We welcome you to get to know our faculty better as they share their experiences working with students at Shady Side Academy. Each post is written by a different member of our faculty throughout the school year. Spanning our three schools and teaching a variety of disciplines to students ranging in age from 3-18, each faculty member brings a different perspective to the blog.
Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) has garnered much attention in the media over the past few years. The movement gained traction in education circles about 10 years ago. What does STEM mean for our students and what does it mean for educational reform and the future of our country?
If you are to believe the policymakers, STEM is a matter of national security. So much so that an amendment to Senate Bill S. 744, known as the Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill, adds a STEM provision. This amendment would establish a fund for STEM education and support for teachers. Funds would be dispersed to states for the development of STEM programs by individual state education organizations. In a letter to the Senate supporting the amendment, the National Education Association wrote “If the United States is to hold a competitive edge in a rapidly changing global workforce, bolstering the nation’s science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce is essential.” S.744 has been passed by the Senate and sent to the House for consideration. The idea that federal STEM funding is tied up in a bill on immigration reform is odd, you might think. However, it gives perspective as to just how committed – or not committed – our lawmakers are to educational reform.
One of the many terrific aspects of teaching here at the Junior School is that I have the freedom and support to address STEM in my class now. I don’t have to wait for funding or a mandate from an office somewhere in Harrisburg. The core idea of STEM is to put science back into the public schools after many science budgets were cut significantly or all together in the primary grades. What we do here at the Junior School is foster a love of science, technology, engineering and math through experience.
I have been engaging fourth grade students in engineering projects for 11 years. Most notably is the design and construction of toothpick bridges. Groups of three or four students form companies with budgets and bank accounts. Each company must design and construct a bridge that meets several design constraints. Once the bridges are designed, they input their “blueprints” into an iPad simulation that puts their bridge under stress. The app then visualizes the weak sections of the bridge by turning those sections red. Also provided are mathematical representations of how the forces are being distributed across the bridge. After the students analyze the results of the simulation, they can return to their blueprints and shore up their designs.
Third graders will be introduced to Lego Robotics for the first time this year. The Lego NXT robots and software allow even very young students to engage in basic icon-driven programming. As part of the After School Explorers program, I have been teaching programming for six years. One of the best features of the Lego system is that children can work at their own pace. The software allows advanced students to move from icon-based programming to more complex systems within the same software.
STEM is a wonderful initiative, and it will continue to gain footing around the country even if federal funding does not materialize. Our current Junior School students are growing up in a rapidly changing world. New jobs are being created at a remarkable pace. With a continued focus on STEM education, SSA students will be prepared for the unknown jobs that may exist in their futures.
Jeff McCarroll has been teaching science to grades 3-5 at the Junior School since 2003. He also teaches the Junior School's after-school robotics class and coaches the robotics team.
Harold "Buddy" Hendershot Senior School English Teacher
Mr. Harold "Buddy" Hendershot started working at Shady Side in 1973. In 1974 he was hired to teach English and Spanish and coach soccer and track. He has taught a range of courses at the Senior School, including Comparative Religion, The Romantic Experience, Introduction to Psychology, Nature Writing and Photography. He also began the girls soccer program. Mr. Hendershot holds a B.A. from Grove City College and two M.A. degrees, one from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and one from Middlebury College.
I experienced my first Shady Side Homecoming in October 1973. I remember the Friday night Pep Rally – the heat and power of the bonfire, the passion and energy of team cheers led by captains. The cheers got wilder over the years, and eventually the Pep Rally ceased to exist. But back then, for my family and me, Homecoming was about Saturday – crisp fall weather taking over Pittsburgh, a red, yellow and orange hillside, and the games. Field hockey, soccer, football and cross country created the scene for grace, beauty, struggle, heroics, victory and defeat.
