Tag Archives: exemplary educator

From Quill to 
Keyboard

October 8, 2017 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, the word “cursive” comes from the Latin “currere,” meaning “to run.” The humble beginnings of this elegant script trace back to the use of the quill, which was easily broken and slow to use. Cursive was created to save time. The dynamic technological world of today is far removed from quills and ink, and computers can accomplish the same task—and more—in a shorter amount of time.

2014 Archdiocese of Omaha Educator of the Year award recipient Mary Holtmeyer enforces cursive writing in her fourth-grade classroom: “I have heard and read about both sides,” she says about the debate over whether or not to include cursive handwriting in a curriculum.

“Until someone can show us that cursive has no value, or is detrimental to our students, I think we will still use it. There is something to be said about the discipline it takes to learn; kids need that.” At St Pius X/St. Leo School, cursive is taught in third grade and enforced throughout elementary school.

Cursive writing appears to be a dying art. The Common Core Standards, which have been adopted by 42 states since their inception in 2010, eliminated handwriting in favor of keyboarding.

According to several studies, including those by UCLA and Princeton Universities, paraphrasing and reprocessing lecture information into one’s own words on paper allows the student to understand concepts more completely than typing the same words on a computer screen.

“Handwriting is tactile,” Holtmeyer re-affirms, “it uses parts of the brain that typing does not, and cursive, specifically, keeps students with dyslexia and dysgraphia from mixing up their letters.”

According to an article from Psychology Today, handwriting is linked to activating the vertical occipital fasciculus section of the brain. These portions of the brain are not activated while typing or texting.

Holtmeyer didn’t want to downplay the importance of technology in teaching. She emphasizes her dedication to helping students become well-rounded and capable people who are ready for the future.

“Academia is leaning toward technology. I’d like to hang on to kids thinking more critically instead of jumping straight to Google. I want them to be ready for their future, and I want them to be independent, critical thinkers that stand on their own two feet.”

A teacher of 25 years, Holtmeyer has evolved her teaching style to reflect the world her students experience. She does a lot with technology in her classroom, including her own use of Smart Boards, document cameras, and various other tools. She involves her students via the use of  Twitter (tweeting is one of the “classroom jobs” she assigns) and other projects. “They like [technology],” she says, “but I think it takes away a little bit of the individualism.”

Handwriting is like a fingerprint, each person has their own unique style that is never replicated exactly. “[Cursive] is a very personal thing. We encourage that.” 

This article was printed in the Fall 2017 edition of Family Guide.

Austen Hill

April 27, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Austen Hill knows that camping is an exciting, even vital, part of kids’ summers. He does his part to make sure the Papio NRD camps stay exciting.

“I like to do different activities that they may not get to do every day,” Hill says. “Many of the camps I’ve been to are kind of cookie-cutter in that they do they same activity each year, or each day.”

Hill’s camps include a variety of activities, and while the campers might see a snake each year, Hill makes sure to talk about different snakes so kids who may have come before learn something different.

It’s an amazing idea, especially realizing that Hill is a one-man show. He coordinates everything from spring registration to summer counseling.

He uses Pinterest and other internet sites to find fresh ideas and learn new things himself. Of course, many of his ideas come from his own life experiences. Hill grew up in West Omaha, in an area that included a cornfield and a wooded area where he ran around as often as the weather permitted, fishing, hiking, and pursuing other activities.

It’s that interest in the outdoors, and in learning new things, that drew him to this position at the NRD. While earning a degree in wildlife and fisheries, he thought he would pursue research as a career. A summer job at Fontenelle Forest showed him his true calling of education.

Now, Hill is the education assistant at Papio NRD. His school-year job is coordinating programs for students. He helped to produce 250 programs in 2016, working with schools four out of every five days during the academic year. Some schools come out for field trips to the NRD, while many other days Hill travels to schools.

“We’ve worked in a lot of inner-city classrooms,” Hill says. “Not every school can be outside … at least I can bring the environment to them.”

One of his favorite parts about working with kids is teaching them about animals. His menagerie at Papio NRD includes nearly 30 reptiles, an owl, and amphibians. It is one of the kids’ favorite parts as well.

“A lot of people talk about keeping kids’ attention,” Hill says. “I never have that problem.”

Kristen Holzer, a zoology and biology teacher at Millard West High School who has worked with Hill at camps and at her school, concurs.

“It’s amazing how much kids get excited,” she says. “They love hearing about the animals. He’ll let them handle them, so he passes around the snakes and things. Of course, the kids all get out their phones and take photos with them.”

