiles were all the high school students I’d taught,” she said.

Ryder’s students said they love her because she really cares. One of her students said Ryder doesn’t just give out assignments; she gives options to fit everyone’s palettes.

“If you can take the time to get to know them and let them know that you’re a real person, you make tremendous gains,” Ryder said.

Ryder’s classroom motto is, “you are the author of your own life story.” Her students live that by writing a letter to themselves to be opened at their high school graduation.

“I really want my kids to become authors of their own life stories,” she said. “I think in middle school they have to start making decisions, they have to start thinking them through. They need to take a stand.”

Ryder has also worked in Alabama and Atlanta but she wanted to come to a small district where she could get involved with students’ families and activities.

“They make my job so easy and it’s just a blessing every day,” she said.

Ryder said a teacher’s biggest challenge right now is reaching every student, no matter their background or learning level. She often goes to the capitol to speak about education. She also expects to work on ideas with Gov. Bill Ritter’s administration.

Thursday, Jan. 18, 2007

Teacher earning national acclaim

It has been an eventful few months for Andrea Peterson.

In October, she was named the state’s Teacher of the Year.

Last Friday, the state’s schools superintendent informed her she has been selected as one of four finalists for National Teacher of the Year.

In March, she will give birth to her first child, who has been named Faith.

And in April, she will be in Washington, D.C., with the other national finalists and state winners, where she is expected to meet President Bush.

All of which is a little hard to comprehend for the Monte Cristo Elementary School music teacher.

“Even when I was nominated at the district level, regional level and state level, the first thing that would go through my mind is ‘I can think of 10 teachers right off the top of my mind who are better teachers than I am,'” she said.

The National Teacher of the Year program began in 1952 and is run by the Council of Chief State School Officers. The winner is released from classroom duties for a year to represent the teaching profession.

A panel representing the 15 largest national education organizations chose the finalists.

Peterson doesn’t see the award as meaning the winner is the best teacher in the country. Rather, she said, it’s an effort to find an effective voice for education.

Letters supporting her nomination were full of praise.

“Our elementary students’ musical knowledge exceeds that of high school students in other districts,” wrote Granite Falls Superintendent Joel Thaut. “Their performances in the building and out in the community have become legendary.”

Peterson works hard to find out what is being taught at each grade level, and she caters her lessons to the classroom curriculum.

That often means writing music and encouraging students to write scripts, compose music and perform. Recent works included S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” and Shakespeare’s “King Lear.”

“I admire Andrea’s cross-cultural approach to education,” said state Superintendent Terry Bergeson. “Even as a music specialist, she incorporates other subjects into her classroom to help students learn about music in a much larger context.”

Peterson said music is a particularly effective tool to help struggling students succeed.

“Innately, every child and every adult is a musician,” she said. “They may be performers, composers … or listeners of music, but every human being has an inborn desire to participate in music. It is how we are made.”

Teacher honored with Unsung Hero award

Robert Griffith, a longtime teacher at Nashoba Regional High School, recently received an “Unsung Hero” award from St. Michael’s College of Vermont. Passionate about his subject matter and known for his positive attitude and quick wit, Griffith, a Clinton resident, has taught psychology at Nashoba for 13 years, and before that, taught English at Emerson School for eight years.

Erik Loescher, a Bolton resident who graduated from Nashoba last year and is now a freshman at St. Michael’s College, nominated Griffith for the award.

“Mr. Griffith is one of a few exceptional teachers I’ve encountered in my scholastic career. He takes a genuine interest in each of his student’s lives and always offers emotional support,” Loescher said. “He treats each one of his pupils with unconditional positive regard and is passionate about the subject he teaches. Most importantly, although all of Mr. Griffith’s students are younger, he respects them as equals, interacting with them as adults. This helped me to mature during my senior year and prepared me for the interactions to come in college and the real world,” Loescher commented.

Nashoba Principal John Smith said the award is “a really nice honor for Bob. He is an outstanding teacher, one who is passionate about psychology and passionate about the kids… He is one of those guys, when he comes into a room, he lights up the room. He has a positive attitude and a great sense of humor.”

Griffith, who teaches four AP psychology classes and one college prep class, a total of 127 students, is well known among students. Outside the classroom, he coaches girls’ junior varsity softball and is the advisor to Amnesty International and the newly formed peer mediation group, which offers conflict mediation, student to student. He also films football games, co-emcees the ever-popular Mr. Nashoba contest, and is an announcer for the ladies Powder Puff flag football game.