My Homecomings changed around 1980. After seven years of teaching, I knew a number of returning alumni. The Pep Rally was still going, but there was also the Alumni Dinner, and with that came great food and drink, saying hello to alumni, listening to speeches about the meaning of Shady Side, and hearing what graduates were up to. I remember an alumnus telling me that after 20 years, his closest friends were still his SSA classmates. It was also great to see Shady Side couples that were married, another insight into the impact of SSA. Some of the best moments of Homecoming years ago came after the games were over. I was living on campus, and for a few years Shawn Flaherty ‘78 would visit my wife Carol and me, and tell me stories about whom he was dating and how his love life was going. When his current interest was one of our beautiful Shady Side Ladies, there was a certain dreamlike tone that overtook the conversation.
This year was my 40th Homecoming. With a little anxiety, I wondered who would say hello. Would I remember the names of students from 10 years ago? How would the conversations go? No worry necessary, as once again my relationships from the past rekindled memories and feelings, all of which have been a source of deep meaning over the years. Standing by the fence at the football field, I was embraced. Hands were shook, stories were retold and information was passed on.
You never know where Homecoming conversations may come from or where they may go. On Friday night I had a great talk with Marc Lhormer ‘78. He told me that he was producing a movie based on the teenage novel Dear Zoe, written by Pittsburgher Philip Beard. I told Marc that I taught this novel in my elective course Psychology of Teens in Literature and Film, and it was a favorite of my students. Later we talked about the possibility of my students helping out in the film, which will be shot in Pittsburgh.
Saturday by the football fence again, Jay Mangold ’06 said hello and told me about marrying his high school sweetheart, whom he used to talk about in our advisee meetings his junior year. Later that evening I ran into Jay again, and he serenaded me, letting me know my Nature Writing class had meant a lot to him. Now that made my night!
At class parties, I had great talks with David Gefsky ’88 and April Castro ‘93, whose souls were woven through a thousand conversations of my various classes. How many ideas had they expressed in essays? How much of their hearts had they opened to me in thousands of journal entries? I got to see family pictures, hear about jobs and find out what siblings were doing. The brick of our Shady Side foundation was strengthened and secured.
Thank you, alumni, for being so kind and for sharing your stories and feelings with me once again. Homecoming 2013 was the source of many hugs, and we all need our hugs!
Lisa Anselmo has been teaching at Shady Side Academy Junior School since 2006, having taught kindergarten, second grade and now fifth grade. She holds a B.A. in general arts and sciences from Penn State University and an M.A.T. from Chatham University.
“Hi, welcome back, how was your summer?” my colleagues typically ask as we pass in the hall during the last few days of August – the time when Junior School teachers return to put the finishing touches on their classrooms and gear up for another exciting year of learning. Usually I answer “Oh, very nice, busy, how was yours?” and get a similar reply. Sometimes someone will share the details of a special trip or a family event, but for the most part we exchange pleasantries and get back to working on our classrooms. This year, however, was a little different. Many of my colleagues shared a common experience with me this summer, and we definitely had something to talk about with each other.
Seven members of the Junior School faculty spent a week at the Columbia University Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP). Dan Stern (third grade), Lisa Budd (fourth grade), Marilyn Martens (kindergarten) and Fran Gardiner (kindergarten) ventured to New York in June, while Ellen McConnell (school head), Marci Anderson (fourth grade) and I (fifth grade) made the trip in August. There we attended the TCRWP Summer Institute. This seminar was a five-day program that included small and large group sections designed to help teachers, coaches and administrators establish vibrant, rigorous models of best practices for teaching writing in elementary school classrooms. We spent a week immersed in workshops, lectures and conversations about teaching writing with grade-level colleagues from around the world. In my small group seminar, I partnered one day with a teacher from Singapore and another day with a teacher from Hawaii. On day three, I paired with a teacher from a public school in New York in the morning, and with a teacher from an independent school in Boston in the afternoon. Each contact allowed me to gain insight into the art of teaching writing. For one week my fellow teachers and I became students of writing. I found the whole experience to be challenging and motivational. We kept our own writing notebooks and wrote our own stories throughout the week. We learned how to teach using the Writing Workshop approach and discussed strategies and pitfalls. The days were long and packed with information, and the best part – implementing our learning from the institute into our classrooms – was still ahead.
Once we returned to Pittsburgh and the Junior School, there was still a good bit of work to be done. All of us who teach writing reworked our daily teaching schedules so that we could focus on teaching writing each and every day. We had more reading to do, and we began to read the units of study associated with the Writing Workshop approach.