At least, they take photos during school visits. The camps involve a lot of old-fashioned fun … spending time and energy hiking, kayaking, learning archery, and many other activities away from the often-ubiquitous screens.

“They can’t have cell phones,” Hill says. “We take those away first thing so the kids aren’t tempted to look at their phones while we’re doing other activities.”

While many parents want their kids to be connected, Hill says he finds the parents of his campers often embrace the idea of unobstructed time in the woods. The kids are always supervised, and the exposure to the environment gives them a chance to learn and grow.

Hill himself is part of the reason why NRD camps and programs are fun.

“I think what makes it so cool is that he has the ability to relate to young kids and high school kids,” Holzer says. “He has a really good skill set for his job. I enjoy working with him too.”

That ability to relate allows him to help kids confront their fears, and learn new things themselves.

“Kids are fearful of everything,” Hill says. “I’ll have kids who are scared of a tiny bug that can’t even fly. Then I’ll show it to them, and they get first-hand experience, and they learn this is not something to be afraid of.”

He also teaches environment classes, from tree planting to an annual Water Works field day for fifth-grade students. Papio-NRD also hosts the metro’s Envirothon Competition, an annual environment-themed quiz competition by the National Conservation Foundation aimed at high school students.

Conversely, his perspective becomes refreshed thanks to the kids.

“We get dull to things,” Hill says. “We step right over earthworms. Sometimes it takes a four-year-old to get awed by earthworms. That’s a good feeling.”

Visit papionrd.org for more information.

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of Family Guide.

At the Heart of St. Matthew

November 15, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“When I see a student no longer having to struggle to read or do a math problem—that is why I teach. They take so much pride in them-selves when they become independent in their thinking.”

-Lisa Benson

As a young Girl Scout in Texas, a lightbulb went off when Lisa Benson’s troop adopted a special needs class during her middle school years. She knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up. That connection to those students made her realize that her future place in life was in a classroom. She held on to that joy of helping others when she attended Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, and majored in elementary education. She dedicated her education further by continuing on for her master’s degree in literacy from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Now, at 58 years old and with over 20 years of teaching experience, Lisa Benson was recently honored as one of the Educators of the Year in the elementary category by the Archdiocese of Omaha at the Archbishop’s Dinner for Education on Sept. 29, 2016.

Nominated by the principal, staff, and community of St. Matthew Catholic School, where she has taught first grade for the past 14 years, Benson was just as shocked as she was thrilled to receive the award: “I was so surprised. I feel I have always given my best to St. Matthew School, my students, and their families. It is such an honor to be recognized for hard work and dedication. I truly appreciate all the support from the archdiocese, my fellow teachers, and the families at St. Matthew.”

It’s that heart and dedication that is exactly why she was nominated, according to school principal Jim Daro, who has worked with her during the four years he’s been at St. Matthew.

“Mrs. Benson is an outstanding teacher,” Daro says. “She cares deeply for her students and their progress in and out of her classroom. She maintains a classroom environment where students are cared for and comfortable; they know they are there to learn. They respect her just as much as she respects them.”

As a mother of three grown children, Benson loves cultivating independence in not only her own children but those she teaches every day in the first grade classroom. “At this age, they love learning,” she says. “So all I have to do is present it to them, and they soak it up. When I see a student no longer having to struggle to read or do a math problem—that is why I teach. They take so much pride in themselves when they become independent in their thinking.”

But teaching hasn’t always come easy to Benson. She didn’t start her teaching career until after raising her children. At the start of working at St. Matthew, she felt behind in the field of education. “Things had changed since I graduated from college. This struggle has made me aware of how my students, or even a new staff member, may feel when a concept isn’t clear to them.”

That empathy is what led her to become like a support system to many other teachers at the school. Daro raves about Benson’s ability to help others, “She is a mentor and a leader with the rest of the faculty. She is highly involved in our school and community beyond the classroom. Mrs. Benson is involved with our school board, our development team, and our school improvement team.”

As for what Benson will do with the $5,000 award prize from her prestigious Educator of the Year recognition: “My husband and I are still figuring that out. Maybe a trip!”

And with all the hard work, time, and heart Benson puts into each day of teaching, a trip is definitely a great way to celebrate her dedication to the St. Matthew students and educational community.

Visit stmatthewbellevuene.net for more information.

This article was printed in the Winter 2016 edition of Family Guide, an Omaha Publications magazine.