A teacher born to teach teenagers

Southern's Alicia Appel, a finalist for state award, connects with students

October 05, 2007|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,Sun reporter

The bespectacled boy puts his head down on the desk for the second time, even though his English teacher is delivering a spirited spiel on tone in writing that has engaged other students.

Teacher Alicia Appel sees him but doesn't let on. Instead, she quickly shifts gears by choosing that boy and three other classmates for an impromptu act to demonstrate how tone can change meaning in writing and speaking.

Each of the giggly actors shares two lines - "I'm in ninth grade" and "Are you talking to me?" - and are instructed to utter the phrases using different tones: dejected, confrontational, arrogant.

The boy is awake now. He delivers his line, gets a laugh out of the class and doesn't nod off through the remainder of the period.

She's got him.

Those who have watched Southern High School's Appel say her gift of winning students over, drawing them into her lesson without barking an order or embarrassing them, makes her an extraordinary educator and a strong contender for Maryland Teacher of the Year. This year's Anne Arundel County winner, she is among seven finalists vying for the distinction tonight.

"She's incredibly perceptive and knows exactly how to get buy-in from students, how to get them engaged," says Jason Dykstra, who, when he was Southern's principal, hired her sight unseen.

When the chipper New York native, who regularly punctuates her conversation with "Omigosh!" "Oh my goodness!" and "Wow!," called about a job 2 1/2 years ago, Dykstra says, her passion was palpable.

"I felt like she was actually in the room," he says. "You could feel her energy, her enthusiasm, her devotion to students. I called her references, and they were all superb."

Dykstra, now principal at Severna Park High, and Appel were taking a chance. It was Appel's first application for a high school job. She had experience in elementary and middle schools in Illinois, Delaware and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

While in Mississippi, she earned her National Board Certification, which placed her in the top 2 percent of teachers nationwide. But when her husband's Air Force job required the family to move to Maryland, high school posts were the only ones available in Anne Arundel County. She prayed that it would work out.

Now, she says, she feels born to teach teenagers, whom she has in English, creative writing and AVID (advancement via individual determination) classes, special courses that offer tutoring and mentoring to help academically average students succeed in Advanced Placement and honors courses.

Melissa Thompson, 17, a senior who took Appel's creative writing class last year, has volunteered to be her favorite teacher's aide this year.

"She just makes everything fun," Thompson says. "She's very animated, speaks with her hands and we're always like, `OK, Ms. Appel, calm down.' You learn a lot with her, and she's tough, but she's really nice, too."

Appel joined the school's staff in February 2005. By April, the teacher, who is often the first in the building at 6 a.m., was elected Teacher of the Month.

She quickly rose to ninth-grade English team leader, helping her peers invigorate English teaching and learning. She also revived a literary magazine and has been an influential force behind pairing AVID students with mentors in the faith community.

About each of those accomplishments, Appel is quick to say that she partnered with other teachers and counselors, but her colleagues say she is the driving force and the key to the programs' success.

In a letter nominating Appel for County Teacher of the Year, Marilyn Harmon, a career counselor at Southern High, said Appel's work has helped the school make continued progress in meeting the ever-rising standards of the No Child Left Behind law.

Appel has wanted to be a teacher since she was 12, when she saw her mother graduate first in her college class with a teaching degree.

She went to college with teaching in mind but got married, had her son before finals her junior year and decided to become a stay-at-home mother to give her now-adult children stability during the family's many military-related moves.

She was a full-time mother for 12 years but dabbled in teaching when the family was in Illinois. She fell in love with it, took the necessary courses to get her certification and began teaching in 1998. She hasn't stopped since.

"I bring a mother's heart to the classroom," Appel says. "My father taught me everything I know about kindness, that it is the most powerful tool in life. Kindness is the most powerful tool in my classroom."

That kindness comes out every time she stands outside her classroom, No. 206 in the B corridor, greeting the crush of students who rush by between classes.

"Hey, girl," she offers with a smile. "Courtney! Melissa!"

During the rush, a former student comes by to drop off a college essay for Appel to proofread.

"OK, darling, I'll take a look at it," she says. "I miss having you in my class."

Later, another student gives her a poem for the literary magazine.

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