Now that the school year is in full swing, we have even more to talk about. “How did that lesson go on writing about small moments?” I ask a colleague. “Did you introduce that Narrative Writing Checklist yet?” I ask another. As we talk through the lessons, the structure and the assessments, we continue to support each other as professionals. We’ve set up monthly meetings to discuss our progress with the Writing Workshop. Each month we gather, and each month we become better teachers of writing. The shared experience of the TCRWP Summer Institute was a wonderful foundation for what promises to be a year filled with talking about writing.
Dr. Dan Brill has been teaching music at the Senior School since 1986, directing the choral and strings groups and serving as chair of the Arts Department. He previously taught secondary music in Kansas, Nebraska and Pennsylvania and has taken advantage of numerous professional development opportunities to study, sing and perform under master conductors. Dr. Brill holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Pennsylvania State University, and a Masters of Music degree and a Doctor of Music Arts degree, both from the University of Cincinnati.
Every so often in my professional years I feel compelled to become a student again. I don’t mean to research some topic, or to revisit my old notes from graduate school. I mean to hop to the other side of the desk, sit at the feet of a master teacher, and subject myself to his evaluation of my performance. Sounds intimidating? It is. “It” was master class conducting.
Years ago as a graduate student at the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, I was introduced to master classes. Every Wednesday morning we grad students would assemble with our three conducting professors and a musicologist. One by one we would conduct the class (serving as our choir) through a choral work we were studying. The goal was to show that we were prepared to conduct something penned by one of the greatest composers. Now understand that the phrase “prepared to conduct” is loaded: someone once told me that if there is another person in the room that knows more about the music than you do, you should sit down and let them conduct. Standing in front of these professors, who knew this music better than I knew my name, was no small task. Being prepared presupposed a thorough knowledge of the score, the historical context of music and the composer, as well as the appropriate stylistic and performance practices associated with the music. In other words, it was “put up or shut up.” Of course, I never knew what aspect of my performance the professors would call into question. It could be a technical issue such as, “it is difficult to discern your third beat in your conducting pattern because your baton grip is full of tension." "What made you decide to pick a tempo for a gigue when the piece is clearly a pastorale?” As you can imagine, everything was fair game. It was a wonderful way to learn.
I’ve sought out similar experiences for professional growth throughout my career. Every few years I attend workshops to study with top-tier conductors to test my skills and continue to improve. After nine years of teaching I enrolled in a doctoral program and went back to the weekly routine. I was also in the master class at the Oregon Bach Festival for three summers with a superb conductor and an international group of instrumentalists and singers that came together to study Bach for two weeks, 12 hours per day.
I often got critiqued. When I was good, I loved it. When I was not good, it was awful. There was pressure to live up to a high standard, to show that I cared enough to invest the time, to show that I was prepared to conduct. Because performances determine my professional credibility, I always need to show my best.
Fast forward to July 2013, when I traveled to the University of Michigan to participate in a choral conducting symposium. I studied under Dr. Jerry Blackstone, a master choral director who consistently produces wonderful choirs and performances of musical masterpieces. He is also a very kind man and a superb teacher. He is always encouraging, supportive, funny and unfailingly committed to helping a student grow.
Before arriving on campus, students in the class were told to prepare to conduct (there’s that phrase again!) a movement from Mendelssohn’s Psalm 42, which is a choral/orchestral multi-movement work. At the first session, Dr. Blackstone and the two other instructors said we would each take a turn conducting a portion of the piece to acquaint us with the various conducting styles and levels in the class. The first person conducted the opening of the piece. The next person elected to do the opening as well. I was third; I assumed we would want to move on with the piece, so I did the next portion. When the next person got up, I was surprised that they wanted to go back and do the beginning again. What really shocked me, though, was that the next 30 people also did the opening section! It got to be ridiculous, but the faculty handled it well and no one felt bad about their work. I took it as a sign that although the people in this class were all capable professionals, there wasn’t a really secure feeling about their preparation to say the least.
