An Apple for the Teacher

by Allison Seale

Title page of Apple for the Teacher
I remember it like it was yesterday. There we were, third graders, sitting at our desks like little angels. Well, with the exception of Robin and Jay, they were perched on top of the most sacred of all places -- Mr. Friedrick's desk. Jay had a book in his hands and Robin had a kick ball, and both mischievous looks on their faces. Boom! The book and the ball hit the floor at the same time. All eyes in the classroom panned over to Mr. Friedrick, searching for a clue as to whether or not someone was fixin' to get it.

"What have we just proved?" Mr. Friedrick asked, dismissing all fears of impending doom. All eyes went back to the book and ball. Suddenly someone yelled from the back of the room, "I get it! It's like what Galileo did!"

"Right!" says Mr. Friedrick. "He proved that objects of different weights fall at the same rate and, thus, hit the ground at the same time." The rest of the class period, each of us took turns trying to find other things to drop, hoping to disprove the theory and laughing at each failed attempt.

That was 20 years ago. Over the years, there were other memorable lessons with other unforgettable teachers. Mrs. Vestal, Mrs. Sharp, Miss Locke and Mrs. McDonald. All teachers that taught their lessons in such a way that even a class full of sometimes raging hormones surrendered to learning.

Today in classrooms all over town, there are others just like them. Teachers that can make learning about literature, science, and even math, something magical and exciting. INSITE asked area schools to tell us about some of their special teachers. In the interest of space, we have selected four, but there are many others who, like these, we'd like to recognize. So, here's an apple for the teachers.

Friedel Krotscheck: The History of Velcro

"Use a pencil," Mrs. Krotscheck tells one of her students who is apparently making a sketch of what he sees through a magnifying glass that is attached to a small wooden contraption. "At this time there was no ball point pen," she says, in explanation of her last comment. The ninth grade biology students are scattered about the room looking into various periods of microscopes, learning about their history. Some are sitting on stools, some are standing; two others at the far end of the table, hunched over their microscopes, peering at a piece of sponge.

"Your drawing for that century is quite right," Mrs. Krotscheck tells one of them. "If you move on to a higher magnification, though, your drawing should be more precise to match what would have been seen in that century."

A native German, Friedel Krotscheck has been teaching for 16 years. Her first decade teaching was spent in Germany where she taught science and sports education. Twice, though, she and her husband, Eckhard, spent time in the United States during his post-doctorate studies. It was during these stays that Friedel learned to speak English.

"We had three little children who were watching Mr. Roger's Neighborhood," she says, "and so did I. It was one of the few programs where they spoke slowly enough that I could understand."

When her husband finished his studies, they lived a while longer in Germany where Friedel returned to teaching. Her husband, meanwhile, received a position as a physicist at Texas A&M. For three years he commuted, visiting his wife and children during holidays. The fourth year, however, Friedel won a position in an exchange program teaching life and Earth science in Bastrop. After that year, she decided not to return to her position in Germany but, rather, to stay in Bryan/College Station.

She happened into her job at St. Michael's Academy by mentioning her teaching experience during a tour of the campus with her children. A couple of weeks before school was to start that year, she got a call from the Head Mistress at the school asking if she was still interested in teaching; their science teacher had resigned suddenly.

That was five years ago. Since then, Krotscheck has taught science to children of all ages at St. Michael's Academy and, when the students express an interest, she adds a course in German. And though she speaks with a slight accent, nothing is lost in her translation of scientific ideas to the young minds she captivates.

"Ooh! Look at this!" one student yells to a nearby classmate. "It's a piece of a feather!" Krotscheck comes over to where they ware working and explains that what they see is what led to the idea for Velcro. By observing the way the fringe of a feather sticks together, the idea was born.

"This year's group is more into active learning," Krotscheck says, explaining why she chose this method of teaching the history and use of the microscope.

Each year, she says, she adjusts her classes to fit the individual learning styles of each group. Being at a private school, she explains, allows her this luxury. "The core is always the same, but the approach is always different. It's not the dissection of the frog every year."

Around the room are numerous living, breathing examples of hands-on learning. There's an expectant guinea pig, tobacco horn worm, a crawdad -- all used to teach various lessons. The students mill about carefully grabbing their next specimens for observation. One of the scoops out a bit of pond water from the crawdad's tank.

"The kids have got to feel at home in the classroom," she says, explaining one of her philosophies of education. "The students are the ones who need a home, not the teachers." Doing away with what she calls the assembly line approach in which students mill in and out of various teacher's classrooms while they move from subject to subject, St. Michael's teachers go to the students -- with the exception of science labs, art and music.

