Journalism Next from Saint Stephen's Episcopal School

Saint Stephen's teachers use different teaching styles to keep students engaged

Special to the HeraldDecember 17, 2012 

At Saint Stephen's, it is difficult to walk into any two classrooms in the Upper School and find exactly the same thing. A variety of different classes are being taught by an eclectic array of teachers, and not one of these classes is being taught exactly the same way.

Walk into Ms. Pat Murphy's room, and you might find students in colonial garb, acting out a monumental event from American history. Pop into Dr. Greg Anthou's room, and students could be reading a Spanish article about a current event. In Mrs. Barbara O'Neil's room, students might be taking notes on isosceles and equilateral triangles.

The assortment of ways classes are taught at Saint Stephen's is not only a testament to the quality of the faculty, but also a reflection of the school's commitment to providing students with a world-class education.

Mr. Bernie Yanelli, who teaches AP United States History and Economics & Global Politics at Saint Stephen's, has been teaching at the school for eight years, after an extensive career in business.

"My teaching style is based on the belief that if I work hard, my students will work hard as well," Yanelli said. "As long as I can make the class as interesting as possible by bringing in outside knowledge and a little bit of humor, it makes it a more relaxed learning environment, so that's what I generally try to do," he said.

Yanelli said his teaching style is different depending on which class he's teaching.

"There's certainly a lecture component to AP U.S. history but my style in economics is quite different because there's not a high-stakes test at the end," Yanelli said. "I try to make my classes, while there's certainly some lecture, as interactive as possible by asking lots of questions to keep the students involved in the discussion," he said.

"I like to think of myself as a stalking lion who tells jokes occasionally," he said.

Ms. Pat Murphy, who has been teaching at Saint Stephen's for 27 years, teaches United States History and United States Government & Politics.

While Murphy teaches similar classes to Yanelli, her teaching style is noticeably different.

"My style is really student-oriented. I don't lecture much, and if I do, it's because the group that's trying to work on something doesn't understand what's going on," Murphy said.

"I'm really more of a facilitator than I am a teacher," she said.

Murphy said she usually assigns her class a project or an assignment and challenges them to find the answer. By doing so, she allows them to work in an environment that is student-led and student-oriented.

"When I first started teaching, I taught Lower School, and it seemed to me that a lot of the kids were getting more out of being able to have hands-on experiences," Murphy said, adding, "They just picked up more information that way."

While Murphy said her style may not work for all students, she believes it can help those students who may not thrive in a traditional learning environment.

"If you're a student (who) has to have lecturing and has to take notes, my class is probably going to be very difficult. (For) those students (who) really struggle with taking notes and struggle with listening to somebody talk, my class really is going to be good for them," Murphy said.

However, at Saint Stephen's, history is not the only department where similar classes are being taught in different ways.

In the language department, two teachers relatively new to the Saint Stephen's staff have brought in exciting new teaching styles to keep their students engaged.

Spanish teacher Dr. Greg Anthou has been teaching for 13 years and is in his first year at Saint Stephen's. Already he has wasted no time incorporating his teaching style into class.

"The one thing I've struggled with for 13 years and I've learned to do better -- but it's a daily struggle -- is to not answer my own questions, but to allow that awkward time for students to think and come up with the answer," Anthou said.

Besides letting students answer their own questions, Anthou said he is also committed to making every class different.

"I hope when you think of my class, you don't think 'workbook.' I try to make that secondary," he said.

Anthou said he plans to incorporate projects into class as the year progresses as a way of mixing things up. However, Anthou also has worked on integrating a teaching style called "brain-based research" into class.

"They've studied students' retention levels throughout a class, and obviously it's high at the beginning and for the first 20 minutes; it's almost at a steady rate. So a lot of the research tells teachers to introduce new information in those first 20 minutes and put something like going over homework later in the class period," he said.

Mrs. Sheri Archibald is currently in her second year as student life coordinator and a Spanish and French teacher at Saint Stephen's. She said that her teaching style differs with every class.

"I try to speak in the target language as much as possible. With AP, there's no English. They don't need it; they're really good," Archibald said.

"With French 1, I try to do it all in French … but I don't want them to be so overwhelmed by it that they shut down," she said. "I'm more of a grammar person. For me as a language learner; I need to know the rules of the game. I need to know why a sentence works this way and why it doesn't work another way," she said.

Archibald, who lived and taught in Puerto Rico for more than 20 years, said she definitely noticed a difference between American and Puerto Rican students.

With students in Puerto Rico, "there's much more familiarity, there's much more enmeshment of society," Archibald said, adding, "The kids would know me by first name."

In the math department, Mrs. Barbara O'Neil and Mrs. Lori Springstead have worked to develop their teaching philosophies in a way that consistently keeps their students focused and engaged.

"I would say we are very similar in the math department," O'Neil said.

"We all have some kind of structured system, whether its handouts, whether it's outline notes or whether it's notes on the board. There is some kind of a structure to each of our math classes," she said.

Springstead said she enjoys the freedom Saint Stephen's gives her to build and structure her class the way she feels is best for her students.

"I picked the textbooks that I wanted to use, picked the sections that I want to go through, obviously with the math department's agreement," Springstead said.

"I like an interactive class," Springstead said. "I don't expect you to raise your hand. I want you to ask me, interrupt me, if you don't understand what I'm talking about," she said.

While O'Neil said her class is certainly structured, she also teaches with an emphasis on student participation.

"I do examples, assist the students in doing their homework. I'll have them watch some videos at night," she said.

Springfield said her classes also are structured, with time being allotted for students to try that night's homework in class with her help.

"I like to go over as many homework questions as possible, I like to have the students work on problems in class, so I can help them," she said.

With so many different teachers and teaching styles at Saint Stephen's, students may wonder if there's any aspect of teaching that the entire faculty agrees upon.

In fact, almost all of these teachers agreed that students who ask questions and stay engaged will do well in their class.

Whether it's in the "student-oriented" environment of Mrs. Murphy's room, or in classes taught by Dr. Anthou that utilize "brain-based research," teachers said that inquisitive, dedicated and curious students will succeed across the board.

"Students that pay attention, students that go home and review their notes before just jumping into the homework, students that study the material presented, do well," O'Neil said.

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