When the session concluded, we were given a packet of music containing pieces by Bach, Mozart and Brahms. I was familiar with some of the pieces, but had never heard several others. We were told that we were going to conduct every day that week, and which pieces to prepare for each day. We were divided into three small choirs, and the professors planned to work with a different choir each. In addition, we would be expected to conduct once in the evening with all 35 conductors and three faculty members participating. Sessions started at 9 a.m. and ended at 9 p.m., meaning that after a full day of work, we had to cram the piece for the next day, because we would be expected to be “PREPARED TO CONDUCT” each day, and twice on one of the days.
Without relating the blow-by-blow of my conducting sessions, suffice it to say I got my money’s worth. I was made aware of issues that were creating obstacles to doing my best work. I had to shed a lot of baggage to clean up my conducting. After a torturous Monday and half of Tuesday, I made significant progress by Wednesday. I started to feel like there was a slim chance that I might actually learn how to conduct again with some minor degree of proficiency.
The best lesson, and what I brought back with me to my SSA classroom, is reconnecting what I learned in Michigan with everything my students go through on a daily basis. Specifically, what it is to feel stress or to worry that I am less prepared than I’d like to be for a given performance. I was reminded what it felt like being evaluated in front of my peers, both on good days and bad. I experienced the frustration of not being able to master a skill as quickly as I wanted, and the relief of overcoming the obstacles and getting things to a satisfactory level.
As I get older, and farther away from the age of my students, it is important to reconnect. It will make me a better teacher this year. And no matter what I observe from them in any particular class, I’ll say, “yeah, I know how that feels.”
Michele Ament has taught math at the Senior School since 1996 and is also the school's director of service learning. Previously, she taught at Carlow University Campus School and in several public school districts. Before her career in teaching, Ament was a computer programmer. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Carnegie Mellon University and a Master of Education degree from Carlow University.
“I don’t work. I teach.” Joe Felder, math teacher extraordinaire, said this at an opening Senior School faculty meeting. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. For me teaching is not work, because I love what I do.
We’ve just finished the first two days of school. On Monday all new students were on campus for orientation activities. It was fun to see the freshmen peek around the corner into the Math Department Office. Little did they realize that they will probably visit the Math Office at some time during the year, either to meet with their teacher or advisor or club advisor or coach or dean or... At Shady Side, teachers have multiple responsibilities, so students have the opportunity to see us in many roles. On Tuesday we had Convocation, complete with speeches, water and cookies (welcome to Carb Central!). All students were back. The energy level was high and positive. Even students whom I had never taught asked how my summer was.
It’s the beginning of a new year. There is the hope that this will be the BEST year so far. Students think “I will do my best in every subject, be the best in my sport, do my best artistic work.” Hope springs eternal. Realistically, there will be bumps in the road. Teachers and students will make mistakes. Teachers and students will go through difficult times. The important thing to remember is that, in this community, challenges are learning opportunities. We’ll learn from our experiences and challenges. More importantly, we’ll do it together and, come June 6th, we’ll be better people. Name a workplace other than Shady Side Academy where you can say the same.
I love what I do!
on Wednesday August 28 at 02:43PM
Julie Hertz Associate Director of College Counseling
Julie Hertz has worked in the field of college counseling since 2004, first as an assistant director of admission at Carnegie Mellon University, and joining the SSA Senior School as a college counselor in 2008. She holds a B.A from Penn State University and an M.Ed. from Duquesne University.
Do you ever wonder how your teachers spend their summer vacations? How about your college counselors? The short answer to this question is that we spend our summers a lot like you probably do. I think I speak for most of us when I say that much like our students, we spend the first day or two relaxing, catching up on sleep and generally “vegging out!” After that, however, we take some of our own advice and make our summers as productive as possible by reading books, traveling, spending time with friends and family, doing community service and working on projects. For many teachers, and definitely for the College Counseling Office, professional development is also on the agenda for summer break. Just as we encourage our students to use their time wisely (juniors, you know what this means – visiting some college campuses and working on college essays!), we college counselors use our time wisely by attending conferences, workshops and touring college campuses both through formal and informal programs.