"What I enjoy most is the variety and the spark," Krotscheck says. "I cannot do assembly line teaching. You can't get that same spark."

As the lesson closes, each student has completed three drawings of various objects they have seen with their microscopes and has completed a letter written from the viewpoint of Anton von Leeuwenhoek, the creator of the first microscope. What began as a biology lesson, led to discoveries that no one probably ever expected.

Lisa Burns: Elementary, My Dear Watson

In a classroom in Oakwood Middle School, there is a group of sixth graders making some discoveries of their own. The students have been learning about how to solve mysteries using the four scientific processes: questioning the problem, experimenting, observing the results and drawing conclusions. Using an integrated teaching method, the five teachers in Oakwood's "Deck Dogs" team -- each grade is divided into teams of students and teachers -- have been preparing special projects to show the students how these principles can be used in different disciplines. For example, in their reading class, they are studying Sherlock Holmes mysteries; in math, they are solving number games; in language arts, they are writing mysteries; and in Mrs. Burns' advisory class, they are placing symbols on flower pots for future generations to use to gain a better understanding of our Twentieth Century culture. Rain has kept them and their other Deck Dog teammates from going out to an archaeological site their teachers have created near the school.

Crash! Mrs. Burns drops a plastic bag containing one group's masterpieces on the floor; it breaks into pieces. Crash! Another falls, breaking as it hits the ground. And then another falls and another until all five pots lay on the ground in pieces. The students' eyes are big as saucers not believing that all their work has just been destroyed.

"Oh class, I'm sorry," Mrs. Burns says, somewhat insincerely. "My hands must be wet; the bags just slipped from my hands." A child sitting in a group off to the side accuses her of doing it on purpose.

"Well, she explains. "You know, archeologists rarely find thing in their original form. Usually they are in tiny pieces, and they have to reconstruct the objects using what clues they can find. Maybe we can do that today," she suggests.

For the next 30 minutes or so, each group works to reconstruct a pot by looking at the shape of the breaks and looking to see how the pictures on the sides of the pot should align. They struggle with Elmer's glue that isn't setting up as quickly as they would like. Several times the pots fall apart because the glue can't hold the weight of the clay. Each time a pot collapses, the students scurry to put it back together. One group has their project put together except for two inconvenient pieces. They start over.

"Hopefully," explains Burns, "they will see the real-world applications of what they are learning."

Lisa Burns has been teaching for 14 years, the last 11 have been in College Station Independent School District.

This year, she received the Elementary Teacher of the Year award for Region VI, the Texas Education Agency region in which College Station ISD is located.

Using this integrated teaching approach, which is unique to the Oakwood campus, Burns feels that all three of her goals for teaching are accomplished more successfully. Burns says she feels that what students learn must be useful to them, that laughter and fun must be part of the process and that nothing is more rewarding than becoming a lifelong learner.

"Parents say they've never seen their children so excited about school," Burns says. By linking things together the way it is in the real world, and making it fun, learning occurs.

"Last year, during our unit on the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America, we built a life-size version of the Nina on the deck outside," she explains. The students research the project that tied language skills, math, science, history, reading and social studies together. "CNN even came and covered it," she says proudly.

Meanwhile, this year's class continues to put together their pots in anticipation of their archaeological dig. Word has it that they will find five historic characters beneath the soil outside their classroom. But to discover their identities will take skills of observation and deduction they've learned during their "Mystery" unit.

Lyra Pointer: The Importance of Being Earnest

Animal Farm. Read it. A Midsummer Night's Dream. Read it. Romeo and Juliet. Check. Dickens' Great Expectations. Check. Kafka. Wait. Who the heck is Kafka? Mrs. Pointer's class knows. Moving on, she explains the rest of her ninth grade Allen Academy literature class' curriculum, a curriculum that by the twelfth grade resembles a college literature course more than a high school course. She says the class will continue their reading in Kafka's Metamorphosis today.

"These are difficult works," she says emphatically. "But I can tell you that the students read and understand every single word because we've read it in class from page one until the very last word.

"What a student fears is the feeling they'll be overwhelmed. We show them how to mark the important points in their books and tell them what to write in the margins so they understand." This is a luxury, though, she says, of being in a private school where students have two classes of English each day -- one grammar and composition and, the other, literature -- and the students own their own books.

"By the time they leave our program, they are ready for any freshman English course," Mrs. Pointer says.

