Gwinnett Teacher of the Year finalists

Stories by Heather Darenberg

When it comes to teaching, these six Gwinnett County teachers have one thing in common: It's all about engaging the students and learning how they learn best.

The six teachers are the finalists for the Teacher of the Year award, which will be announced Thursday evening. The winner will receive $1,000 per year for the duration of his or her career with Gwinnett County Public Schools.

The teacher of the year will be picked from the elementary, middle and high school winners. The other two level winners will receive $750 for the duration of their carrers with GCPS.

As the only elementary school teacher in the final leg of the competition, Tiffany English of Sugar Hill Elementary School is the elementary school level winner.

In the middle school level, two remain: Dana Griffith of Berkmar Middle School and Cindy Apley Rose of Shiloh Middle School.

Charles Kachmar of Grayson High School, Sarah Skinner of Peachtree Ridge High School and Matthew Winking of Phoenix High School are the finalists for the high school level.

The following are profiles that highlight some of their notable teaching methods and philosophies.

Tiffany English, Sugar Hill Elementary School

SUGAR HILL - Tiffany English sits cross-legged on the floor of her classroom, clapping her hands against her thighs every time she says "dark" in a poem.

"In the dark, dark woods, there was a dark, dark house, and in the dark, dark house there was a dark, dark room," she chants, as she encourages her students to join in on the clapping with her.

After asking the group of 7-year-olds why she was clapping when she did, she picks a student to hit a drum every time the class says "dark" in the poem.

She then gets other students to hit the cymbals and play the xylophone and other instruments while she recites the poem.

"Kids learn by doing," said English, who teaches music at Sugar Hill Elementary School. "While they're in my class, they're moving around or they're singing or they're acting things out. They have to have active things to do to learn."

Because first- through fifth-grade students come to music class every sixth or seventh day, English sees each student for only 16 hours during the school year - so she said she has to make every second of her music classes count.

Most of her assessments are performance based, which means the students must demonstrate the skill that she is grading them on.

The skills English teaches are those students can use throughout their lives. English said she wants to teach her students to know how to be able to sing to their children, sing "Happy Birthday" on key, know how to act at a concert and know what to do when the National Anthem is sung at a baseball game.

When the students leave English's class, they know how to sight read, making them prepared to join a band or a chorus.

And English said she hopes that the students will choose to make music a part of their lives.

Dana Griffith, Berkmar Middle School

LILBURN - A seventh-grade girl at Berkmar Middle School groans and complains that her physical education teacher is trying to make her die.

"I'm trying to make you not die," retorts Dana Griffith, who smiles as she corrects the student's form on a pull-up training machine in the school's fitness room.

Griffith walks around the room, helping students on a step machine or asking students if they are doing the "talk test," a measure to see if they are exercising enough to get their heart rates up.

In the second part of class, the students start the first day of their basketball section. They're learning how to dribble, and Griffith gives each student a basketball so that they can complete increasingly difficult challenges - dribbling with one hand, dribbling in a circle and dribbling while lying down.

"If everyone always has something to do, the better the lesson is going to go," Griffith said.

Keeping students engaged and participating in what's going on is part of Griffith's teaching philosophy.

Teaching physical education is important, she said, because it's important to fight obesity trends. A quality P.E. program won't do it all, but it can help. Children can learn how to use exercise equipment appropriately, and students who live in apartment complexes with a fitness center can perform the exercises safely when they go home.

Students also know that failing P.E. can mean more than getting an F on a report card.

"It can mean premature death," Griffith said.

Cindy Apley Rose, Shiloh Middle School

SNELLVILLE - In order to demonstrate a step function, Cindy Apley Rose stands on a desk and acts as if she was walking toward the edge of a cliff.

"I'm walking, I'm walking, I'm walking," Rose said to her eighth-grade algebra class at Shiloh Middle School.

Then she steps off the chair and asks the class what she did: Did she step down at an angle or step down immediately?

She also draws a step function on the board and explains it to the class.

During the algebra lesson, Rose encourages students who know the correct answer to "say it louder," and she frequently asks the class if they understand the material. She genuinely wants to know if they don't, pleading with them to tell her if they don't understand

something.

When it's obvious her students need a little extra practice, Rose pulls out the boards so students can play coordinate hangman. The students seem disappointed that they need to take a step back, but Rose is determined to make sure her students understand the lesson.

