Zeal for learning is contagious

Pupils pick up on sense of fun award-winning teacher Susan Healy brings to her classroom

May 07, 2006|By CASSANDRA A. FORTIN | CASSANDRA A. FORTIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Susan Healy taught her fourth-graders about the Chesapeake Bay, she took them on an overnight excursion to Tangier Island.

While studying birds, she once led pupils and their parents on a nighttime search for owls.

Then there was the time she taught a lesson about cows and had a friend bring one in for the children to milk.

And whenever she teaches Maryland history, Healy dresses up as a historical figure such as George Calvert.

"I don't like to be bored, so I try to think of things that will also get me excited about learning," said Healy, who teaches at North Bend Elementary School in Pylesville.

That's the guiding principle for Healy -- igniting pupils' curiosity and turning them into lifelong learners. And it helps explain why the 35-year-old teacher from North Bend Elementary School in Pylesville recently was named 2006 Harford County Teacher of the Year.

"It takes more to get through to children these days," said Healy. "My competition isn't other teachers, it's Xbox and PlayStation."

Healy says her teaching style is rooted in the love of learning that blossomed when she was a fourth-grader in Pylesville.

"Miss DeRan taught us using sign language, hands-on projects and by reading to us in the way only she could," said Healy, who attended Highland Elementary, which is no longer in existence. "She made me love school."

Healy recorded her experiences in a small pink diary from which she reads excerpts to her students today.

Janice Cavanaugh, one of the two parents who nominated Healy for the honor, said her son, Alex D'Agostino, came home from his first day in fourth grade excited about school after Healy shared her experiences from when she was a fourth-grader.

"Her enthusiasm made him enthusiastic," the Jarrettsville resident said. "She opened up about her life that first day and continues to do that throughout the year. She uses her personal experiences to really get to know her students."

Coming from a Pylesville family that has been in farming for eight generations, Healy looks for opportunities to teach about agriculture in the classroom.

"Farms in Harford County are getting to the point where they are no more, because of development," said Healy, a member of the County Farm Bureau. "But I want my students to know what farm life is like and to know it's hard work but it's fun."

One of Healy's favorite tools for teaching about farming is Laura Ingalls Wilder's book Farmer Boy. Each year the class reads the book, and she brings in props from her father's barn.

This year, she added cows to the curriculum, teaching about types of dairy cows and milk production. Healy topped it off by having a friend bring in a cow so the children could milk it.

"It was so cool," said Brenden Hutton, 9, from White Hall. "When we finished, we got to go and teach first-graders about cows."

Other classroom projects involve lessons centered around Little House on the Prairie, also by Wilder, in which Healy takes her class back to life in the pioneer days.

Connor Bortmes said the exercise made him look at a book about girls a lot differently.

"At the beginning of the book, she made us pancakes, like `Ma' did in the book," said the Jarrettsville 9-year-old. "Then she reads parts to us, and I like listening to how she reads."

But sometimes Healy turns the tables. Each year, her pupils create and perform a play, and this year it was based in the 19th century. Healy made "Rye 'n' Injun" bread -- a Colonial dish made from rye flour and Indian corn meal -- so her students could sample authentic prairie food.

Connor, who played the lead in the play, said it was hard making everything authentic.

"We even had a covered wagon and horses in the play," said Connor. "I felt like I was really way back in the pioneer days."

When Healy was a student, reading in front of the class led to something of an epiphany. As a 10th-grader at North Harford High, she was giving a book report when it hit her that she wanted to become a teacher.

"I had my classmates enthralled, and it was the most natural thing in the world for me to be in front of the classroom," Healy said.

Healy earned a bachelor's degree from Salisbury University in 1994 and returned to her home community to teach at North Bend. She earned a master's degree from Towson University last year.

She tries to get all her pupils involved in classroom activities, an effort that Gerri Pendill, acting principal at North Bend, says makes a difference.

"Susan Healy has a way of teaching so she reaches children of all abilities," said Pendill, who has worked with Healy for more than nine years. "She finds ways to increase a child's self-esteem and at the same time provide meaningful learning opportunities."

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