Emerson awardees have common thread in classroom approach

LISA JOHNSTON | lisajohnston@archstl.org

The three teachers appear to have little in common; they teach different subjects to different age groups in different geographic areas of St. Louis.

But they share a commonality that shines a spotlight on the quality education available at schools in the Archdiocese of St. Louis: The Emerson Excellence in Teaching Award.

The trio -- Dana Aubuchon of St. Ann Catholic School in Normandy, Stephen Babbitt of St. Gerard Majella School in Kirkwood and Dominic D'Urso of Duchesne High School in St. Charles -- are among 99 teachers in the St. Louis metropolitan area who will be honored with "The Emerson" in a ceremony at 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 16, at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Clayton. Emerson annually honors outstanding teachers from the Missouri and Illinois sides of the Mississippi River.

"Great teaching is at the heart of great schools, and we are tremendously proud of the Catholic school teachers honored this year," Kurt Nelson stated. Nelson, the archdiocesan superintendent of Catholic education, also lauded Emerson's commitment to recognizing excellent teachers.

In their classroom assignments, the three archdiocese honorees cover all of the grade levels -- primary, middle-school and high school. Aubuchon instructs third-graders, Babbitt teaches social studies to sixth- through eight-graders and D'Urso covers high school English.

All three teachers not only bring innovation to the classroom but also encourage students to be active learners and have a say in their education. The days of teachers standing before students, lecturing and imparting knowledge are long gone. There's more give-and-take than ever, and students are energized by this approach.

"These students love it," said Aubuchon, who along with colleagues at St. Ann accepted an invitation from the archdiocese to be trained in adopting STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) at the primary level last year. "I have this little apron, and when I put on my apron, they say, 'It's STEM day!' They're so excited."

In STEM, students work with real-life examples to learn and understand knowledge that used to be gained in rote memorization. It's a different approach to teaching -- student-centric as opposed to teacher-centric. Aubuchon described the adjustment to this approach as "intimidating."

"It's totally changed the way science happens in my classroom, the way anything happens," said Aubuchon, a 20-year veteran of teaching and another award-winning teacher at St. Ann. With an enrollment of about 150, St. Ann now has three Emerson winners, three Cardinal Burke Teacher Recognition Award winners and a Monsanto Teacher of the Year among its teachers.

"It's a whole different mind-set of how you question students, how you present things to them; it's very open-ended," said Aubuchon, who "looped" with her class by moving with it to third grade from second. "I used to have a project in mind and assume I knew the end result. Well, now I find out that when you put an idea out there, the end result can be many different things."

For instance, she cited a recent project in which students designed an open-air structure for protection from the sun and inclement weather. One group not only designed the structure but included a water system to catch rain from the roof and filter it for use.

"If students did something like that before ... 'Gosh, that's not what I wanted,'" she said.

But now? "Good for them. It's pretty cool."

In Babbitt's classroom, the focus is on DBQs, the acronym for "document-based questions." Rather than memorizing dates and facts relating to historical events, students dig into primary and second documents then determine their reliability, pluses and minuses, and why events happened. This approach is common for Advanced Placement (AP) courses in high school but is applied to increasingly younger students.

"It puts more of their learning into their own hands," said Babbitt, who joins his uncle Donald of Lindenwood University as an Emerson award winner. "Students kind of get bored with memorization. With this, you're really making them think.

"A lot of students would say, 'I don't want to work hard at school,' but I think they do want to work hard; they just want work that challenges them."

At Duchesne, D'Urso challenges students with "Workshop Wednesdays" in which students collaborate on their writing, with discussion, peer-review and re-writing. The goal is to develop empathy within students and a deeper understanding of themselves.

"That understanding is the essential lesson of every English class," D'Urso stated.

No votes yet