This summer, I have taken my own advice, and in the month of June alone attended two professional conferences and visited a variety of college campuses. First I was off to Minnesota’s twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and the campus of Macalester College for the ACCIS (Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools) Summer Institute. This organization, made up of – surprise! – college counselors from independent schools around the country, allows us to brainstorm ideas about college counseling, learn about changes and new initiatives in the profession and compare our programs to those at other independent schools. Through sessions, roundtable discussions and networking, I was able to connect with many colleagues from independent schools like Shady Side, returning home with an arsenal of ideas to incorporate into our college counseling program. While in Minnesota, I also had the opportunity to visit four unique colleges. In addition to Macalester (where I not only toured but stayed in a dorm room for three nights), I visited Carleton College, St. Olaf College and the University of Minnesota, all of which are wonderful places for uniquely different reasons. Also during the institute, I was able to participate in a community outreach program with other counselors, helping underserved students from a group called College Possible make arrangements to enroll in college this fall.
Shortly after returning from Minnesota, I was off to the PACAC (Pennsylvania Association for College Admission Counseling) annual conference at Seven Springs Resort. Fortunately this trip meant a quick journey on the turnpike and not airplanes, connections and flight delays! What is special about PACAC is that it allows those of us who work on the “high school side” of college admissions to network and learn from our colleagues who are actually working in college admission offices. This unique mix of high school counselors and those employed by colleges and universities (the very folks who read those college applications and visit SSA each fall) leads to candid and informative conversations and presentations by individuals on both sides of the profession. In fact, I was even able to enjoy a session led by our very own Tom Colt, who presented alongside the senior associate director in the admissions office at Lafayette College in a discussion on post-graduate years. In addition to many sessions, great speakers and committee meetings, it is also a wonderful time to catch up with old friends and make some new ones.
In all, these professional development opportunities left me energized and excited for the year ahead. I also have a renewed respect for college students sleeping in uncomfortable (and un-air-conditioned) dorm rooms for the first time!
Here’s to a happy and productive summer, everyone!
Cari Batchelar has been teaching art at the Senior School since 1988. She also has served as advisor to the Academian (yearbook) and chair of the Art Department from 1994-1998. A professional artist and painter, she maintains a studio in Chautauqua, N.Y., where she is a member of the Chautauqua Artist Association. Batchelar exhibits nationally, as well as in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Italy. She also writes and is working on a book about the life of Europeans in Egypt during and before World War II.
This is my 25th year of teaching at SSA. I am often asked how do I stay at it so long? Especially for one who has traveled extensively and lived for stretches in the U.S.Virgin Islands, Italy and any place with a warm climate.
The answer is simple: every year brings a new group of students, a new set of challenges and a “clean slate” to work upon. In a way, each year at SSA is like traveling to a new country. I came to SSA with the intent of staying for the maximum of five years; one thing led to another, and here I am 25 years later. I love the students; they keep me young and hip with what is new and current.
Another reason I have stayed committed to SSA is the opportunity to innovate in the classroom/studio and to work along side fellow faculty in different disciplines. Such was the case this year, teaming up with the Science Department to work on the SSA Farm.
In fall 2012, students in my Term I Architecture class worked in collaboration with the SSA Farm to design a shed to store a tractor, tools and equipment, and provide indoor workspace. The project was integrated into the course curriculum and utilized the students' newly developed architectural skills.
The class's final shed design features a porch to accommodate onsite educational presentations and provides a shady respite from gardening, a 20x22 work area with a counter for starter plants and a loft storage area. The design also incorporates "green" building elements such as skylights, a cupola for airflow and a rain barrel integrated into the gutters.
Funding is in the works to build the shed, add a bathroom to the original shed design and drill a well for the farm. Students continue to work on refining architectural details and with luck construction will start this summer.
This is just one example of the how Shady Side engages me to stay on, stay fresh as an educator and as an artist. When I came here in 1988 I never imagined I still be here in 2013, but I am sure glad that I am still part of this great school and community.
Karen DiFiore Junior School Physical Education Teacher
Karen DiFiore holds a B.S. from the University of Pittsburgh and has taught physical education at the Junior School since 2008. She previously taught health and physical education for Pittsburgh Public Schools for 13 years.
