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A+ teachers show and tell what it takes to succeed

Mooseheart teacher Jennifer Antonslaughs with fourth grader Jamall Werling during computer class Mooseheart BataviMonday January 9 2011. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times

Mooseheart teacher Jennifer Antonson laughs with fourth grader Jamall Werling during a computer class at Mooseheart in Batavia on Monday January 9, 2011. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 20, 2012 8:02AM

Late last month, Dorothy Rouse sat around the small table with three second-grade students, workbooks open in front of them.

Rouse held up a fourth book, her fingers following the letters in the words on the page.

“We’re going to sound it out and then say it fast,” she said. “Sound it out: Mmm. Aaa. Ddd. Say it fast: Mad.”

And then, “Camila, what is it?”

Camila Guardado, 8, brightened and answered: “Mad!”

Rouse has thought a lot lately about how she works as a special education resource teacher at Highland Elementary School in Elgin.

That was part of the process to earn her National Board Certification, an advanced teaching credential that teachers nationwide can earn in addition to the required state license. That process requires educators to complete assessments and several portfolios that reflect their practice over several years.

School District U46 recognized nine teachers who recently were certified at a Board of Education meeting last month. That brings the total number of certified teachers in the Elgin district to 60, according to U46.

But those teachers aren’t the only ones reflecting on what works in their classrooms, as the Center on Education Policy estimated in December that 48 percent of all U.S. schools did not make the Adequate Yearly Progress outlined in the federal No Child Left Behind Act last year. That’s an all-time high and an increase from 39 percent in 2010, according to the CEP Web site .

President Barack Obama has offered waivers of those NCLB requirements for states that adopt education reforms and implemented the Race to the Top program to reward states for making reforms. And Governor Pat Quinn referenced a number of recent “education reforms (that) put the children of Illinois first” in his state of the state address earlier this month.

But Rouse said, “Legislation can’t dictate what a good teacher is.”

What does make a good teacher, she said, “is different in different places.”

“You have different needs in different places. Bartlett has different needs (than Elgin). The result is the same: Achievement. Just getting there is different.”

Rouse, Dundee Middle School teacher Kristine Pizzolato and Mooseheart Child City & School teacher Jennifer Antonson each have been recognized by their school districts, as well as the Kane County Regional Office of Education and other organizations.

Each teaches in very different communities. And each shared what has worked well for them in their combined 45 years in the classroom.

Dorothy Rouse: Find your kids

Rouse, who has two grown children and lives in Elgin, started teaching about 25 years ago, after she went through a divorce and knew she had to do something more than be a stay-at-home mom.

She started substituting at the Larkin Center in Elgin, which includes a therapeutic day school for at-risk students. That’s where, she said, “I found the kids I could work with. You have to have a heart for the kids.”

“I ‘get’ them, and from there, we can figure out what they need; and meet that need.”

Rouse came to U46, the state’s second-largest school district, about three years later.

The teacher has an undergraduate degree in elementary education and a master’s in special education from Northern Illinois University. She also has a master’s in administration from Aurora University, although she has no plans to leave the classroom.

Rouse sees herself as an “advocate” for her students. “I stay at a high-risk school,” she said, “because these kids need good teachers, too.”

Rouse was “looking for something fun to do” and considering pursuing a doctorate when she learned about National Board Certification. Through that process, she’s narrowed down the single most effective thing she does in her classroom: Getting to know the kids.

“Academically, you do the assessments and get the data that way,” she said. “But you can’t meet a need until you know what it is.”

Often what the need appears to be is deceiving. “If they’re struggling in reading,” she noted, “it may not be that they have (learning disabilities). It could be that they have a lot of emotional needs. It’s picking off layers ... “

Jennifer Antonson: Use students’

The sophomores in Jennifer Antonson’s computer class late last month at Mooseheart High School were building fantasy basketball teams on those computers — and the teacher knew it. In fact, she’d asked them to.

The students were learning to use Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, along with the internet for research, and, the teacher said, “It’s amazing how into it they get when it’s something they’re interested in.”

That’s part of what makes Antonson — named Private/Parochial Teacher of the Year 2011 by the Kane County Regional Office of Education — not only a good teacher, but also “just a fun teacher,” according to 17-year-old Thomas Koch.

“She’s funny. She makes sure we’re enjoying ourselves,” he added.

In fact, the teacher is part of the reason Thomas decided to pursue business and computer technology, one of five vocations Mooseheart students choose in addition to earning their academic diploma. Antonson and another teacher recently brought back a program to put computer students in office settings around the Mooseheart campus to gain hands-on experience for about two hours twice a week.

“That gives them more of a real world experience. It gives them accountability,” she said.

Antonson, who lives in Geneva with her husband and two daughters, always has wanted to become a teacher. Growing up in St. Charles, she loved to baby-sit kids.

