by Mark McGowan
Great teachers stir sparks of ambition and curiosity into fires of success. Great teachers push students far beyond what they thought capable. Great teachers build on their own passion to inspire generation after generation of bright thinkers, leaders and, yes, teachers.
NIU has many great teachers, and Anne Britt, Edward Klonoski and Melissa Lenczewski stand tall among them. The three are this year’s recipients of the Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.
Britt, from the Department of Psychology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; Klonoski, from the School of Music in the College of Visual and Performing Arts; and Lenczewski, from the Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, now enjoy the university’s longest-standing honor.
The recognition stands in a class of its own because the nominations and subsequent words of support originate with the young minds on the other side of the classroom.
“It’s most rewarding,” Klonoski says. “I value that the students appreciate the work we do together enough that they’d nominate me for this award. I genuinely care about the students. You have to care enough to work hard for them and you have to want them to succeed.”
Initiated in 1966, the awards honor excellent undergraduate teaching in the university, encourage improvement of instruction and promote discussion among members of the university community on the subject of teaching.
Nominees must be full-time faculty whose major responsibility is teaching and must have worked at least five full academic years at NIU. Britt, Klonoski and Lenczewski each receive a check for $2,000.
Joining them in honor is John Bradley, an instructor in the Department of English, who has received the university’s third Excellence in Undergraduate Instruction award.
“NIU has a lot of good instructors,” Bradley says. “I’m thrilled to get this and thrilled that instructors are being recognized.”
Here is a closer look at the four.
Psychology students in Anne Britt’s research methods course have no argument: Britt is an excellent teacher.
Britt’s work in argumentation determines how people understand and evaluate arguments and how they construct their own. She also undermines assumptions about arguments: that they always are meant to seem clear when perhaps confusion is the goal, or that the only point of argument is to win.
The underlying concept for students to learn, she says, is the profound value of questions.
“I believe that the teachers who affected me the most were the ones who taught me to ask good questions and to ask those questions in ways that gave me satisfying answers,” Britt says. “It’s a powerful thing to find your own answers.”
Many psychology students are wary of the research methods course, one that many faculty even prefer not to teach. Not Britt, who concedes that students arrive the first week with “bad assumptions. Fear. They don’t think they can do it. They don’t want to do it. Just a lot of negativity.”
She quickly vanquishes those worries with demonstrations of how the course will boost their careers and improve their lives.
“I love teaching that class. I bring enthusiasm, because I know they’re not going to have it, and a lighthearted atmosphere. They don’t expect that,” the avid bicyclist and video gamer says with a laugh.
“Every single term there are new students. Every single term you get to see them grow. They’re at a point in life when they’re so energetic but in a way they need so much direction,” she adds. “I also like the challenge of helping someone understand something they didn’t understand before.”
Britt, a native of Ohio with degrees from the University of Dayton and the University of Pittsburgh, says her students develop the skills to make good decisions whether they’re weighing job offers, new cars or presidential candidates.
They also learn that failure is an amazing teacher.
She points to video games for an example: Perfection is impossible at first. Players must play again and again to learn how their characters will die – game over – as they slowly realize how to beat the machine.
Britt is also among 11 researchers developing Operation ARIES, an online educational game that will teach scientific inquiry and critical thinking skills to children and adolescents. The U.S. Department of Education awarded $2 million to NIU over four years for development of the educational game.
“Dr. Britt does not take herself too seriously and even injects humor when she commits a mistake,” former student Brett Anderson says. “This attitude conveys the inevitability of error, even in the scientific disciplines, and gives her students license to make their own discoveries without fear of failure.”
Britt, who also teaches cognitive psychology, keeps her research methods sharp outside the PSYC 305 classroom.
On sabbatical this semester, she recently returned from five weeks in France where she and colleagues from other universities studied how people consider information and make sense of contradictory accounts: How do we determine the credibility, possible motives and limits of knowledge of information sources?
Meanwhile, she finds herself analyzing an award based on a course known for its difficulty.
“I was shocked, because I teach a challenging course,” says Britt, who also advises the Student Psychological Association. “When you challenge students, you’re not sure how they’re going to respond. It says a lot about how the students enjoy being challenged.”
Imagine, Ed Klonoski asks, the heaviest of heavy metal bands, electric guitars primed to pound ear-splitting power chords through ominous towers of black Marshall amplifiers.
And then, he says, pretend that the first chord is an F major seventh, an airy and pretty yet syrupy concoction often used by hopelessly romantic singer-songwriters from the 1970s.
For Klonoski, an associate professor of music theory, it illustrates well that musical styles have conventions. Listeners have expectations. There are boundaries to respect. When students compose in the style of Mozart or Haydn, there are stylistically right and wrong decisions.
But ultimately it’s the process, and not the results, that this outstanding teacher values the most.
“Mistakes are natural opportunities for students to learn,” Klonoski says. “It’s when they don’t know something that I can help them to think in new ways.”
He believes that U.S. high schools, burdened by standardized testing and federal “No Child Left Behind” legislation, aren’t preparing students well for college. As long as pupils provide correct answers, he says, numerical measurements declare them ready.
