'Wheels Are Always Turning'

Baltimore County Special-ed Teacher Wins U.s. Award

July 29, 2009|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,arin.gencer@baltsun.com

Sharon K. Brown pointed to a chart with rows of construction-paper people under the title "Favorite summer activities."

"Is this a bar graph?" she asked the four children sitting in front of her.

"Yeah, but it's people," Veronica Zulauf, 8, said.

Indeed, Brown said, the graph had pictures. "So what kind of graph is it?"

"It's a pictograph," Kyle Nuckols, 8, said. "Because it has symbols."

So began a math lesson in Brown's summer-school class at Baltimore County's Oliver Beach Elementary, where she has taught for more than a decade.

Brown, a special-education teacher, has won a 2008 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, an honor bestowed on the nation's top K-12 teachers in those fields. One of nearly 90 educators to win the award, Brown will visit the White House - and receive $10,000 from the National Science Foundation.

"It's certainly a great honor," Brown said. "I hope that it brings positive recognition for my school."

Her skills have had no time to go rusty as she participates in the summer session at Oliver Beach, which serves to reinforce and review skills the children have learned.

Math is one of several subjects Brown teaches her first- through third-graders during the school year. When asked, many of her students will tell you it's their favorite.

"I like to do plus signs and minus signs," Veronica said, adding that she found her cheerful teacher "funny."

As a child growing up in Defiance, Ohio, Brown said, math wasn't her strength. Her parents were "quite tickled" to hear about her award, she added.

Yet her math experience as a child may be what spurred her, as a teacher, to make sure she knows the subject "in and out" so that her students don't struggle as she did, she said.

"Nowadays when we teach math, it's much more about encouraging kids to think for themselves and explore ideas," Brown said, describing what intrigued her about teaching the subject.

Special-education kids in particular are quicker to think outside the box, she said, "because that's where they live."

In her letter to the awards committee, Oliver Beach Principal Mary Ann Rigopoulos described Brown as a "well-rounded educator" and praised her for her love for learning, motivating lessons and "child-centered classroom environment."

"She's always looking for ways to make things even better. ... The wheels are always turning in her brain," Rigopoulos said in an interview, adding that she considers Brown a "teacher leader."

As part of the selection process, Brown had to write an essay and submit a video of her teaching a lesson to her class.

Brown, who is certified in special and elementary education, taught for three years in Martinsburg, W.Va. She and her husband then went to work for a church camp as part of the year-round adventure education staff.

Her days were filled with such activities as rock climbing and caving with children who attended for a day, she said. But she realized something was missing.

"I wanted my own class," she said. "I wanted my own group of students."

So she went back to school. At Oliver Beach, she sees her students longer, too, having had some for several years.

Her teaching experience also extends beyond the classroom and the school: She has worked with student teachers, written county math curriculum and done sessions with incoming math instructors.

"She just goes out of her way to help so many people," said Jody Romadka, an instructional assistant who has worked with Brown for a decade. Romadka noted Brown's ability to think on her feet, to develop strategies that fit each child's needs.

"She is just phenomenal," Romadka said. "It's just amazing how she can think so quickly, and it just benefits these kids."

And she does so with calm and aplomb, Rigopoulos said.

"She has a unique way of engaging children with hands-on items and technology," Rigopoulos said. The activities she engages children in are fun, "and yet the children are truly learning. But I don't know that they really realize that."

During a midmorning break in Brown's summer-school class, Kahlya Matthews, 7, surveyed her snack of Cheez-Its and animal crackers, organized into two rows that alternated between cracker and cookie.

"Look, a pattern!" Kahlya said.

Brown smiled. "You're doing math."

And class hadn't even started.

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