As prescriptions for improving education increasingly focus on the quality of teaching, stories and studies about the influence of exceptional teachers abound. Recently, one such testimonial so impressed me that it is worth sharing. It occurred as I met with a foundation executive to request a grant for the restoration of the Byrne-Reed House. As usual, my staff had compiled a list of Humanities Texas’s varied programs and activities in the foundation’s city. When the executive glanced over the list, she pointed to the name of a teacher, a recipient of our Outstanding Teaching Award. “That teacher turned my son’s life around,” she declared. Her emphatic statement underscored the power of a truly gifted classroom teacher to challenge, inspire, and motivate students to enjoy learning both in and out of school. A great teacher can transform a student’s performance not merely in a course or two, but in all aspects of the student’s life.
This story highlights why supporting Texas teachers is such an important part of Humanities Texas’s organizational mission. Recognizing excellence in classroom teaching rewards outstanding professionals and provides encouragement and financial incentive to continue their teaching career. The program also highlights the winning teachers’ best practices, inspiring colleagues to emulate these successful skills and ultimately improving the education that Texas students receive.
A grant from the T. L. L. Temple Foundation launched our Outstanding Teaching Awards program twenty years ago. The first six winners received checks of $1,000, with an additional $1,000 awarded to their schools for humanities instructional materials. The number of annual awards has since increased to thirteen, including the Linden Heck Howell Outstanding Teaching of Texas History Award and the James F. Veninga Outstanding Teaching of the Humanities Award, named in honor of the former executive director. In 2008, one of our board members, Michael L. Klein, concluded that the $1,000 prize was not commensurate with the significance of the award or the importance of classroom teachers’ contributions to our society. Through his generous personal donations, we have been able to increase the award to $5,000 for each winning teacher and $500 for their schools.
Presenting an Outstanding Teaching Award is one of the most gratifying assignments for Humanities Texas board members and staff. Members of Congress, state legislators, and school superintendents frequently participate in honoring the winners of the statewide competition. From the moment we enter the school, we sense the admiration and love the recipient commands. An air of excitement among students, fellow teachers, and parents attending the ceremony attests that the winning teacher is truly special. The honoree invariably treats the occasion as a teachable moment, drawing his or her students into the proceedings and sharing the credit with them.
Many of the 170 recipients of the Outstanding Teaching Award since 1990 have continued their association with Humanities Texas. They have promoted our exhibitions and grants program in their communities, advised us on various educational initiatives, and attended our teacher enrichment institutes. Now that the Texas Legislature has expanded our institute program to serve new teachers in low-performing schools, this network of outstanding teachers has played an even more significant role. They have participated in the institutes and workshops as panelists, discussion leaders, and mentors to younger leaders, sharing their content knowledge as well as their pedagogical expertise.
Michael L. Gillette
Melanie Schulze (photo above), a world and U.S. history teacher at Austin High School, received an Outstanding Teaching of the Humanities Award from Humanities Texas on October 1, 2010. State Senator Kirk Watson and Humanities Texas Executive Director Michael L. Gillette presented Schulze with her award.
“I believe the humanities play an important role in preparing students to become active citizens of the twenty-first century,” said Ms. Schulze. “Through the study of history, literature, language, music, and the arts, students discover the common threads connecting all of mankind.”
Ms. Schulze infuses her passion for world travel into her lesson plans, sharing photos, art, music, literature, food, and other artifacts she has collected first hand with her students. These rich humanities experiences encourage her students to expand their cultural horizons and understand history through multiple perspectives.
Her students have made Greek and Roman mosaics using torn pieces of paper, watched clips from foreign language films, made puppets to act out the Indian epic the Ramayana, and smelled spices from the Mollucas to enrich their understanding of world history. In a U.S. history class, Ms. Schulze immersed her students in the cultural and political environment of the 1920s, having them examine photographs and advertisements, compare the political positions of Harding and Coolidge with today’s issues, and learn to dance the Charleston.
On September 28, Humanities Texas presented Sonia Adriana Noyola of Collegiate High School in Corpus Christi with an Outstanding Teaching of the Humanities Award. Ms. Noyola teaches government and economics at Collegiate High School, where she also serves as AVID coordinator and sponsors the Collegiate Civic Minded Students Organization. She serves as president for the Coastal Bend Council of Social Studies.
At Collegiate High, which was founded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to assist first-generation, low-income, and minority students to undertake college coursework prior to high school graduation, Ms. Noyola organizes classroom simulations in which her students play the roles of important historical figures. These activities strengthen students’ understanding of history and encourage them to examine the past from multiple perspectives.
“The study and analysis of the human condition, where it is and where we want it to go as a society, is at the heart of my teachings,” said Ms. Noyola. “A major goal for my course is for students to become self-efficacious observers of society.”
Isabel Araiza, assistant professor of sociology at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, praised Ms. Noyola’s accomplishments as a teacher. “Because of her efforts to have her students participate in political processes, government is not simply a high school credit they must complete; it is a social institution with which her students can confidently engage. They learn that civic engagement is critical to a healthy society and to being a productive citizen.”
On October 14, State Rep. Tom Craddick joined Liz Bohman Barger to present Mark LaCroix with his award.
Mr. LaCroix teaches world geography at Midland Freshman High School, where he also serves as social studies department chair, oversees the community service program, and established the “Flag of Honor” program to pay tribute to veterans and servicemen from Midland County.
Mr. LaCroix’s classroom activities emphasize civic duty and character development.
Patti Mitchell, librarian at Midland Freshman High School, said, “Mr. LaCroix goes far beyond teaching subject matter in his classroom. He teaches his students the value and importance of serving the community. He leads by example in these lessons.”
“I maintain high expectations for my students, but I do so in a manner that develops the character and responsibility one needs to become a productive member of society,” said Mr. LaCroix. “[Teachers] in the humanities are in a unique position of having the ability to help students to not only understand the world around them but to understand how they can utilize their strengths to help create a better tomorrow for all of us.”
Guided by the belief that the visual arts “across our curriculum communicate what it means to be human,” Joanne Frimel designs interdisciplinary lessons that fuse art with literature, social studies, and even math and science. On October 6, 2010, Humanities Texas board member Leslie Blanton presented Ms. Frimel with the James F. Veninga Outstanding Teaching of the Humanities award at a ceremony at the Altharetta Yeargin Art Museum in Houston.
At the time of the award, Ms. Frimel served as art and project specialist at Spring Branch High School of Choice. Currently, she holds the position of director of the art studio at Newspring Center for Business Entrepreneurship.
“I seek to instill in the student an understanding of human existence that addresses tolerance, multiculturalism, and belief systems while nurturing an appreciation of human creativity portrayed and experienced in the works of language, literature, social studies, sociology, and all of the fine arts,” said Ms. Frimel.
At the Spring Branch School of Choice, Ms. Frimel integrated art into every aspect of the core curriculum. In a U.S. history class, students produce acrylic and collage “Jazzy Biographical Portraits” while listening to blues, jazz, and poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. In math, building Greek columns served as a lesson on proportion, and a study of Kandinsky enriched students’ understanding of geometry. World history class included an opportunity for students to use templates, geometry tools, and drawings to create arabesques as part of their study of the Islamic world.
Other OTA winners, listed below, will be featured in upcoming spotlights.