“He is such a student-centered faculty member and is so involved,” Smith said. “He is a model staff member when it comes to his passion for kids.”

Smith recalled that Griffith is a regular at the end of the year Senior Banquet, as are a lot of staff members. “He spends the entire evening, not just signing yearbooks, but writing personal notes in each one. He never takes time out to eat,” Smith said with a laugh.

“What is so satisfying for the students that have him is that he is challenging, demanding and compassionate. He shares the challenge with them and is with them for the ride,” Smith said. “The kids want to do well to please him,” according to Smith.

In a letter to Smith about the award, Jerry Flanagan, Saint Michael’s vice president for admissions and enrollment said the “Unsung Hero” awards went “to heroic teachers who truly made a difference in students’ lives and inspired them to pursue higher education. Our communities are made up of people doing heroic things everyday. Military personnel, firefighters and police officers may come to mind first and rightly so, however we feel teachers top the list of other ‘unsung’ heroes of our day,” Flanagan said. The college selected 58 unsung heroes from high schools throughout New England.

Griffith doesn’t take the compliments lightly and is quick to direct praise elsewhere. He said that the “whole singling people out thing” makes him “kind of uncomfortable,” because there are so many teachers who do an outstanding job.

A sixth grade English teacher at Emerson School with a masters degree in psychology, Griffith quips that he “tricked” the high school into hiring him to teach the subject. Although he was certified to teach at the high school level when he signed on, the state did make him get his certification in history, because psychology falls under the social studies department.

Griffith had high praise for his students. “These kids go to phenomenal schools. They are really invested in education. It’s almost like a private school at the level I teach.”

Reflecting on his position at Nashoba, Griffith said with a grin that was visible over the telephone line, “I get to teach what I like with really smart kids who sign up to take the class and work really hard. It’s a pretty good gig.”

Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2007

Legend of ‘Frau Vogt’ earns state recognition

In Room 1108 on the basement floor of Fayette County High School, Mechthild Vogt begins her first class as she has every day for the past 30 years.

“Guten Morgen,” Vogt says.

A muffled response trickles out from the student desks.

“Guten Morgen,” Vogt repeats louder, attempting to arouse her German I students out of their sleepiness of a Friday morning before a long weekend.

“Guten Morgen,” the students awaken and reply in unison.

“Super,” Vogt says, as she proceeds directly into the day’s lesson.

To most of these high school students, “Frau Vogt,” as she is widely known, is simply their foreign language teacher this year. To three decades of Fayette County High School alumni and teachers, however, Vogt is a legend — a teacher who has left an indelible mark on foreign language education in Fayette County.

And this year, she is being honored for that legacy.

Vogt, who plans to retire in May, was named 2007 Teacher of the Year by the Foreign Language Association of Georgia, or FLAG, a statewide organization comprising about 1,000 foreign language teachers in Georgia.

Though Vogt previously has been recognized — in 1987 and 1996 — as teacher of the year by the American Association of Teachers of German, the FLAG award singles her out among all foreign language teachers in the state.

“There are so many deserving foreign language teachers in Georgia that I did not believe that I would be chosen for this award,” Vogt said. “I was very surprised and almost incredulous when I learned I had been selected. The honor means a great deal to me.”

A native of Frankfurt, Vogt taught school in Germany for three years, before coming to the United States in 1972 to begin a master’s program in education at the University of Georgia.

UGA offered her a teaching assistantship, and Vogt proceeded to earn two back-to-back master’s degrees in two years, one in German and one in English.

“Then, I went back to Germany,” she said, “as I was a little afraid of losing my roots.”

But American culture — not to mention a man named Paul Grice — had taken hold of her heart, and she came back to Georgia.

The couple wed in 1976, and the following year, they received job offers to teach at Fayette County High. Grice, who taught horticulture, landscaping and forestry at Fayette High for 17 years, died in 2001.

America comes calling

For Vogt, the county’s oldest high school has been a second home, where she has nurtured an appreciation for German language and culture.

“She is an exemplary teacher,” said Dr. Charles Warr, Fayette High principal, who first came to the school as an auto mechanics teacher 30 years ago. “Her students have been extremely successful. She is very modest, but this recognition is well deserved.”

