Disney award goes to a teacher who never stops learning

July 19, 1991|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Evening Sun Staff

Dig this cool rap from Cyrilla Hergenhan:

The name of a person, place or thing

is something we call a noun.

The common ones are lower case

like . . . bus, bike and town.

But the proper ones get a capital

when you go to write them down

Parts of speech

p-p-p- parts of speech

Hergenhan's no rapper herself, but a fifth-grade teacher whose teaching methods aren't by the book. She recently has won national recognition -- and a free trip to California, appropriately, to zany Disneyland -- for the way she delivers her lessons.

A Catonsville Elementary School teacher who dons a cardboard calculator suit to teach math, Hergenhan is a winner of the Disney Channel's American Teacher Awards. The program honors educators who approach teaching with a creative point of view, style or method.

Her methods include costume changes. "Sometimes, the kids are surprised when I do that," said Hergenhan, 40. "You're supposed to be cerebral [when you teach] fifth grade, but I like to be hands-on. I like to do things that are humorous and catch people off guard from time to time."

She'll receive a trophy and $2,500, and the school will receive $2,500, at the awards ceremony, which will be telecast live on the pay-cable channel Nov. 24. She's the only one from Maryland and one of 36 teachers nationwide to win the award, now in its second year.

More than 750 teachers across the nation entered the competition by submitting essays about their teaching philosophies. They turned in recommendations written by their school principals and other educators.

The Disney award committee, composed of members of groups including the National Association of Elementary School Principals, theNational Art Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, picked as winners three teachers in 12 categories. The categories included early childhood education, mathematics, foreign language and athletic coaching. Hergenhan won in the mathematics category.

When she taught a class about Roman numerals, she wore a toga. To teach about Venn diagrams, she brought hula hoops to class. For a class on Ireland, she persuaded her students to dress as leprechauns and perform a play for first-graders.

She wrote a play about the Montgomery bus boycott to teach the civil rights movement in social studies. She wore a magician's top hat and suit to teach math.

"She's not zany, off-the-wall, as if you'd think she was a crazy person," said Ruth Berkowitz, a former student who's now in 11th grade at Pikesville High School. "She's enthusiastic. She's very creative and uses a lot of visuals."

Hergenhan's success in teaching is in her ability to have a good time as a teacher, she said.

"If you're having fun, they're having fun," said Hergenhan, who lives in Arbutus. "People are naturally curious. But if you make it hard for them to learn, you'll shut their curiosity down and they won't want to learn.

"The real problems with kids in school is that they're not motivated. It's hard to motivate kids when they're doing pencil-and-paper mathematics."

Her principal agrees.

"Cyrilla is a dedicated, caring master teacher," Principal Mary Day wrote in her recommendation. "Through her creative and innovative approach for teaching math, the boys and girls in her class have come to love the material and feel that they can be successful."

The math teacher's mentor, L. Carey Bolster, coordinator of mathematics at the Baltimore County Public School System, praises her approach to the subject: "She does fun things; whatever she does, she does extremely well."

Bolster says the Disney Channel taped a profile of Hergenhan and her students as they took a Chesapeake Bay boat trip to learn about the environment. The tape will be shown as part of the awards ceremony.

Hergenhan says her goal is to make her fifth-grade students lifetime learners, people who will always ask and probe. She herself is such a person. The third-degree

black belt karate master and Sunday school teacher keeps abreast of innovative teaching methods by continually reading and researching.

And she has been named to head a team with a $1 million federal grant to investigate ways to include the study of statistics in elementary school education. As part of the study, college professors, math experts and math teachers will come to Baltimore from all parts of the United States to devise easy and fun ways to learn statistics.

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