EIE-Margarita-Denenburg

Excellence in Education: Creative Learning

Meet three Ohio educators who share how they bring out the best in their students.

Margarita Denenburg can’t remember a time before she played the piano. It was a constant in her life as she navigated a move from her birthplace in the Soviet Union to Israel and then on to college and graduate studies in the United States. 

“I always had a relationship with the piano,” says Denenburg, now an assistant professor of keyboard studies at Heidelberg University in Tiffin. “People ask me, ‘When did you start playing?’ I actually don’t know. It was always a part of my life.”

By the time she was a young teen, Denenburg was helping her mother teach lessons, and that experience carried on through her doctoral studies in California. 

“Even though I pursued performance degrees,” she says, “I realized that I actually loved teaching and sharing my love for what I do with other people much more.” 

Denenburg began searching for teaching positions and found her niche at Heidelberg University, where she says she truly began to hone her craft as an educator.

“I started my search of how to spark that interest — that intrinsic motivation of my students,” she says. “Not to make them practice, but make them want to practice.”

She found that the isolation created by hours of solo rehearsal was off-putting for many college students, so she began to approach her classes in more engaging ways. Field trips to recitals in Sandusky, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Detroit became commonplace. Earlier this year, she even escorted two students on a trip to France where they played at the Conservatory of Chambéry. 

But Denenburg also knows how to enliven studies closer to home. Last year, she invited her entire class to join her in giving a child piano lessons, but not for credit. “All of them said yes,” she says. 

Denenburg hopes that her students depart her studio with the same zeal she has for the piano and finds that her efforts to create an engaging atmosphere have a motivational effect. 

“I have a student now that started with very little piano background who plays very high-level pieces and practices four to six hours a day,” says Denenburg. “I don’t even require that. This is a win for me. This is a victory.” 

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From her childhood enthusiasm for nature to her doctoral studies, Shala Hankison has thrived on all things wild. 

“I find animals and biology so fascinating,” says Hankison, associate professor of zoology at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware. “Any chance I can get to try and convince other people that it’s just as fascinating as I know it is … I gravitate toward those experiences.” 

Even as a graduate student ensconced in her own research, Hankison found more excitement in sharing her discoveries with her fellow students than when she worked solo. 

“One of the most rewarding things was teaching people how to join me,” she explains. “Even more than me getting to have those experiences, I liked when I taught them something, and they got to have those experiences.” 

Today, Hankison’s students get real-world learning opportunities at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, where she acts as a liaison from the college. 

“We’re getting ready to teach a seminar in the spring, where we spend part of the semester teaching students about research and captive animals,” she says. “They’ll also be spending part of the class starting a research project at the zoo and doing some of their own work there.” 

Hankison has a knack for creating engaging student experiences. She formerly coordinated the college’s science lecture series and regularly takes her students to local nature preserves to bird-watch. She’s also thrilled by the daily discoveries in her classes — those moments when discussion connects with real life. 

“I had a student this semester — we were talking about a news article … looking at the growth of antibiotic bacteria,” Hankison recalls. “The student looked at me and said, ‘Wait a minute, what about antibacterial hand soaps?’ That’s one of my favorite moments in the semester so far; that the student suddenly made this connection between this research and something in her life, and I got to be there.”  

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All the world’s a stage, and that includes the lecture halls at The Ohio State University’s Mansfield campus — at least when Elizabeth Kolkovich is leading the class. Since childhood, the associate professor of English literature has reveled in the written word. For a long time, she considered journalism as a career. It wasn’t until college that she realized her love for the works of William Shakespeare. 

“I decided to take a ‘Theater in London’ summer study-abroad course,” she recalls. “That was one of the first times I saw Shakespeare live, and I fell completely in love. I asked the professor, ‘How do I do this for the rest of my life?’ ” 

With her professor’s encouragement, Kolkovich began to pursue teaching as a means to not only stay connected to theater but also to enliven discussions of the literary works she loved — another of her favorite aspects of English study. 

In her classes, Kolkovich presents historic texts in a modern light by getting her students to find and present contemporary parallels. 

“My goal is for them to come up with some sort of conclusion with how our cultures are alike,” she says, “or how our cultures are different, or how looking at that newer text helps us to understand that older text better.” 

Modern-day superhero films helped students dissect Beowulf this semester, and political debates in the news give context to Thomas Moore’s Utopia, but Kolkovich most looks forward to teaching Shakespeare. She’s well aware that the subject matter can be challenging, so she makes sure her students know that there’s no wrong answer — just varying degrees of plausibility, with plenty of room for new interpretation. 

“I think Shakespeare is great to teach those sorts of things,” she says. “I can show them clips from different performances and show how directors and actors have taken the same moment and done it totally differently.” 

Sometimes, she even shares those moments in person. With such proximity to theater offerings, Kolkovich often plans lessons around what’s on stage. 

“We’ve seen a lot of plays together,” she says. “Baldwin Wallace [University] put on a really fantastic version of ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen.’ … It really made our discussion vibrant and exciting. They had all these young actors playing the parts, and it made it culturally relevant.”