Over the years, Vogt has taught hundreds of students, though Spanish is presently the most popular choice.

“The interest in German goes in waves,” Vogt said. “For five years, I taught extended days, with six classes. This year, I am teaching three classes, and one connection class at Fayette Middle School.”

More than just talk

Her philosophy, Vogt said, is to incorporate aspects of the culture as much as possible into the curriculum.

“You don’t just learn a foreign language, but you learn about the customs and cultural values — a different way of life, one that’s also good, just different,” she said.

For example, last Thursday, Vogt’s German III class watched “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” from Disney’s “Fantasia,” in conjunction with a lesson on the poem “Der Zauberlehrling,” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

In English, the poem is called “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” and Vogt wanted students to experience the sights and sounds of the animated film as a preview to the German vocabulary from the poem.

Vogt might easily be considered a teacher’s teacher, in that she relies on ideas from colleagues to liven up her lesson plans, and she is always willing to share her own.

“Teachers get ideas from other teachers and modify those ideas to fit them,” she said. “I don’t think teachers can stand alone.”

James Sheppard, a 20-year German teacher at Screven County High School along the South Carolina border, said Vogt’s willingness to share ideas with other teachers is one of the reasons he nominated her for the FLAG award.

Bridging nations

Vogt also is being recognized for her establishment of a German exchange program, said Brandi Meeks, president of FLAG and Spanish teacher at Starr’s Mill High School.

Every other year since 1980, students studying German at Fayette County High have been eligible to participate in the program, which places them with a German family and in a German school for three weeks during the summer. In return, German students live with local families and attend Fayette County High for three weeks in the spring.

John Dreisbach, a 1984 graduate of Fayette County High, said he is one of dozens of students who were fortunate to participate in both the exchange program and the school’s German Club, which used to have gatherings at his family’s home.

“It’s been 25 years, but she was a wonderful teacher and one of the two teachers that I remember to this day,” Dreisbach said.

While her current students might not be aware of Vogt’s far-reaching influence, her reputation did play somewhat into Jonathan Harper’s decision to take German I this year.

Harper, or “Johann” in class, said he had heard from older students that Vogt was a good teacher.

“She is really nice and never gets upset,” the 10th-grader said, “and I like the stories she tells about when she used to live in Germany.”

Thursday, Jan. 11, 2007

The Glamour of Grammar

At 7 a.m. one morning toward the end of fall term, Duncan McDonald sits in his office with pictures of family and friends, a pile of newspapers, class assignments and copies of his books.

Now in 2007 the creator of the infamous “Info Hell” course will be transitioning from full-time to part-time teaching, gracefully retiring from the University.

With good posture, professional attire and a neat, white mustache, McDonald glances through The Register-Guard, The New York Times and the Oregon Daily Emerald before getting a start on two hours of class preparation, office hours and editing his seventh edition of “When Words Collide: A Media Writer’s Guide to Grammar and Style” before doing a seminar in teaching and educating 240 students in his favorite subject: grammar.

Even though he is busy in the morning, a student calls and he gladly picks up, “This is Duncan.”

Since 1976, McDonald has worked in the University’s School of Journalism and Communication. The award-winning professor was dean of the School of Journalism and Communication from 1994-97, served as the University’s Vice President for Public Affairs and Development, published a handful of books, raised a family and has enlightened – as well as terrified – generations of students.

McDonald realized it was about that time to retire into a part-time position. He believes moving into part-time is a slow transition out of the University, instead of an abrupt leave.

Still, McDonald said he has a lot of important work to do and wants to be able to do even more tomorrow, even though that does not involve as much teaching.

“Life is not that linear; I prefer to think more dimensionally,” McDonald said. “I started as a teacher, and I am going to finish as a teacher.”

A Teacher’s Life

The Cleveland native grew up with one brother, two sisters and a mother who made sure he regularly went to the library.

“My mom was a wonderful motivator for me,” McDonald said.

In college, McDonald described himself as hard-working, on a scholarship and always working two jobs.

McDonald was the first in his family to graduate from college, earning a bachelor of science in journalism from Ohio University while working as a reporter for the Athens Messenger and The Plain Dealer.

After college, McDonald enlisted in the U.S. Navy. As a communications officer, he held the rank of lieutenant junior grade and served as bridge officer on the USS Intrepid, the historic 900-foot aircraft carrier that has been docked in the Hudson River for the past 24 years as home to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. McDonald said the experience gave him a strong sense of responsibility and protocol.

