In a random moment that a physicist might appreciate, a Russian Ph.D. named Katya Denisova suddenly found herself revealing the secrets of the universe to students at a troubled Baltimore high school. She offers energetic proof of the power of teaching
Ninety minutes can be a long time to sit in physics class, but Katya Denisova's students don't stay in their seats for long.
They walk clockwise around the room, stopping at different stations to see what everyone else wrote about why humans can only see one side of the moon. They line up in front of motion detectors connected to computers to see how it looks on a graph when they walk at a steady pace, speeding up and slowing down.
Outside Room 350 at Baltimore's Homeland Security Academy, gang-related fights are so common that one student carries a mouthguard in his pocket, just in case he gets caught in the middle of something. The high school, part of the Walbrook complex, has made a name for itself as one of the most violent and lowest-performing in the state. Pass rates on the exams juniors may need to pass to graduate hover in the single digits.
Inside the room, a 32-year-old Russian immigrant with blond hair, a ponytail and a doctorate in physics education is opening students' eyes to a universe beyond West Baltimore. She loves surprising them with simple facts they should have learned years ago: The moon is a rock and doesn't emit light. The earth takes 24 hours to make one rotation.
"I get 12th-graders who need to get out of high school ASAP, and they know my class is going to be the hardest class they've ever taken," says Denisova, whose students call her "Dr. D."
In a school system with only 14 certified physics teachers, Denisova is a candidate for the nation's most prestigious teaching certification. She is qualified to teach anywhere. And yet she teaches here.
When Andres Alonso became chief executive officer of the struggling city school system this summer, he said he wanted to identify pockets of excellence, with an eye toward replicating them. Every school, he says, has at least one great teacher.
Denisova is one of the bright spots, her colleagues at Homeland Security say.
"When a teacher loves what they do, you can't hide it," says Arnetta Rudisill, who recently became the school's fourth principal in three years. "It spills over to the kids. If you're in love with it, they'll fall in love with it, too."
Like the troubled Homeland Security Academy, physics can be hard to love. The combination of the two seems almost impossible to contemplate. Yet here is Denisova offering energetic proof of the potential power of teaching to inspire even in the most unlikely settings. It's an encouraging lesson in a system fraught with failure.
Physics is not a priority for the school system's central office administrators. They are focused on biology, the subject of the state science exam used to assess student and school performance.
Students don't often enter Denisova's class caring much, either. Many are seniors who just need another credit to graduate.
But her enthusiasm is infectious. She wears T-shirts imprinted with formulas like e=mc2. Next month, she'll participate in a "zero gravity" flight simulating outer space, a mission for which her students are expected to help her prepare.
Denisova recently completed the requirements for the highest teaching credential, National Board Certification. Statewide, 822 teachers have the certification, but only 24 are in Baltimore.
Over the summer, Denisova led physics training for science teachers around the state through a program at Frostburg State University. She's working on her administrative credential.
She is a vocal proponent of Physics First, which calls for resequencing high school courses so that students can study basic physics before chemistry and biology.
Many now make it through high school with no physics. City ninth-graders take an overview science class, though they don't always have access to labs. They take chemistry as sophomores and biology as juniors, with the idea that by then, they're mature enough to pass the state's end-of-course biology exam.
Physics is optional, typically for seniors. The city has 35 physics teachers, compared with 89 in chemistry and 109 in biology. Some physics teachers are assigned to other subjects.
At Homeland Security, physics faces other distractions.
A few weeks into the new school year, moments after the bell rings, a woman's voice is on the loudspeaker: "At this time, please shut and lock your doors."
A boy dashes into Room 350 just as Denisova is closing the door. Counting him, there are 14 kids present in a class with 24 enrolled. A few minutes later, there are 16, plus an aide who's supposed to help a special-education student but mostly just sits there.
Already, some of the students have been won over. Denisova tries to hook them by making lessons relevant. To start a unit on global warming and fossil fuels, she'll have students study their family BGE bills.