Countywide praise for their unusual ways

Two women from public and private schools earn Teacher of the Year honors for their energy, devotion and unconventional methods

April 29, 2007|By Dan Lamothe | Dan Lamothe,Sun Reporter

Standing before 13 high school freshmen, Alicia Appel posed a question.

"Do you want to go over our test, or do you want to play one of Mrs. Appel's crazy games?" she asked, her voice rising, her eyes widening.

You can guess which one the teens chose.

Over the next half-hour in the Southern High School classroom, the students paired, with one describing shapes, squiggles and words that Appel drew on an electronic board, and the other, facing the opposite direction, trying to re-create them.

"I'm hearing some people giving great directions here!" Appel said Friday, moving across the floor. "I'm hearing words like horizontal, and that's a good thing when you're describing a scene!"

This kind of energy and creativity is a prime reason that after only 2 1/2 years in the school system, Appel was named the Anne Arundel County public school Teacher of the Year on Thursday. Kathleen Fowler of the Summit School in Edgewater was honored as the county's top private school teacher.

Appel "is big on getting the kids up and moving around, and stimulating the right sides of their brains," said Principal Jason Dykstra, who acknowledges that at first he was surprised by some of the English teacher's style.

"You look at it and say, `Wow, she's doing something different,'" he said.

She is a native of Jamestown, N.Y., and has taught in Mississippi, Illinois and Delaware, and has lived in Oklahoma, Ohio and Japan as her husband, David, an Air Force officer, was reassigned.

Appel, a Bowie resident and mother of two college students and a youth pastor, said her tactics, whether it's making students get out of their seats or assigning off-beat creative writing assignments, are unusual. But they help keep her students interested in Romeo and Juliet and The Odyssey.

"Kids have to be doing; they can't just sit," Appel said. "You have to change the pace and go at things in a million different ways to keep kids' attention. It probably looks like I'm teaching with my hair on fire half the time."

Phil Kellar, 15, of Galesville said that before taking Appel's class, he had no interest in reading books and barely paid attention in some of his classes.

"Every time I've ever had a language arts class, I'd sit in the back and go to bed," he said. "She won't let me do that. You can't be in her class if you don't have goals."

Phil also credits Appel with pushing him to read in and out of class this year about such varied topics as sailing and the Holocaust, something he never cared to do before.

"When the year first started, I didn't want to read anything," he said. "But she kept after me and kept after me, and finally I said, `All right, Mrs. Appel, you win. I'll read the book."

Alyssa Sylvester, a 14-year-old from Shady Side, said English has always been a difficult subject for her, but Appel has helped improve her confidence in writing this year by getting her to do things like the "vomit method," where writers put everything they can think of down on paper quickly, then go back to it later.

"She works us hard, but she makes me forget about everything around me and helps me concentrate," Alyssa said. "To me, she's like a second mom."

Appel deflects much of the praise, though, crediting the school system with setting up endeavors like Advancement Via Individual Determination, a college preparatory program that connects struggling students with upperclassmen tutors and mentors in the community. She teaches AVID 10th-graders.

"We're doing some amazing things that I haven't seen anywhere else in this school district," said Appel, who also helped resurrect the school's literary magazine. "I'd pay to do this job. I feel like I'm doing what I was created to do here."

Fowler, a 30-year educator, said she considers her award a testament to the work of all the faculty she works with. She's a Melrose, Mass., native who lives in Crofton, and said she was drawn to the Summit School, which has 101 students in first through sixth grade, because of the way it gives bright students with learning disabilities like dyslexia and dysgraphia a chance to succeed.

"I think it's the individual attention we give the kids," she said. "This is probably the most supportive environment a teacher could be in."

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