After his discharge, he got back into journalism. While working as a reporter and a features editor for the Register-Mail in Galesburg, Ill., he married Jane Cathryne Eyre. They’re still in love 38 years later.

McDonald’s focus in life changed in 1972, when his daughter Vanessa was born.

“Becoming a parent is daunting,” he said. “But it is also a thrill.”

Being a new father, McDonald also managed to receive his Master of Science in Industrial Relations and Labor Economics from the University.

McDonald worked as owner and publisher of the West Lane News and Tri-County News in Veneta and Junction City for the following four years. He also served as an assistant professor at the University.

During this time, working until 3 a.m. became a regular day. Putting in countless hours developing the photojournalism program, McDonald started to feel at home with the faculty.

“We’re like any family,” McDonald said.

McDonald teaches a variety of classes, including: Reporting, Writing for the Media, Grammar for Journalists, Public Relations Writing, Photojournalism and Teaching and the Professional Life.

He created the infamous Information Gathering class, also known as “Info Hell”, in which students write a 100-page research project.

The course is “amazing,” he said.

To some students, McDonald’s teaching methods are intimidating. He said that the University is a professional school, and that students should act professionally.

In his classroom McDonald may seem tough, but a student sitting in his office would be welcomed with a warm smile.

McDonald said that his class setting is different than his one-on-one time with students. He said he treats students visiting office hours as the most important people.

“I don’t care what grade they get, I care if they are interested,” McDonald said. “If you show up, I’ll do anything you want to help you.”

Through teaching, McDonald has emphasized the importance of honesty. He said “always tell students the truth” because that is how they learn.

“It has been a privilege to be asked to appear in front of these students,” he said of teaching. “It’s not a job. It is a relationship.”

From his first teaching days, McDonald’s career and family have continued to flourish.

Now having two new grandchildren, McDonald said, “Becoming a grandparent is, quite simply, a hoot.”

Although he enjoys the three-mile distance from his daughter and grandchildren, he said he is constantly restocking the fridge. When he’s not grocery shopping, he enjoys sailing, cooking and playing what he calls the “old man sport” of squash.

McDonald has come a long way, accomplished multiple things, and from those experiences, he has evolved into the husband, father, grandfather, teacher and friend that he is today.

“I can’t imagine that anyone’s life is defined by just one event,” he said. “Our lives are layered – sometimes richly, sometimes poorly, but we are a laminate of those experiences.”

Top Teacher Barbara Bryant

There is always some type of fun activity in Barbara Bryant’s third grade class at St. Francis Cabrini School in Savannah.

But with the fun, there is always a goal.

“I want each child to be able to do his or her best, and know that there is nothing too big that they can’t accomplish with work,” said Bryant. “Sometimes it takes hard work, but they can accomplish the goal they have.”

And it’s that belief in all of her students that makes Mrs. Bryant so special.

You could say the desire to work with children is in her blood.

“When I was a little girl, I used to play school all the time,” said Bryant. “And then as I grew older, I decided that this is what I wanted to do.”

But that’s not all she wanted to do.

Her dream to help children extends beyond the walls of the classroom.

“My husband and I have adopted five girls, and we have ten grandchildren,” said Bryant. “There has always been that thing behind me that has always wanted me to do something for children.”

She and her husband participate in various fundraisers that benefit children, including the annual Christmas Toy Run.

But back in the classroom, Mrs. Bryant’s firm yet giving spirit has not gone unnoticed.

“She’s just the best teacher in the world because sometimes if we come out of uniform, she sometimes let’s us get by with it, like if we didn’t mean to, like if we didn’t have the right socks, she says that’s OK, I won’t write you a slip,” said student Ashley Fesperman.

So for her aim to change young lives both in and out of school, Barbara Bryant is this week’s WTOC Top Teacher.

Monday, Jan. 1, 2007

Paying It Forward

Griswold Middle School’s Tedeschi returns teacher’s favor with his current students

Thank goodness for Michael, Mrs. Larche, and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.

Without the trio, the Griswold School District might not have Brian Tedeschi, its 2007 Teacher of the Year.

“They were definitely three factors,” Tedeschi said recently, after being asked why he became a teacher. “Everything happens for a reason.”