Lyra Pointer has been teaching literature and composition for 20 years, often pulling "double duty," as she says, by teaching at the secondary level during the day and college courses some evenings and during the summer. She is a firm believer in not just teaching the classics well, but in teaching them completely.

"We believe that great literature is taught because it not only entertains, but because it not only entertains, but because it provides great insight into human nature and life," Pointer says, explaining the rigorous list of readings, including some that are banned in public school. She sites the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Scarlet Letter as two that are banned in some public schools but that are still taught at Allen.<

About seven students mill into class as the first bell sounds. They're discussing the pep rally that will cut their class period short and the evening's football game. Two of the boys are wearing jerseys that seem to indicate they're on the team. Though the faces, names and hairstyles have changed, they are having the same conversation that has occurred on high school campuses for generations on football game day. But when the final bell rings, these students settle down and pull out their copy of Kafka's Metamorphosis.

Pointer begins reading, skillfully capturing everyone's attention in a way that indicates years of attention in a way that indicates years of familiarity and practice. "Nervousness. That's an odd word for Kafka to be using there. Why do you think he used that word there?" she asks the class. No one responds.

"Nervous, in this context," she adds quickly, "is more anxious." Suddenly, the room is alive with conversation about why the word was used. As she continues to read, she instructs the students to underline: "Was he an animal that the music could move him so?"

"If his metamorphosis was complete," she intentionally ponders, "then why does he still feel? How could music move him?" She explains and directs them to write the importance of that passage in the margin.

The football game is far from the students' minds as they read on about poor Gregor and his horrible metamorphosis into an enormous cockroach, unrecognizable by his family. When the bell rings, the students gather their books and, rather than discussing the evening's football game, several walk out of the room discussing Gregor's plight.

Brenda Owens: Reach for Stars

Four bright-eyed first graders sit on the floor in a semicircle around their teacher, Miss Owens. Several brightly colored plastic bears are spread neatly in front of them. "Can you tell me what's special bout our bears, boys and girls?" she asks them as they begin to pick them up and examine them.

"They're pretty," Tenisha says with a big grin.

"That's right," says Miss Owens. "They are pretty. Can you tell me something else that's special about those bears?" she prods.

"They have letters on them," Frederick says with a smile. Large dimples form on his cheeks.

"Very good," their teacher says. She pulls a card from a bag that is filled with all sorts of colorful learning tools and places it in front of them. As their lesson continues, the students are asked to find the bear that has a letter on it that corresponds to their card. After they place it on the appropriate spot, they repeat the letter.

These children are part of Bryan ISD's StARS program. Their teacher for a few hours today is Brenda Owens, a learning specialist who visits classrooms at Bryan's Milam campus to work with students, like these, who need special attention, as well as gifted and talented students.

"This is a pilot program we started last year," Owens says, explaining about her position with the school district as a learning specialist. "A lot of research shows that the pullout programs don't work. If you equip the teachers to help their children with special needs to be successful, you lose less time in having a child travel back and forth." The program, she explains, helps teachers determine a child's individual learning style and adjusts the way they teach that child accordingly. That may mean allowing the child to listen to a music with headphones if he has trouble concentrating with lots of movement around him, or it might mean using objects the child can touch to help make an abstract thought more concrete.

A local girl, Owens has been a teacher in Bryan schools for all 22 years of her teaching career. While she loved her past years teaching kindergarten and first and second grade, she is particularly excited about this new program.

"In high school I worked with Head Start kids during the summer and found out that I had a gift for working with children with learning problems," she says. And with so many years in the school system, she's had some success stories, too.

"To see some of the children I helped years ago in Special Education come back to me and say they're attending Blinn or Prairie View, or that they've completed training at a technical school, that makes me happy," Owens says, leaning forward with a big smile. "But it even makes me happier to see their children not starting school at the same place they did." She explains that many of the children she sees have parents who lack either the skills, time or materials to work with their children.

"It's not always the quantity of time but the quality," she says. "If you have 30 minutes of time and you're reading a book with your child, that's quality time. Or if there are four people in a family and a parent asks his or her child how many forks will be needed to set the table, that's quality time." But spending time working with them, she says, is essential to ensure that the seed of learning has a chance to take root.

Back in the classroom, it's obvious that seed has been planted in at least four young students. Rita, Frederick, Tenisha and Alex have just completed their alphabet lesson and each have received a sticker with the words "Well Done" on them. Frederick points to the "W" and says its name quietly while the others do the same with the letters they recognize. Each has succeeded in his or her own way today as evidenced by the smiles that fill their faces as they say good-bye to their teacher and make their way back to their desks.

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