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Honoring High School Teachers Who Have 'Lit a Spark'

Teachers will be recognized at Northwestern honors ceremony and commencement

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Five high school teachers who have had transformative effects on the lives of graduating Northwestern University seniors they once taught will each receive a special award during an honors ceremony (June 16) and commencement (June 17) at Northwestern.

The educators are the recipients of the sixth 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 each of their schools.

The awards are co-sponsored by the University’s Associated Student Government and the Office of the PresidentEugene Lowe, assistant to Northwestern President Morton Schapiro and senior lecturer in religious studies, chaired the 2016 selection committee. The committee reviews student nominations and teacher portfolios to select finalists, who are interviewed with the assistance of NUIT Academic and Research Technologies.

“It’s inspiring to hear our graduating seniors remember high school teachers who helped shape them into the Northwestern students they are today,” President Schapiro said. “Honoring these high school teachers is one of my favorite parts of commencement.”

The selection committee considered essays from seniors about their former high school teachers as well as portfolios submitted by the nominated teachers that included an explanation of their teaching philosophy and letters of recommendation. (The nomination period for the Class of 2017 will open this summer, following commencement.)

The 2016 recipients teach in high schools across the country, including public schools in Cicero, Illinois; Lawndale, California; Sudbury, Massachusetts; Westerville, Ohio, and a private school in Cincinnati, Ohio.

“This wonderful award encourages students to nominate educators who lit a spark within them,” Lowe said. “The participation of these extraordinary educators in the commencement ceremony has quickly become a highly valued tradition."

Northwestern University Distinguished Secondary Teacher Award recipients:


Daniel Conti

Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences senior Ryan Kenney said English teacher Daniel Conti tirelessly guides and supports his students until they have the confidence and capability to meet his expectations.

“By prioritizing learning over achievement and by imparting his passion for learning and teaching at every opportunity, Mr. Conti demonstrates his exceptional ability to foster a love of learning among all of his students,” Kenney said.

Conti, who has taught English at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in Sudbury, Massachusetts, since 1994, said early on in his teaching career he learned that teaching wasn’t about him, it was about the students -- after which he said many more lessons have followed.

“First: teaching is an act of faith,” Conti said. “We spend an incalculable amount of time and energy on our students, and, yet, we may never see the fruits of our labors. We trust that our students will be better students, better citizens, better people for having been in our classrooms.”

Conti is “a true servant leader to his students,” Kenney said.

“I had many friends in Mr. Conti’s classes who weren’t exceptionally drawn to English as a subject, but who nonetheless matured as students and gained remarkable confidence in themselves and their abilities by simply being a student in Mr. Conti’s class,” he said.

Eleanor Burke, housemaster at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, has supervised Conti’s teaching for seven years and said he is a teacher who literally opens students’ worldview.

“Every time I watch Dan’s class, I see small miracles,” Burke said. “We all leave the room feeling something is right with the world.”


Linda Ford

Chemistry teacher Linda Ford said the greatest compliment to her teaching is the overheard remark as the bell rings, “What? Class is over already!”

“It tells me that I have orchestrated a communal learning experience that caused time to fly by,” said Ford who teaches chemistry and AP chemistry, as well as an elective environmental science class for juniors and seniors, at The Seven Hills School in Cincinnati.

Ford’s passion for teaching and joy for learning is contagious and evident to her students, said McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science senior Katherine Cirulli, citing how Ford has transformed the way she thinks about and solves problems, both inside and outside of the classroom.

“Her curriculum and teaching style well prepared me for the exams and problem sets I have completed throughout my time at Northwestern,” Cirulli said. “These critical thinking skills have been the backbone of the way I learn and study at Northwestern.”

Ford would demonstrate a new chemistry experiment using music and costumes to enhance teaching about chemical concepts they were learning in class, which was especially helpful to Cirulli, who calls herself a “visual learner.”

Ford said that’s by design.

“I use music, special lighting, costumes, props and poetry to connect all of their senses to chemistry,” she said. 

But props aside, her courses are known to be so challenging that students adjust their course loads around them, said Susan S. Marrs, assistant head of school at Seven Hills.  