In 1989, after graduating from the University of Connecticut with a psychology degree, Tedeschi got a substitute teaching job at Norwich Tech. It was only for the paycheck as he was waiting to hear whether the U.S. Navy would hire him as a civilian contract change analyst to help build nuclear submarines.

By the end of 1989, the Berlin Wall, the Western symbol of Communism, was being destroyed. The need to create more submarines to protect the country from communist states during the Cold War was not as great and Tedeschi’s chances of being hired by the Navy became slim.

So Tedeschi, the son of two retired teachers, was stuck as a substitute at a local technical high school and spent the remainder of the year teaching math.

That’s where Tedeschi met Michael, a belligerent and troubled senior who did not hide his contempt for math and the educational system. Tedeschi tutored Michael for the final three weeks of school.

Tedeschi remembered that he was once a D student in math. It was his high school math teacher, Mrs. Larche, and her unwillingness to let him fail that enabled him to bring his year average to a C+.

With Tedeschi’s help, Michael managed to bring his average to a C-. He passed and graduated on time.

That year of being a substitute changed Tedeschi’s career path. He’s now taught for 17 years, 11 of them in Griswold. He loves to go to work everyday, even if it does mean teaching temperamental seventh graders.

“I have a fondness for the craziness of pre-adolescence,” Tedeschi said. “One minute a student might be reciting the Pythagorean theorem and then the next minute he’s doing armpit farts. It’s zaniness.”

“They appreciate that you know the things they say and do don’t even make sense to them sometimes,” he said. “It’s how they learn to trust you.”

While he loves teaching, Tedeschi occasionally considers going back to school to become a marriage and family therapist.

“I see how they handle the adversity in their lives,” he said of some of his students. “Occasionally I like being able to let them know that it’s alright to get a C. You realize that there’s more important things that they’re dealing with than getting a C or D in school.”

When asked to share one story of a student he’ll always remember, Tedeschi said he recalls one girl who grew up taking care of her younger sister and mother.

“If her mom came home under the influence she would protect her little sister, take her to the neighbors. She was light years ahead in maturity but academically deficient,” he said. “She struggled and hated it but she showed up every day because she knew we cared.”

Tedeschi said he saw the girl recently. She smiled when she recognized him. She’d gone to an alternative high school, received her diploma and now wants to take college courses, he said.

“It was nice to see a kid that a lot of people gave up hope on and she somehow managed to overcome the odds and find herself in a good place,” he said.

In the end, the most important lesson Tedeschi wants his students to know is that he supports them.

“I want them to look back and say, ‘I didn’t always agree with you but you had my best interest in mind’,” he said.

The state and municipal Teacher of the Year program is not meant to identify the “best” teacher. It’s goal is to recognize and honor teachers who inspire their students and distinguish themselves from their peers.

Middle School Principal Preston Shaw said Tedeschi, a seventh-grade teacher, has the respect of his students and co-workers.

“He’s a very solid professional. He has a real good manner with the students. He can reach kids,” she said.

Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2006

Teacher is honored

When Terry Piumetti isn’t teaching, she spends her weekends at school mentoring students who are interested in learning about the law — and now she’s being honored for it.

Piumetti, a history teacher at Providence High School, is also the mock-trial coordinator at the school.

She also teaches law as an elective.

“It’s so important to me that I dedicate my time to the students so they learn,” said Piumetti, a native of Glendale. “Not because they are going to become attorneys, it’s so they understand how they can become better citizens.”

Piumetti found out last week she’d been selected to receive the Helen Bernstein Outstanding Teacher Award. [What Great Teachers Do Differently: Fourteen Things That Matter Most]

The award is given to teachers who have experience coordinating mock trials and have contributed to emphasizing good sportsmanship among students and citizenship skills in a mock trial.

“She gives hours to this program, and what she teaches these students is just amazing,” Principal Michele Schulte said.

Piumetti has been the mock-trial coordinator for the past 10 years.

Her mock-trial team visits courtrooms in Los Angeles, where students meet with real lawyers who judge their mock cases, she said.

For 11 years, the school has participated in the county’s mock-trial competition.

Students from schools around the county use the knowledge they have gained about legal proceedings and the judicial system to argue a court case against each other, Piumetti said.

“The students try out to be a lawyer or a witness,” Piumetti said.

“They have to demonstrate knowledge of the case and think on their feet.”

