March 2012 Issue
Three private-high-school teachers share their classroom success stories.
If spending the day with teenagers seems a bit daunting, you’ll be surprised to learn how these Ohio teachers are able to successfully engage a classroom of adolescents. From hands-on activities to field trips to new technology, here are the stories of three teachers who are cultivating young minds in new and exciting ways.
Every Student a Musician
While still a young student at St. Ursula Academy in Cincinnati, Kathy Backherms dreamed of one day returning to her alma mater as a teacher. Throughout high school she immersed herself in the music program, and even wrote a musical during her senior year. “That was my life in high school, so I wanted to create those experiences for other students,” she says. “I remember thinking that I wanted to come back to my high school, and I wanted to start an orchestra.”
Fast forward a few decades. Backherms has been teaching music classes for 34 years, 23 of them at St. Ursula. She is responsible for the concert choir and various school ensembles, including SUAVE (St. Ursula Academy Vocal Ensemble), a 12-member, award-winning group. She teaches music theory and composition, as well as an introduction to digital keyboard. And yes, she also directs the school orchestra. A dream come true, you might say.
Under Backherms’ leadership, SUAVE has won numerous first-place trophies and superior ratings at regional and
national music competitions and festivals. The group has also been invited to sing at Carnegie Hall four times since 1999. Still, Backherms believes that every student can participate in the music program, not just the exceptionally talented. “All of my students can create music and perform, although some obviously have greater gifts than others,” she explains. “Not everybody is a singer. But everybody can enjoy music in different ways.”
Today, Backherms is aware that music technology has opened up new areas that engage an entirely different group of students. The Natalie Bradley Music Technology Center, named for a past student-musician who lost a battle with leukemia during her senior year at St. Ursula, consists of 15 iMac computers and digital keyboards. The accompanying software allows students to compose and arrange their own music. “Years ago I never imagined I would be teaching music this way,” Backherms says. “My music-theory and composing class students would not want to be in a choir or orchestra, yet they are very creative individuals. Up until now, there was not a place for these kids in the music program. Now these students have a place.”
More than Labs and Formulas
Science teacher Candy Bates believes that everybody can be excited about something in science — but no one will be excited about everything. “My students have permission for it not to be their favorite [subject], but in the course of the year, something we talk about will matter to them,” she says. This is perhaps why she covers so many diverse topics in her biology and environmental science classes at Archbishop Hoban High School in Akron. “We go through everything from plants and genetics to different types of animals to evolution,” she adds. “The students all find a personal connection at some point.”
Still, Bates is well aware that she cannot possibly teach her students everything about science. That’s why she focuses on teaching them how to learn — not just what to learn. She can talk to the students about trees, for instance, but perhaps more important is how she teaches them to locate the right resources and set aside an adequate amount of time for learning. At the same time, Bates knows that students have different learning styles. That’s why she mixes lecture and discussion with lab work and other activities.
Bates, who formerly was the education coordinator at the Akron Zoo, has her students design a zoo exhibit. They choose the animal, design and build the models, research and gather the data to ensure that what they create is a realistic option, and of course, visit the zoo. Every year she also accompanies between 50 and 70 students to Cuyahoga Valley National Park, where they help remove invasive plants. And, after a student designed a recycling program for the school, Bates continued to collaborate with the Summit/Akron Solid Waste Management Authority, eventually putting the program in place. “These projects show the students that science is not just about laboratories and formulas,” she says.
Active and Engaging Lessons
It’s okay to have fun in the classroom. Having fun means that the students are engaged and learning, according to Tim McDonley, physics teacher at Village Academy in Powell. In McDonley’s class, that could include everything from robotics to holography. “If the kids are invested and what they are doing is active and interesting, I think they get a lot further than if I was teaching the equations,” he says. “It stays with them longer.”
In McDonley’s robotics class, students learn about basic circuits, and eventually design their own infrared sensors. They use that knowledge to program a microprocessor and create an autonomous robot. “We also spend time talking about the theory and practice and the math behind it,” McDonley adds. Students in McDonley’s holography class, which focuses on optics and light, perform experiments on a 2,000-pound, sand-filled table. They apply knowledge from physics and chemistry, as well as the ability to be artistic and creative, to make a visually-appealing hologram.
McDonley values flexibility in the classroom — the ability to capitalize on a student’s interests and passion. “I think it’s important to constantly innovate and change what I’m doing,” he says. “It’s easy to fall into a rut of using the same tests and quizzes.”
Recently, he used the popular video game “Angry Birds” for a lesson in physics. “We looked at it through a lens [the students] may not have been used to,” he says. “We applied what we know about physics to analyze the motion of the birds.” It’s all part of the process of teaching a concept and then making sure students understand it. “I like trying to get them in the habit of using what they have learned in physics to analyze what’s going on around them,” he says.