Sunday, September 11, 2005

Ed Linz, a high school physics instructor at West Springfield High School in Springfield, calls himself an “in-your-face teacher.” The former submarine commander who has been a teacher for 20 years regards his job as “sort of like dealing with sailors.” When students enter the classroom, he says it is “like going into a movie theater. You have to grab their attention right away.”

So he begins every class by telling a story. He might, for instance, mention the Base Realignment and Closure Commission in the news of late. “New London is being saved and I used to be there,” he says of the submarine base in Connecticut.

The first student who can tell him what the acronym BRAC means gets a dollar.

“I am continuously reading their faces to be sure I have their attention. I then almost seamlessly go into physics when I have control of their thought process. … I don’t teach physics, I teach life. I don’t worry about political correctness. I won’t avoid talking about religion. I say, ‘Physics is a religion trying to answer the basic questions of humanity — where do we come from and where are we going? The only difference is that scientists don’t kill one another.’

“My classroom is the only one in the nation that has a chain fall. We use it to teach about mechanical advantage. I’ll put the biggest kid in the class onto a seat and have the smallest one use this [hoist] to lift them up.”

Such techniques and strategies are a way of life for any teacher hoping to engage students and be sure they retain the knowledge the teacher is trying to impart. Mr. Linz defines “strategies” as having a personal teaching style, and says he considers himself a performer or stand-up comic for whom “nothing happens by accident. I know what I want to teach and if something comes up, I use it.”

“Last year we had 87 percent of my Advanced Placement physics students pass the exam, and the average percent [nationally] is 60,” he adds by way of proving the success of his approach.

Whether called techniques, methods, strategies or just plain “tricks,” effective teachers use a great deal of creativity on the job to get across the material being studied.

In some cases, the methods grow out of an administrative plan, such as the present one in Loudoun County that challenges teachers to make subjects come alive — become more real to students — even, say, when teaching English grammar. Others, such as Mr. Linz, come up with ideas of their own.

Jason Kamras, a math teacher at John Philip Sousa Middle School in the District, has developed a number of inventive techniques that doubtless influenced an organization called the Council of Chief State School Officers to name him its 2005 National Teacher of the Year, the 53rd person to hold the title and the first D.C. teacher to be so named. The honor requires him to take off the school year to fulfill speaking duties as something of an ambassador for his profession.

He tries to “take the mundane and make it interesting,” he says. Mathopoly, for instance, is a large board game he made for each of the tables in the classroom — “a combination of Monopoly, Chutes and Ladders and Trivial Pursuit.” Then he covered the tables in clear vinyl so the game could be used over and over with question cards he changes each week, depending on the subject matter.

He also employs what he calls “math aerobics, to get them up and moving.” He will call out different angle measurements and students form them with their arms. Students also use math while learning photographic techniques in a program he started.

“When you talk about an angle of view, you are talking geometry. … When studying angles, I go out and photograph different facades and street signs that students are familiar with and then we discuss them. They begin to see the capital letter E is composed of right angles, and Y has obtuse angles — material that is part of their everyday lives, ” he says.

When teaching poetry to seventh-graders last year, Megan Douglas, 26, a special education teacher at Sousa, had students read aloud the poems they had written. She filmed them reading and then showed them DVDs of their performance. For an English reading class, she made a book out of the poems that students had selected to study. This year, eighth-graders are reading “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” and she thinks she will have students do dramatic re-enactments of parts of his life.

John Mahoney, the first District teacher inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame, has been teaching math and robotics for five years at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School after 24 years at Sidwell Friends School. A technique of which he is proud is the use of index cards with students’ names written on them so he is sure to call on each student during class.

A writer of material for Texas Instruments, he has helped students learn about the school’s namesake by showing how Benjamin Banneker used “African-based techniques to solve problems that we now would use algebra for. At times, the techniques he used are more efficient,” he says.

The robotics club, where students build robots, is an excuse for teaching engineering “which is applied mathematics — not a traditional high school subject,” he says. He has students manipulate sounds and video images on a computer to apply engineering skills in math class.

A 2005 National Teachers Hall of Fame inductee is Marilyn Barrueta, a Spanish teacher at Yorktown High School in Arlington and a veteran of 48 years in a classroom. She favors active use of visuals — pictures and artifacts — to get across an appreciation of history and culture. Weaving is her hobby, so she once brought in backstrap looms and students wove sweatbands with Spanish music playing in the background.

“I don’t believe in downtime,” she says.

Cathy Lee, a social studies teacher for nine years who is currently at Heritage High School in Loudoun County, takes the county’s “History Alive” program seriously. She plays music that relates to the period being studied, sets up work assembly lines in the classroom to understand industrial advances, and has students compare capitalism to communism by holding a candy auction to typify the former and handing out candy bars to only a few students to represent what she calls the “government-controlled production” methods of the latter.

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