Since winning the award, Piumetti feels she has more of an incentive to work even harder and strive to be a better teacher, she said.

But she admits she wasn’t expecting to win.

“I was shocked,” she said. “I put in an e-mail to ask if it was real. I’m very proud and I’m very emotional about it.”

Adrienne Qasabian, a senior, is on the mock-trial team. She has known Piumetti since she was a sophomore in her world-history class.

“We have the best and the brightest involved in mock trial,” the 17-year-old said. “I think law and the art of argumentation teaches you to channel your argumentation, to use the English language to say what you want to say and put your own perspective on things. I think that’s the most important lesson I’ve gotten out of mock trial.”

Alex Jacke, 17, wants to pursue a career in music, but he also has an interest in criminal law.

Alex, who has been in mock trial since he was a junior, credits Piumetti for helping him develop an interest in law.

“I felt that the [award] was well deserved,” Alex said.

“She is very dedicated. The mock-trial team is made up of basically all of the leaders of the campus who are involved in various activities around school. We’ve learned so much with what goes on in the courtroom.”

Friday, Nov. 17, 2006

Prized teacher challenges students

Class begins on this day like any other. Robert “Bob” Pontious, English instructor at Brunswick Community College, cheerfully enters the classroom carrying a big stick over his right shoulder, a folder under his arm and an Ohio State University mug in his free hand. Pontious is about to do what he does best: teach.

Pontious teaches so well, in fact, that he has recently earned the distinction of being the top community college instructor in the state. [More Quick Hits: Successful Strategies by Award-Winning Teachers]

In October, the N.C. Community College System awarded him the state Excellence in Teaching Award for the 2005-2006 school year, and he’ll receive it Friday. Out of 48 candidates, he was chosen after two rounds of eliminations. The field narrowed to 10 finalists, and then five, through interviews with various system officials.

Ashley Barnhill, president of the faculty senate, said Pontious was chosen as BCC’s top instructor in August because of “his commitment to his students and his belief in high academic standards.”

BCC President Stephen Greiner then submitted his nomination for the award to the state system.

Pontious, who is chairman of the English department, has been an instructor at BCC for eight years.

An avid reader since the age of 4, Pontious said he decided to pursue a teaching career in English while he was still a college student, thanks to a history instructor’s encouragement.

A native Midwesterner, Pontious first began teaching at an Ohio technical college. He and his family eventually made their home in Wilmington, and he continued his teaching career at BCC, where he feels “students need me the most.”

Through his experience as a community college educator, his personal teaching philosophy emerged.

“Students live up to or down to your expectations. I expect my students to work hard and rise to the challenge,” he said.

Aside from setting high standards for his students, Pontious also implements innovative teaching methods through the use of cooperative learning groups.

These teams of students work together under his guidance. Pontious feels that students learn more in an interactive, less-structured environment. [How to Use an Interactive Whiteboard Really Effectively in your Secondary Classroom]

On this day in particular, he separates his expository writing students into groups according to their positions on gun control. Through open discussion, he teaches them about the principles of rhetoric, overcoming biases and avoiding errors in logic. He comes to class prepared with facts to argue on either side; today he argues in favor of gun control to help a student who is outnumbered 10 to 1.

“It doesn’t matter if you agree with me or not. What’s important is the logic,” he said to his class. “You came in with opinions; I came in with facts.”

From the back of the classroom, a student said a phrase often heard during discussions about gun control: “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.”

If that were true, he said for the sake of argument, one could kill just as many people with a stick as a gun. To demonstrate to students how this may be flawed logic, he picked up the stick he brought to class, having anticipated such a response, and waved it around to illustrate the point.

The goal of such antics is to promote critical thinking skills, challenging students to “evaluate” and “listen to the other side.”

Judging by his students’ reactions, the point was well taken.

Outside of the classroom, Pontious established the June Shaner Courageous Achievement Award, which is given yearly to a developmental English student who has overcome obstacles while pursuing an education at BCC. The award honors an English instructor who lost her life to cancer.

Pontious said he is convinced that teaching is his plan in life.

“It’s being made abundantly clear that my purpose is teaching,” he said.

The real affirmation of this belief, Pontious said, is not receiving awards. It comes from the words of appreciative students he has helped and inspired over the years.

“The best part (to teaching) is students who make it,” he said.

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