Setting the right course Teacher: Award-winning Loch Raven High School teacher inspires her students to 'learn by doing,' and the result is a highly successful day care program.

October 02, 1997|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Mary Shaver doesn't just see Susan Falcone as her high school teacher. She considers Falcone to be the inspiration for a career.

"Ms. Falcone has gotten me excited about working with children," said Mary, 16, a Loch Raven High School senior who wants to become a special education teacher. "She pushes us hard, but she gets you to want to do the work."

That's the kind of reaction sought by Falcone, a Loch Raven family studies teacher who this week was one of four Maryland teachers to win a 1997-1998 Milken Family Foundation Educator Award -- and a $25,000 no-strings-attached prize.

"Usually teachers just receive plaques, and the schools get the money," Falcone, 55, said yesterday. "It's exciting and surprising to win an award that's different."

Her classes are different, too. Students run a three-hour day care program, in which they work with a dozen neighborhood 4-year-olds. They work as teachers' assistants in elementary schools. And yesterday, they were finishing brochures of tips for parents on safety, food and other topics.

"I want all of my students to learn by doing, not just through some reading and lectures," said Falcone, a teacher for 30 years. "Even if they don't end up wanting to specialize in early childhood education, they're going to come away from here with better skills on how to be parents."

On her classroom wall is a list of more than five dozen terms for students to learn, including cognition, cooing and egocentrism. Students also are expected to apply the terms to their work with preschoolers in the school's child development laboratory.

Loch Raven's program for 4-year-olds -- which Falcone helped develop for all county high schools -- is so popular that there's a waiting list of at least three years.

"If your child is 1 year old, and you haven't signed him or her up for the program, you're probably too late," said Loch Raven Principal Keith Harmeyer. "It's a testament to how well-regarded the program is here in the community."

A half-dozen of Falcone's students are interns at two area elementary schools, spending the last hour of the school day teaching children and assisting teachers.

"These schools tell us that the students coming out of Susan's program are as prepared as if they had already completed their university education," said Karen Roe, supervisor of the county's family studies program.

Falcone, who grew up in Binghamton, N.Y., has taught at Loch Raven since she moved to the Baltimore area with her husband Thomas, a free-lance musician. She has worked at the high school for all but its first year.

Though she now lives in Cockeysville, both of her daughters -- Christina and Kathryn -- attended Loch Raven. Falcone admits she was tougher on them than her other students: "With your children, you tend to just have higher expectations and want them to do more."

To many students, she is known as "Flash Falcone" because she always has a camera nearby. Snapshots of students line the top of her blackboards and fill a bulletin board.

"I put their pictures up, so they'll believe they own the classroom," she said. "The classroom isn't just mine. It's used by all of us, and I want them to feel comfortable here."

In recent years, Falcone has become a leader in service learning, overseeing Loch Raven students' efforts to meet the state requirement for community service. She is regularly asked to speak at national conferences on the topic.

Last year after a unit on homelessness, her students decided they wanted to help. So they worked with BJ's Wholesale Club to create 1,000 hygiene kits for local shelters. This year, her students doubled their goal.

"You need to show students that they can be a solution," Falcone said. "One of the problems is that teen-agers don't think they have a role to play, and service learning shows them that they do have a role."

On another classroom bulletin board is Falcone's "teaching hall of fame" to recognize students for their work with the day care children. There's also a "treasure chest" on her desk filled with pencils, candy and other rewards for "good thinking."

"She's always encouraging us to be better thinkers," said sophomore Stephanie Via, 15. Stephanie is among a handful of students who attended Falcone's early childhood center and is back as a high school student. Falcone also taught Stephanie's mother.

"I'm so lucky to have families keep coming back to me," Falcone said. "It makes you start to realize your age, but I love this job so much I don't ever want to give it up."

Pub Date: 10/02/97

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