“Linda gives only her best every single day, and that’s what she expects -- and gets -- from her students as well,” Marrs said. “Linda is a teacher kids remember and appreciate all their lives.”


Ben Hartnell

Weinberg senior Emma Feder fondly recalls Ben Hartnell, her history teacher at Westerville North High School running through the hallway screaming, “Freedom!” at the top of his lungs while wielding a fake sword and dressed in William Wallace attire a la “Braveheart.”

“Dr. Hartnell’s uniforms are a staple of his classroom experience,” Feder said. “He frequently teaches in full costume to help bring history to life for his students.”

Hartnell, who has been teaching for 15 years, said students need to “buy in” to what you’re essentially “selling” them.

“Everything I do, create and wear, I do for my students in my never-ending pursuit of making history feel real,” he said. “I literally try to bring history to life on a daily basis!”

Hartnell also is known for his blue book exams.

“Although daunting at first, Dr. Hartnell’s blue book whipped my writing and study skills into shape at a time in my life when I was determining what type of student I wished to become,” Feder said.

“His course shaped me not only as a student but also as a person, and I do not believe that I would have developed the same skills and self-motivation had I not spent that time in his classroom,” she said.

Students should always be the focus of teaching, Hartnell stressed. His hands-on approach to teaching -- using costumes, reenactments or protests -- benefits all types of students regardless of their unique abilities, he said.  

“This produces students that are excited about education and creates a wonderful atmosphere not only in Room #135, but around the high school and community,” Hartnell said.


Barbara Kane

McCormick senior Rene Romo said his high school calculus teacher Barbara Kane managed to get an entire class excited about a subject and to strive for the same goal. 

Kane’s ability to motivate her students led to a high of more than 75 percent of AP Calculus students at Morton East High School in Cicero, Illinois, passing the AP exam in 2013, which is 15 percent higher than the national average. That is especially noteworthy considering the school regularly falls below state standards in math.

Romo said what differentiates Kane from other teachers is the amount of work she’s willing to put in to ensure her students have all the resources they need. She provides tutoring and homework help every day before and after school and even comes in on Saturday in order to have students complete AP practice exams.

“Many students come into the classroom disinterested or thinking they have no chance of passing the exam, and before long they are doing everything they can to pass it,” Romo said. “And they enjoy doing it.”

A math teacher at Morton East since 1998, Kane said along the way she has developed techniques to demonstrate multiple ways to solve a problem and to identify the better or easier approaches. She’s also come to realize that the goal of teaching is not entirely about math.

“It’s truly about empowering the person,” Kane said. “Teaching is about getting each individual student to develop their own goals in the classroom that translate into goals in life, while getting the entire class to work together as a unit to achieve them.”


Jose Romo

For most of her life, Weinberg senior Thelma Godslaw grew up within a three-block radius of Lawndale, Hawthorne and Inglewood, California. She was content with the parameters of her immediate neighborhood -- that is until she set foot in Jose Romo’s Spanish class.

“I had never seen the beach, until I ran there with my two feet on our training routes,” recalls Godslaw, referring to her experience with “Students Run L.A.,” an organization that gives at-risk students the opportunity to prepare for running a marathon, which was coached by Romo.

Romo, who teaches Spanish and AP Spanish literature at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, went above and beyond to expose his students to the Latin culture through books, dance, music, art, plays and much more.

In addition to coaching “Students Run L.A., he organized the annual Cinco de Mayo celebration and advised the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlan chapter at Leuzinger, showing Godslaw and other students how to stand up to injustice.

Inside Romo’s classroom, Godslaw not only learned to speak, read and write Spanish, she also fell in love with the culture of her Latina and Latino peers.

“This was no small feat,” Godslaw said. “My high school was not well funded, so the measures he took to expose us were personally funded, and his hours extended well into the weekend and weekday nights.”

Romo strongly believes the true test of his teaching is not when students do well on an assessment, but when they go out into the real world and put into practice what is most appropriate.

“Students sharing their life experiences, showing compassion for others, standing up for what they believe, these are the joys of teaching,” Romo said. “An invitation from a former student who is graduating from a university, even if it’s on the East Coast, brings me more joy than all my students passing a state mandated exam.”