Her first job out of NIU was as an aide at Mooseheart, where she also has taught kindergarten and second and third grades. After 12 years, she still was “low man” when the school cut teachers.

She took the position as its computer and technology teacher three years ago, despite the fact the lowest grade she ever received in school (a “C”) was in typing. Since then, she said, “I have learned nonstop.

Antonson also has “no desire” to go to a public school. “I feel like I belong,” she said, “and I make a difference here.”

Karen Popovich:
Doing the extra

Karen Popovich is one of those rare individuals who actually knew what she wanted to be when she grew up. She wanted to teach art and she wanted to do it well.

But Popovich did more than just dream about it. She went after it. And this Metea Valley High School art teacher is living out that childhood desire in a big way.

On Tuesday, she and a group of National Art Honor Society students are donating their own time to work with residents at the Sunrise of Naperville North, a senior living facility. Popovich will be incorporating different textures and techniques aimed at helping seniors feel more comfortable with art. Members of the high school’s Digital Photography Club will also be taking pictures of the event as well as taking portraits of the seniors.

“The residents really enjoy it and it teaches the kids about the importance of volunteering in their community,” says Jeannie Lindemulder, activity and volunteer coordinator at Sunrise of Naperville North. “It brings the outside in.”

The event is the latest in a long list of extra curricular activities Popovich has taken on, including coordinating the Indian Prairie School District’s Fine Arts Festival for the past 12 years, working as team leader for the Fine Arts Professional Learning Community for the past three years and serving as this year’s secretary of the Illinois Art Education Association. In March, she will even be traveling to New York to speak at the National Art Education Conference.

“I like to do what I can,” she says. “I enjoy volunteering.”

That seems an understatement for a woman had to wait until high school to take her first art class. Still, aside from the long and impressive list of organizations Popovich is involved with, it’s the cross cultural art experiences she seems most eager to talk about.

Four years ago, Popovich worked on “Tents of Hope,” a national project aimed at promoting advocacy in an effort to end the genocide in Darfur. Students painted an 8X10-foot tent that eventually wound up in a Darfur classroom.

“It helped educate and communicate a message of hope,” says Popovich. “And projects like these help students appreciate all of the advantages they have here.”

Thanks to help from the Indian Prairie Education Fund, Popovich is currently working on a Memories Project in which students will create portraits of orphans and disadvantaged students in Namibia, Africa. The goal of the project is to promote global friendships, inspire caring and help her art students learn about another area of the world.

The kids are all excited about it, says Popovich. And with good reason.

“They’re proud they’re able to communicate through their art,” she says. “They’ve learned that art can be more than just a pretty picture.”

Try new things

The students in Kristine Pizzolato’s classes at Dundee Middle School in West Dundee get paid for coming to class.

They keep a register of their earnings — and their fines, for things like not pushing in their chairs at their desks, leaving behind notebooks and being tardy to class, Pizzolato said. They also pay rent on their desks.

Of course, it’s not real money. It’s part of their “classroom economy,” and it only can be cashed in for things like school supplies, or classroom privileges.

That’s an idea she had tried with her students about four years ago and revamped this year.

Of course, any time District 300 introduces a new idea, Pizzolato said, “I’m the first who wants to try it.”

That’s how the sixth-grade general, intermediate and advanced math teacher ended up co-teaching language arts with her sixth-grade team’s learning disabilities teacher this year. That’s part of District 300’s restructured special education program, which aims to increase the time students with special needs spend in general education settings.

That’s also how she became a member of the Carpentersville district’s Response to Intervention team for math (another priority this year). That’s why she starts each class with music and a warm-up exercise on the interactive whiteboard at the front of the room.

That’s also why she was recognized last year as D300 Distinguished Educator of the Year.

“What makes Kristine a distinguished educator is that she goes above and beyond for the school and for the students and continues to do whatever it takes to help our students achieve success,” said Andrew Reinke, assistant principal of Dundee Middle School.

Pizzolato is a product of District 300, she said, graduating from Dundee Middle School herself. She got her bachelor’s degree from NIU and her Master’s in curriculum and instruction from Aurora University.

She got her first job teaching swimming at the Dundee Township Park District when she was in high school. “I think I knew right then,” she was going to be a teacher. Pizzolato now lives in Hampshire with her husband and two children (No. 3 is expected in March), and this is her ninth year teaching at Dundee.

She got involved in several committees right away at the school, and, she said, that helped her get to know herself, her subject area, her students and her building. That’s why she’s stayed so involved and so willing to try new things to keep things fresh, keep them from getting old, she said.

“Its kind of like why wouldn’t I try it?” Pizzolato said. “Maybe what I’m using works. But I’m always willing try new things both for their benefit and mine.”

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