Honor for teacher comes in success of her students

Helping: Geri Hastings of Catonsville High, named one of the nation's two best social studies instructors, thrives in preparing children for standardized tests.

December 09, 2003|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

In the fall of last year, Geri Hastings got a letter from a new student, saying she didn't think she could handle the teacher's advanced placement U.S. history class, the first she had ever taken with the "smartest" kids.

Nine months later, having completed the class and the AP exam, the student wrote again to Hastings, saying, "You're the greatest teacher ever and it's not your fault if I failed."

Hastings, a veteran faculty member at Catonsville High School, was recently named one of the two best social studies teachers in the nation by the National Council for the Social Studies. She appreciates the honor, she says, but it pales in comparison to the satisfaction she gets from helping students such as Bethany McMillion, author of the two letters.

On the AP exam, McMillion got a 4 on a 5-point scale. Scores of 3 and higher are passing and earn students college credit. Hastings "talked about me to everybody, the struggling student who came out on top," McMillion said. As a senior now, she is taking AP European history, AP psychology and AP English.

Hastings has been instrumental at Catonsville High in increasing students' access to AP classes, thus increasing their odds of admission to top-notch colleges and universities, Principal Robert Tomback said.

And increased access hasn't hurt scores on the AP U.S. history exam, administered by the College Board. Nationally, the pass rate is about 50 percent. Year after year, the rate among Hastings' students exceeds 90 percent.

So, how does she do it?

For starters, Hastings, 55 and in her 30th year of teaching in Baltimore County Public Schools, spends a lot of time with her students - twice as much as she has to, in fact.

At Catonsville High, classes are longer than at most other high schools but last only one semester. Hastings keeps her students for one of those long periods, 83 minutes, all year.

She spends the first month and a half of school preparing students for the PSAT, the last month for the SAT, and in between for the AP U.S. history exam, which covers 1492 through the Reagan presidency. She arranges for another teacher and counselors to do a college application workshop, including mock interviewing and resume writing, during the nine days she misses each spring to score AP exams.

Hastings keeps her students to such a rigid schedule that, after February's blizzard kept school closed for a week, she held make-up classes at 7 a.m., enticing her students to come with doughnuts and other breakfast treats. She also serves students breakfast, including homemade pancakes, the morning of the AP exam.

Unlike many teachers, Hastings thrives on preparing her students for standardized tests. "Some people wouldn't like it, but I love it," she said. "You can see the end of what you're doing."

AP exams, however, are different from many standardized tests in that they measure students' knowledge of specific content, not just basic skills. And don't get the idea that Hastings uses a "drill and kill" approach to teaching. Far from it.

"I don't lecture and I never have," said the Glenelg mother of three. "There's a teacher who's retired who's like the dean of AP history teachers. ... He's always said, `The more I say in class, the less my students learn.' Students learn more when they're active. I really try to do more of experimental learning, putting the burden on them and trying to get them to do a lot of activities."

One recent Monday, her students debated whether the Colonies should declare their independence and separate from England. Each student played the role of a historical character, from George Grenville to Patrick Henry.

As chair of the social studies department, Hastings teaches two sections of AP U.S. history a year, while most teachers have three classes at a time. She also doesn't have her own classroom.

At 12:45 p.m., with the first debate over and the second set to begin, Hastings scurried across the hall from Room 308 to Room 307. She scrambled to push the desks into two clusters facing each other.

"Pro-British over here; pro-Colonist over here," she said, pointing, as students came in. Handing out name tags, she called out over the noise: "Adam Smith! Adam Smith!"

Hastings, as King George III, sat in front.

Before the debate started, the 36 students had three minutes to do a vocabulary drill, filling in the blanks to 10 sentences about the Revolutionary War with words that could appear on the SAT. As in: Sons of Liberty showed their displeasure by hanging stamp agents in effigy.

Then, turning back to May 1776, after the battles of Lexington and Concord but before the writing of the Declaration of Independence, King George began: "I bring you here today because there are some rumors of irreconcilable differences, and I'd like to prove those rumors false. ... I want you to remember your heritage."

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