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Project Advance 2012 Teachers of the Year ignite passion in the classroom

June 12, 2012

Sari Signorelli

What qualities should a Teacher of the Year have? Should he or she be memorable, or well-liked, or have students who regularly achieve outstanding test scores? Certainly, all these are necessary to be an effective teacher, says Maria Zeitlin Trinkle. But a Teacher of the Year needs something extra. For Trinkle, it’s the ability to get students to exchange ideas actively with peers and elders and to mold them into lifelong learners who become teachers themselves, whether or not they find work in a classroom.

“Spreading an informed web of knowledge,” says Trinkle. “That’s education!”

Trinkle is a chemistry teacher and coordinator of the science research program at Syracuse University Project Advance (SUPA) partner Smithtown High School East in Saint James, N.Y., and an SU adjunct instructor who teaches SU chemistry at her high school through SUPA. She is one of two 2012 SUPA Teachers of the Year.

She is joined by Jeremy Wertheim, a sociology teacher at SUPA partner Bergen County Technical High School in Teterboro, N.J., and an SU sociology adjunct instructor. Receiving an honorable mention this year is Sara Primerano, an English teacher at SUPA partner Liverpool High School in Liverpool, N.Y., and an SU English and writing adjunct instructor. All three will be honored at this year’s SUPA Summer Institute Welcome Breakfast at the Sheraton Syracuse University Hotel & Conference Center on June 25.

“These teachers exemplify the skills, qualities and accomplishments that truly define a Teacher of the Year,” says SUPA Director Gerald Edmonds. “Namely, a commitment to innovative and effective real-world learning strategies; a determination to prepare students to be successful, engaged student citizens in high school, college, and beyond; and a demonstrated passion for teaching. SUPA is grateful for the opportunity to showcase these talented and dedicated teachers.”

In their nomination packets, each of the teachers outlined the innovative strategies they use to elicit debate and free inquiry in their classrooms, to deepen students’ knowledge of a topic, and to connect classroom lessons to students’ own experiences.

One strategy that stood out was Wertheim’s “Coffee House Project.”

“I saw a similar technique being used at New York University,” says Wertheim. “In my version, I set up a room like a coffee house and bring in coffee and donuts. People chuckle about the artifice of the setting, but it creates a safe space to get discussion going.”

Wertheim has students volunteer to chat about a sociology topic with their peers, and, like the NYU version, he invites other teachers and administrators to eavesdrop. “Students discuss sociology issues such as identity, race and class. Our textbook is a starting point, but it’s very much a Socratic dialogue, and I allow students to make connections between the topics and their experiences.”

At a certain point, the conversation is opened up to the “eavesdroppers,” and the discussion widens, giving students a chance to debate in a highly intellectual setting. That sounds like pressure, but the students warm to it, says Wertheim, maturing as they do.

Projecting the textbook outside the classroom is a technique Trinkle employs. A classroom should not be a dead end, she believes, but a gateway. “We never learn from just one place; we must connect everything we do to experience. In my classes, there’s always something we’re connecting to, and students I’ve sent to college often write to me saying those connections are still happening.”

Trinkle says she’s not just creating chemists in her classroom, but also informed citizens. “That’s the most important thing I do as an educator. Chemists don’t live in a bubble. They will be tomorrow’s policy makers, and they need to learn that decisions have impacts.” That’s why Trinkle’s chemistry lessons often have a “ripped from the headlines” feel to them. “When we discuss the electromagnetic spectrum, we talk about cell phones. When we look at ultraviolet light, we look at tanning. I created Project Choice at my school to explore the science of hard drugs and what they do to a body, so students can make informed decisions.”

For her nuclear chemistry module, Trinkle has her chemists work with social studies students, to examine the subject in the context of World War II. “This way, I challenge their naivete about the impact science can have. All the students come alive, working together to get a more complete picture. We’re buzzing after the lectures; kids talk about the subject in the hallways!”

In Primerano’s writing classroom, free debate begins with “deconstruction,” a tricky analytical concept even for college students, let alone high schoolers. “I want my students to be able to understand arguments, especially those that use emotional appeals on them.”

To make this concept stick, Primerano has students unpack arguments in the contemporary school reform debate. “This gives my students a chance to enter a debate that affects their own lives. They are, after all, the target of reform,” she says. “We watch ‘Waiting for Superman’ and analyze how it persuades its audience. The students then create their own mini-documentaries.”

As with Wertheim and Trinkle, Primerano’s students are expected to get in the habit of communicating what they have learned to peers and elders—in this case, school administrators are invited to view their final projects. It’s a nerve-wracking task, surely, to offer views on school reform to professional educators. “But they’re up for it,” says Primerano. “The whole module is a shared experience and mutually beneficial. In getting to grips with a complex topic, my students help me rethink reform.”

“It’s so easy to take great teachers for granted,” says SUPA Associate Director John Fiset. “They can make what they do seem so effortless because they have committed endless hours to perfecting their craft. As students, we’ve all had truly outstanding teachers, and in each case they live with us for the rest of our lives. How fortunate we are to be able to recognize these excellent professionals.”

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