With coordinate hangman, students are given a grid with letters plotted on it. They have to name the coordinates of each letter of Rose's first name, and the first person to do so correctly wins a prize.

Such lessons also allow students to get up and move, Rose said. She sits in one place, and the students get up to bring their answers to her.

"All students can learn," Rose said. "I have got to figure out how they learn best. I have to teach them to advocate for themselves."

Charles Kachmar, Grayson High School

LOGANVILLE - Charles Kachmar walks slowly around his classroom, stopping occasionally to answer a question asked of "Coach K."

Kachmar then helps the students, who are in the technical education program at Grayson High School, with their questions about the CAD software.

Grayson's technical education program is akin to an academy of engineers, Kachmar said. The students use engineering jargon that is like a foreign language to other students in the school.

"They learn this stuff like an infant would learn a language from a mother or a father," said Kachmar, who teaches mechanical drafting, architectural drafting and engineering in the school's technical education program.

The students that matriculate into college are also more prepared than other students. Kachmar said he's heard from students who say that the technology used in the classrooms gives them a technical background that makes it easier to jump right into the content instead of trying to catch up and learn the software they'll be using.

Kachmar also has another classroom, one where popsicle sticks, fishing line and pieces of robots abound.

Students have to create models that demonstrate the principles they are learning. They subject the models to tests, so when they run those tests on computer programs, they will have learned why materials react in different ways.

For Kachmar, it's all about making informed decisions and judgments. Playing with the toys helps the students learn how to do exactly that.

"I love my job," Kachmar said, with a grin that extends from ear to ear. "Gwinnett kids are so far ahead of the curve."

Sarah Skinner, Peachtree Ridge High School

SUWANEE - Sarah Skinner says her class is all about "organized chaos."

"There tends to be a lot of movement," said Skinner, a 12th-grade Advanced Placement language arts teacher at Peachtree Ridge High School. "In a small room, that's definitely a challenge.

"But I hope it's a classroom where you see minds at work."

In one class, there appear to be minds at work minutes after the bell rings. Skinner makes an announcement that is met with groans: There will be a quiz on "Frankenstein." Some students try to cram and review the chapter before the bell rings.

"These are the best students in the school," Skinner said with a laugh.

But when Skinner passes out the quizzes, each student appears to work diligently.

After the quiz, the movement begins. The students get up to teach their cohorts vocabulary words that will help them understand their assignments. As one student finishes describing a stereotype, Skinner asks the class about the difference between an archetype and a stereotype.

Using examples from popular television series such as "90210" and "Friends," Skinner explains that stereotypes, unlike archetypes, depend on cultural influences.

She continues to support the student's lesson with examples that are meant to help them understand the information.

"I'm very student oriented," Skinner said. "I teach students, not content. I use content as a way to help kids learn to think critically about the world and their place in the world."

Matthew Winking, Phoenix High School

LAWRENCEVILLE - Matthew Winking spends most of his third-period geometry class bouncing around his classroom, much as a pinball would in its machine.

He no sooner finishes answering one student's question when another student calls for him. Sometimes his help is requested before he has finished an explanation.

But Winking, a mathematics teacher and department chair at Phoenix High School, wouldn't want it any other way. He said he loves teaching at Phoenix, a school that offers flexibility to students who really appreciate the opportunity to finish their high school diplomas.

"I've been here 11 years, and I don't plan to go anywhere else," Winking said.

Phoenix is an open campus, meaning students can come and go in between classes. Students are afforded adult privileges, Winking said, but they also accept adult responsibilities, such as adhering to an attendance policy and signing an adult behavior contract.

Dealing with nontraditional high school students means Winking has to engage his students differently.

Students don't sit in class and read the textbook or work geometry problems on a piece of paper.

Instead, Winking gives lessons such as a puzzle game, where students are given a description of a quadrilateral - a shape with four sides - and must graph the most appropriate one. Students plot points for a rhombus, trapezoid, parallelogram or square, and Winking helps the students check their work using mathematical formulas.

Winking said he keeps a phrase in mind while he's teaching: "Involve me, and I'll understand."

"I have to think differently," Winking said. "I have to think nontraditional education, and I have to hold students accountable."