3 from Western Pa. earn chance to be teacher of year
Enthusiasm, innovation and inspiration, not to mention Hershey Kiss mountains and rivers made of icing.
Carol Aten Frow, Jennifer Klobucar and Nicola Hipkins — three teachers from Western Pennsylvania who earned spots as finalists for Pennsylvania's 2014 teacher of the year engage curious minds with creativity.
Teacher of the year candidates are nominated by students, parents, colleagues and members of the community, the honor won in 2014 by Anthony Grisillo, a teacher of academically gifted elementary school children in the Rose Tree Media School District, Delaware County.
Carol Aten Frow
To sixth-grade teacher Carol Aten Frow, every vocabulary word has a story.
“For a child to learn something, it has to be real to them,” Frow said. “If you make words real, then they learn words.”
The word “besiege,” for example, can conjure memories of hiding behind a door to scare a sibling or watching pets playfully attack one another. Storytelling, she said, not only gets students involved in the lessons; it also helps them to feel comfortable in the classroom.
“I tell stories, and they're often my stories — stories about me, stories about my cats,” Frow said. “I'm not afraid to tell an embarrassing story about myself to get them to understand.”
Frow, 47, teaches at Belle Vernon Area's Marion Elementary School in Fayette County. A Monessen resident, she earned bachelor's and master's degrees from California University of Pennsylvania.
Frow carefully listens to her students to learn about their interests, which she then references while teaching. Knowing their interests also enables Frow to enthusiastically guide her students to relevant books in her voluminous classroom library, with topics ranging from cars to mysteries.
“At this age, they are naturally curious. They want to be motivated,” she said. “If you have that enthusiasm, they just jump right on it.”
While teaching literature, Frow takes on the role of a character from the novel, encouraging students to interview her. During the writing process, Frow meets with each student to review his or her work, a method she believes helps students improve more than simply marking their papers with red ink.
“We need to have a dialogue about your writing every time you write,” she said. “It's a very individualized way to check for understanding and to help each person.”
She even allows students to critique her own poetry during class.
Her teaching philosophy blends enthusiasm, anecdotes, humor, a classroom comfort zone and a notion that the teacher is there to help. It all starts, she said, with analyzing what content must be delivered.
“Some people stop there: Here's , your content,” she said. “We've all had that teacher that stands there and reads it to you or stands there and lectures it at you. That's so not me.”
When teaching her fourth-graders about bar graphs, Jennifer Klobucar makes the concept stick by allowing her students to plot graphs on the floor with colorful masking tape.
To reinforce the concept of Venn diagrams, which use circles to depict relationships among different groups, she employs hula hoops as a visual aid.
For a lesson on landforms, students create an edible map with dough, adding Hershey Kiss mountains and icing rivers.
They're all components of how Klobucar involves students in the classroom.
Klobucar, 39, of Penn, teaches at Yough School District's HW Good Elementary in Westmoreland County. She earned an undergraduate degree at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a master's degree at Seton Hill University.
She approaches her teaching with a positive energy and a “we're going to tackle this together” attitude.
“I think the easiest way to involve kids is to try to gear things toward their interests,” she said. “If they see that their teacher's excited about something, it's exciting.”
Technology, including iPads for research, enhance the learning process, she said.
To engage students when teaching novels, Klobucar assigns jobs to students, such as a “progress checker” to ensure the group stays on task and a “fact finder” to scour the text for the most important details.
“They're very excited about it,” she said. “Going out of the textbook is very exciting to them and being able to relate to the characters and hold group discussions.”
At that age, concepts range from algebra to persuasive essays to geography. The key, she said, to involving a group of fourth-graders in their classwork: Believe in them.
“What it really comes down to is believing in your students. If they know that you are genuine and you truly believe in them and are sincere, they can sense that,” Klobucar said. “Showing a real sincerity makes a difference.”
When she was a writing tutor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Nicola Hipkins had a steady clientele of football players because she helped them relate their writing to football terms, then had them teach her plays and terminology using the skills she taught them.
As an English teacher at Bethel Park High School and one of three local 2014 Pennsylvania teacher-of-the-year finalists, Hipkins takes a similar, interdisciplinary approach through extensive collaboration with teachers and experts in other subject areas.
“I am a strong proponent of developing partnerships internally and externally so students can see that no learning occurs in isolation,” she said. “I hope to do more of that, so if this honor opens the door to more collaboration, I would be thrilled,”
For example, she works with the art and music departments for her “Film as Literature” class, where students learn to see the elements of films — photography, set dressing, sound design and visual style — and see the crossover with written literature through themes, symbols, plot development and character development, she said.
“Her abundant energy level is very contagious as her students embrace the content she is sharing,” said High School Principal Zeb Jansante. “Her classroom is very interactive and the students are the workers in the room.”
Hipkins, 40, of Canonsburg has been teaching at Bethel Park High School for 16 years. She teaches a sophomore English course that looks at the “hero's journey” archetype in stories and movies; an SAT preparation course; the “film as literature” elective focused on the storytelling elements and tools film and written literature have in common; and “writing for the humanities,” a senior-level course on writing essays and papers for college classes.
A graduate of West Allegheny High School and Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Hipkins earned a master's degree in administration and school principal certification from California University of Pennsylvania in 2002.
This was her first entry into the Teacher of the Year contest, noting the strangeness of being in the spotlight when she usually tries to have her students be the focus of attention.
“All the finalists were there appreciating the honor of the experience, but I'm willing to bet we were all a bit uncomfortable with it,” Hipkins said.
Rossilynne Skena Culgan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6646 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or email@example.com.