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Honoring High School Educators Who Make a Difference

Four teachers to be honored by Northwestern and their former students

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May 13, 2014 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Four high school teachers who had “transformative effects” on the lives of graduating Northwestern seniors they once taught will join their former students and receive special awards during Honors Ceremony (June 19) and Commencement (June 20) at Northwestern University.

The educators  -- selected from a pool of approximately 80 nominations -- are the recipients of the fourth annual Northwestern University Distinguished Secondary Teacher Awards. They honor high school teachers who have touched the lives of Northwestern students and carry an award of $2,500 for each teacher and $2,500 for each of their schools.

The awards are co-sponsored by the Associated Student Government and the Office of the President. Eugene Lowe, assistant to Northwestern President Morton Schapiro and senior lecturer in religious studies, co-chaired the 2014 selection committee with Ani Ajith, president of the Associated Student Government.

Award selection committee members distributed apples at the library and Norris Student Center to remind the Northwestern community that the awards provide graduating students with the opportunity to thank secondary teachers with more than an apple.

Last fall’s call for nominations by President Schapiro and the efforts of the selection committee resulted in essays by nearly 80 seniors who recommended their former high school teachers. In selecting the winners, the committee considered those essays as well as portfolios submitted by the nominated teachers that included an explanation of their teaching philosophy and letters of recommendation.

The 2014 winners teach in high schools across the country, including public schools in Chicago and Highland Park, Illinois, Omaha, Nebraska, and Irvine, California.

Northwestern University Secondary School Teaching Award winners:

Howard Hill

At Illinois’ Highland Park High School, Howard Hill is sometimes called a “salesman of science.” Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences senior Kathryn Halpern, who nominated her former environmental science teacher for the award, says that Hill not only has ignited an interest in environmental science in hundreds of high school students but also equipped them to live more ecologically friendly and sustainable lives.

A teacher at Highland Park for 14 years, Hill won a 2012 Presidential Award for Innovation in Environmental Innovation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and The White House Council for Environmental Quality. From the very first day of class, his students find themselves doing field research out-of-doors in their efforts to conduct real-world environmental research. 

To explore the ways in which their school can reduce its carbon footprint, Hill’s students designed and built a biodiesel laboratory that converts used vegetable oil from the school’s cafeteria into biodiesel fuel that powers a generator. In turn, the generator powers the school’s athletic concession stands. While teaching his students about alternative energy, Hill encouraged them to explore the feasibility of a wind turbine at the school. Today a wind turbine provides additional green power.

Hill earned his bachelor’s of science degree from the University of Guelph and a master’s from Northeastern Illinois University. His goal is to make his students realize that they can make positive and innovative contributions to issues of sustainability and environmental quality. According to his former student, he is successfully doing just that.

Catherine Irving

As a senior at Chicago’s Northside College Prepatory High School, Bridget Illing -- now a senior at the School of Communication -- took an elective with world studies and European history teacher Catherine Irving. 

To better understand the nation’s increasing rates of obesity and decreasing health levels, Irving took Illing and nine other students to her hometown of Huntington, West Virginia, which an annual Gallup index of well-being ranks as the nation’s “fattest city.” Meeting with people from different disciplines, they learned how economic forces influence local culture.

To study the history of Haiti, her students read “Breath, Eyes, Memory, ” a 1994 novel about a young girl who moves from an impoverished village in Haiti to New York. They later Skyped with the book’s author, Edwidge Danticat, and talked about the ways that history influences current events.

“Ms. Irving has a teaching style that is so enthusiastic and creative, there is no way to find anything about history uninteresting,” says Illing. “Each new lesson is like learning a great piece of gossip about who did what to whom.”

Irving, who earned a bachelor’s degree in history at Miami University of Ohio and a master’s degree in teaching arts from Marshall University in West Virginia, says her goal is to engage all students. “As social science teachers, we are able to use content to encourage future decision-making. I take this privilege very seriously,” says the 18-year veteran of teaching.

David Knight

David Knight’s philosophy of teaching has evolved over the course of 24 years at University High School in Irvine, California. According to Weinberg College of Arts and Science nominator Jane Wang, her biology teacher’s strong points include the ability to “bring back the childlike wonder and fascination” of learning.

In his application, Knight describes the degree to which he connects with his students as they experience not only joy and success and undergo tragedy and difficult circumstances. “Through my students’ eyes, I have seen the grief of divorce, the joy of being accepted to college” and just about everything in between. He says he not only has the “responsibility of teaching science to his students, but the obligation to model integrity and fairness, responsibility and absolutes.”

Knight is most gratified when former students tell him that his were the hardest but also most rewarding high school classes they took. “For good or bad, I can influence these minds with both my words and my actions,” he wrote in his award application. “Not only am I teacher of science, I (also) am a molder of character.”

Knight earned his bachelor’s degree in science education from Oregon State University and his master’s degree in environmental studies from California State University-Fullerton. A teacher at University High School since 1990, he has taken many interested students on field trips to Central and South America to study tropical ecosystems. Northwestern’s Wang was among them.

Mattie Olsen

Weinberg senior Samuel Tvrdik says that there were numerous outstanding teachers at Creighton Preparatory School In Omaha, Nebraska. But none did as much to restore his self-confidence at a difficult time in his life as his theology teacher Mattie Olsen, did, he says. 

“Olsen’s intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm were palpable in every class,” Tvrdik says. “Her world religions class broke free from the rhetoric that I was used to, allowing me to glimpse the world from the varying perspectives of persons of other faiths.” He warmly recalls classes spent cooking meals associated with different religious holidays, writing reports on Al Jazeera articles and a video project on the various interpretations of God.

As the recipient of a Fulbright-Hays Seminars Abroad award from the U.S. Department of Education, Olsen went to Egypt for five weeks to develop a curriculum related to the study of Islam. 

What set her apart from Tvrdik’s other teachers was her attention to his emotional well-being. “She recognized that I was having difficulty and actually worked to improve my life,” Tvrdik says. He indicates that his own Northwestern success is in part the result of his caring teacher. 

“I am grateful for being able to compassionately walk beside students who embrace their faith as well as those who struggle with belief,” says Olsen, who earned a bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard University before earning master’s degrees in Christian spirituality and in secondary education from Creighton University. 

“Mattie is an educator who embodies the ideas of Jesuit education,” says Sean Joyce Whipp, theology department chair at Creighton Prep. “She demonstrates deliberate care for each of her students by the particular way that she teaches and interacts with them.”