In January, I began a ‘Walk ‘n Talk’ program with our third graders, and while it has been successful in the areas in which it was originally intended, it has also grown and had far reaching benefits to the rest of the population at the Junior School, students and teachers alike.
The program was created to increase student activity during the school day, which recent research states aids in improved academic performance. I chose third grade to pilot the program so that we could integrate it with their unit on the states. We are measuring the number of steps walked with a pedometer and tracking our progress on a map as we make our way across America. What I didn’t originally realize was how valuable and meaningful the ‘talk’ portion of the Walk ‘n Talk would be. As our students are walking with their friends and teachers you can hear conversations between them, discussing who they were rooting for in the Super Bowl, how they performed in a dance recital over the weekend or sharing a concern of something that was worrying them. It is reminiscent of the old days when children lived in neighborhoods where they were able to walk to school with their friends or parents. Our morning Walk ‘n Talk is allowing our children to get this same experience, but after they actually get to school!
Seeing this added benefit of building community among the students and teachers I wanted to grow our program to include other members of our school. We began by inviting the third grade's kindergarten buddies that they are paired with in the beginning of the school year. It is a wonderful sight to see these two groups of students walking and talking with each other, strengthening their bond! After seeing this positive result we wanted to share this experience with the whole school and have all of us walk together and learn more about each other, but due to space constraints in the gym we are only able to have two grade levels walk at the same time. Now we have each grade, K-4, come walk with the third grade one day a week. We can’t wait until the weather allows us to move our Walk ‘n Talk from the gym to the field so that we can have our entire community walk and grow together!
Adding additional community members to walk with the third grade is also helping them walk across America by increasing their daily mileage, supporting them and helping them reach their goal. Isn’t that what Shady Side Academy is all about?!
Mrs. Joseph has taught English at the Senior School since 2007 and has served as chair of the English Department. She holds a B.A. from St. Edwards College and an M.F.A. from the University of Pittsburgh. A former fiction instructor at the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts, Mrs. Joseph has won teaching awards from the National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts and from Humanities Texas, and has to her credit publications in literary magazines and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Before SSA, Joseph taught in Indiana, North Carolina and served as English Department chair at the Liberal Arts and Science Academy in Austin, Texas.
Hats. Sunscreen. Long-sleeved, light-colored shirts. Pants tucked into long socks, tucked into boots. Lip balm. Water.
Eleven Shady Side students, science teacher Aaron Ashworth, my husband and I traveled across the country to do battle with the Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever that had swept through Native American populations in the Southwest via the ordinary brown dog tick. We knew we would be assisting the CDC. We couldn't imagine what we would do there, exactly. And, as we caravanned from the airport into the fantastic moonscape of Arizona, we were increasingly awed and mystified – the pink and brown mountains, the fingers and fists of rock formations thrusting skyward, the forests of ancient cacti just as the desert began to bloom. More than once, we felt compelled to pull our vehicles over in order to take pictures of ourselves against this movie set backdrop.
Our imaginations had not factored in the precision and discipline of the CDC. Monday morning, 8 a.m., we were seated in a gymnasium for a three-hour briefing regarding the history of the disease, the demographics of the population at risk and the logistics of our plan of attack. There were exacting specifications for the paperwork that would form the spine of the research that would be done throughout the summer and for the next two or three years. There were detailed safety guidelines and procedures. We would be privileged to work with Vince, whose name is enshrined in Geneva, Switzerland, for helping eradicate small pox from the face of the earth. And with Chris, the scientist with the tattoo of the tick on his forearm to memorialize his linking the Gulf Coast tick to a disease that imitated Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Just as the mountains and caverns awed and inspired us, the credentials of our CDC mentors left us breathless and intimidated, whispering among ourselves: eradicated smallpox from the face of the earth.
SSA students were divided into teams anchored by the CDC and graduate students in public health or science. The groups moved out into neighborhoods to categorize and document the status of households with or without pets. Dogs with anti-tick collars from the previous “RMSF rodeo” had their collars noted and then replaced; puppies too young for collars were checked for ticks and then sprayed with a mild pesticide. The keys to the entire endeavor were two-fold: sensitivity while conducting the interview and precision in the paperwork.
