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Spencer graduate named Fla.'s top English teacher

Saturday, December 29, 2012

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Chris Pauling earned the Beginning Teacher of the Year Award and was recognized as Florida's top English teacher in October. In his first year teaching middle school in Sarasota, Pauling credits his experience at Spencer schools for early opportunities that helped shape the way he teaches in his own classroom.
(Photo submitted)
When Chris Pauling's middle school students at Booker Middle School in Sarasota, Fla. write a book report, they log online to animoto, an online video creation website. They create a trailer about the book they read, following a rubric to make sure all of the appropriate plot, setting and character elements are included. When they are finished, they upload the video to edmoto, a social network site designed specifically for the classroom. Using the app on their phone, they can track classroom discussion throughout their day. Their parents can log on to see the work, and Pauling can moderate discussion as needed.

Teaching practices like this have earned Pauling the Beginning Teacher of the Year Award from the Florida Counsel of Teachers of English.

"It's mind-blowing," Pauling said. "I was surprised when I got the award."

Pauling was recognized at a banquet in October. He was nominated by three of his professors and colleagues, and asked to submit an essay about the practices and strategies he uses in the classroom.

"Because I was a new teacher, and I was still studying for my master's degree, I was able to take things directly from what I was taught," Pauling said. "I'd learn something one day and apply it to my own classroom the next. My classroom became a sort of test environment for me, only the risk was low because the practices had already been proven by other studies."

Consistently, Pauling tries to relate a specific lesson or standard to the students' level, correlating the text to a real-world example.

At his previous school, Pauling contacted the Holocaust museum in Florida and obtained a teaching trunk filled with texts, posters and videos about the Holocaust. The class created a timeline down the hallway, and made a field trip to the museum. In addition, they participated in some of the activities Erin Gruwell noted in her book, "Freedom Writers."

"We did the 'walk the line' activity," Pauling said. "The students started to see how alike they are, even if their backgrounds and cultures are different."

In a poetry unit, the class looked at Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" and Tupac Shakur's "Changes," and then compared and contrasted themes from the songs to a speech President Obama gave in his first election campaign.

"Between technology and the media, there are so many things we, as teachers, have to compete with," Pauling said. "Anything we can do to relate to them is key, to let them understand that what we're teaching them are things they can practice in their own, everyday lives."

Pauling, the son of Cindy and Neil Drefke, graduated from Spencer High school in 1998 and attended the University of Iowa. While in Iowa City, he switched between writing and business, and later moved to Florida to become a sales event manager at a country club.

"I loved my job," he said. "But after getting married and having our daughter, I saw the benefits my wife had as a teacher and I knew I wanted to have that as well."

Two years ago, when Pauling finished his bachelor's degree, Sarasota County was experiencing a hiring freeze in education. Instead of looking for a job that he knew wasn't available, Pauling enrolled directly into a master's program for English Education, which he completed in May.

Pauling teaches middle school, a "time in a person's life where it's hard to be a teenager," but he loves his job and the age he teaches.

"It's not necessarily the funnest time in their life," he said. "In addition to everything else, they start to metacognitively think about who they are and where they're at in their life. It's meaningful and valuable to them to have someone say 'Hey, it's okay. I've been through this.' We may not have had the same experiences, but we all get through it."

Now that he's in the education system, Pauling reflects back on his experiences in the Spencer school district and he appreciates the opportunities he had, opportunities many schools in the country are still trying to offer in their own districts.

"When I talk with my colleagues about what it was like when we were in school, I'm so thankful for the experiences I had," he said. "We were always praised and pushed to do well. The community pushes a lot of positive vibes. I was in everything - several bands, speech, debate, drama, sports - and I received so much support from the community. There was always someone there to watch you or to see how you did."

He continued. "Unfortunately, so many other schools are still trying to fight for that kind of environment and support. The close-knit community I had growing up was something I looked for even when I was applying for jobs. I appreciated that experience, and I'll never forget it."



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