The trip itself was put together by seniors Paul Steenkiste and Noah Harchelroad, with advice from science teacher Aaron Ashworth and help from Jessica Parker. They researched, made contacts, created a budget and built in opportunities for side trips. We visited the Cultural Center and met with its brilliant director. We explored the ruins of ancient cave dwellings and frolicked across the Calvin Coolidge Dam. We learned that rickety dirt roads curving the outer edge of mountainside might be guard rail optional. We discovered the Apache burger and the Indian taco and that there is such a thing as too much authentic Mexican food. We became temporarily lost, but the weather was lovely. Our inside jokes became a sophisticated and hilarious subtext beneath every conversation.
But here is the most important part, the part I will always remember, the fact that our students – my students – were so brilliantly prepared by their experiences at SSA for a community service project that hinged upon a combination of social graces and scientific methodology. To a person, the credentialed professionals who led this project and who were quite vocal about their exacting standards – from the liaison for Indian Affairs to the heroes of public health – took me aside to exclaim over the quality of work our students accomplished. Thank you for this, combined efforts of teachers of humanities and teachers of math and science. Thank you, culture of civility and Guiding Principles that are shaping us into useful and caring citizens of this varied and beautiful world.
Mrs. Messner has taught math and science at the Middle School since 2002. She holds a B.S. from Duquesne University and an M.A.T. from Chatham University. Messner has served as the Middle School's PAISTA representative since 2003 and the Form II head form advisor since 2006. During her time at SSA, Messner has coached basketball, softball and squash and performed tutorial duties. She also has been part of the Admissions Committee and Black History Month Committee.
A girl’s hand is already up and class has just started. The kids around her are giggling. “Yes Maya, what is it?” I say. Maya says, “We have something to tell you. A boy in our grade came up to me in the hallway and said ‘Mrs. Messner sounds like an owl.’“ I chuckle and respond, “I would like to know what this boy’s name is please.” Maya turns a light shade of pink and giggles with her friends. I ask again and one of her friends says to the entire class, “It didn’t work.” Then it all clicks - these students were trying to get me to say “WHO” and sound like an owl! We all laugh and agree that the joke would have been funny if it had worked, and then we promptly get to our lesson learning about taxonomy.
We have just finished our discussion of the Law of Definite Composition in Form II science class and Andrew comes up to my desk at the end of class with a very serious face. He says, “Hey Mrs. Messner, did you hear what happened to that chemist’s son Johnny?” I reply, “No, what happened?” with obvious concern in my voice. Andrew says, “Johnny was a chemist’s son, but Johnny is no more... what Johnny thought was H2O was H2SO4.”
These stories are absolutely true and not uncommon in a middle school classroom! I cannot tell you the number of times that the response to my career choice is one of surprise, confusion and sometimes true horror. The truth of the matter is that most people are afraid of “middle schoolers.” They are an unknown entity – like a variable in a mathematical equation (and we can all name one or two self-confident, strong and successful adults that quiver in fear at the thought of doing math!). But just like in algebra, once you perform the correct inverse operations in the correct order you find a solution. Middle school teachers have to do a lot of inverse operations in the correct order to help their students find the solution to who they are by the time they leave our building. In my opinion, this is one of the best parts of teaching middle school students. The challenge of doing “the math” correctly to help each of our students reach their potential academically, socially and emotionally by the time they reach June of their Form II year.
Middle school students are exactly what they sound like; in the middle of being dependent on the adults in their lives, like elementary students, but not quite as independent of those same adults, like high school students. They want to do things on their own, but need adults to guide them; to let them be fearless but fearful at the same time; and to let them be unpredictable until they find their way. I feel like I can confidently say that all middle school teachers find comfort in being that consistent force in our students lives, and that we truly do relish in their ability to be unpredictable but smart; unpredictable but funny; unpredictable but accepting; unpredictable but appreciative and above all unpredictable but always interesting.
on Tuesday March 26 at 11:47AM