“Students are bright. They have lots of data,” he says. “But they often don’t know how they know what they know.”
Klonoski considers his teaching as “private lessons in a classroom setting.”
In class, students must sing, move, march -- whatever it takes to physically engage the music in class. They must answer questions posed to Klonoski by their classmates. They must compose in various genres for in-class performance and peer critique.
Fortunately, their professor understands where they’re coming from.
“I was not a stellar student as a freshman in music theory class. I’ve been there. I can relate. That helps me a lot. Having high expectations for them helps them to know they can succeed,” Klonoski says. “Music theory is really their foundation of knowledge, regardless of what area of music they’re going to pursue.”
A native of Scranton, Pa., Klonoski was largely a self-taught musician until he took up classical guitar in preparation for studying music in college.
By his early teenage years, he was playing the electric six-string in local rock bands and nurturing an affinity for blues and blues-based rock. He eventually started teaching private guitar lessons.
When he decided to study music “for real” at Marywood University, Southern Methodist University and Ohio State University, he discovered classical guitar and Renaissance church music. “I had never heard it before,” he says. “It just blew me away.”
So did “counterpoint,” the technique of setting melodies in conjunction with one another. “It lit my fire,” he says.
After a stint playing rock ’n’ roll six nights a week in the resorts of the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania, he realized his future lie in teaching and not on stage.
“For me, teaching is an experience unlike any other in my life,” Klonoski says. “There’s a certain part of me that teaching speaks to, and it’s only gotten stronger over the years.”
Klonoski makes sure students hear the same voice.
“He always said things that made me think harder about my choice to become a music teacher,” former student Kendall Nathan says, “such as, ‘I cannot let you go out into the teaching world teaching music theory until I know I could trust you to teach my own children music theory.’ ”
Those children are Grace, 8, and Olivia, 6. Klonoski and his wife, Patricia, have been together since their Marywood days, some 26 years ago.
Science flows in Melissa Lenczewski’s blood.
A native of Midland, Mich., world headquarters of the Dow Chemical Co., Lenczewski’s high school offered and encouraged advanced science courses. Her science teachers, including her beloved Mrs. Shields, held master’s degrees. Every day of classes included an hour of lecture and an hour of lab work.
“I fell in love with it,” says Lenczewski, a self-labeled science geek. “As a junior in college, I was hired as a lab tech – a dishwasher – in a lab doing water quality work. I got involved with grad students’ research projects. I saw what it did for me; now I get undergraduates working in the lab.”
Research into water quality also whet her thirst for microbiology, the contaminant hydrogeologist’s specialty.
After earning her bachelor’s degree from the University of Arizona, she spent a summer in Base Borden in Canada collecting groundwater samples with “the best hydrologists in the world” from the University of Waterloo.
Working in the lab that summer, she often would demonstrate techniques to the others. “They would say, ‘Oh, you’re a good teacher,’ ” she says. “I was inspired by the people in the lab. Teaching was never on my radar.”
By the time Lenczewski embarked on her Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee, she realized she wanted to become a professor.
And as was her fortune, lab and field work are paramount for her undergraduates. Every summer, she teaches GEOL 477, a field course around northern Illinois to test groundwater quality and research pollution. The class occupies 10 hours a day, six days a week for four weeks.
“Students learn better by doing the actual work, and I go out with them,” Lenczewski says. “I always think, ‘I’m getting paid to do this? I can’t believe it.’ Really, I could pump water all day. I just love it. It’s exciting and fun, and I can’t imagine not doing it.”
“Melissa always tried to build in ‘real world’ components,” says graduate student Andrew M. Greenhagen. “With her readily available guidance, I gained valuable analytical laboratory skills through trial and error. Melissa is not afraid to let her students falter when she knows the experience will be rewarded with valuable knowledge.”
Lenczewski’s goal is to excite students about the topic and to expose them to new ideas.
Her examples are powerful ones: Students learn about the environment and how “green” actions can make a positive difference. Business majors in her introductory courses are asked how they will bring Earth-friendly ideas to the corporate America jobs. Education majors are asked how they will promote recycling at the schools where they will teach.
She sparks classroom debates on real vs. artificial Christmas trees, the problems of plastic bottles and the eternal supermarket question of “paper or plastic.” She surprises them with discussions of the petroleum used to make candles or plastic bottles for water and soda.
“I ask them to look at the world and make a change,” she says. “I want them to think about what they’re doing.”
Lenczewski also is a friend to students: She is a faculty adviser in Douglas Hall’s Science, Engineering and Technology House. She pushes graduate school. She attends every commencement for handshakes and hugs: “I’m just so proud of them.”
She also practices what she preaches. Lenczewski and her husband, Scott Bellis, and their 11-year-old daughter, Liz, live near campus. “I wish more faculty lived in town,” she says.
John Bradley weaved a circuitous route to his current position as an accomplished poet and teacher of rhetoric and composition.
The man who failed freshman English twice – “It’s ironic. It was frustrating,” he says – pursued instead a bachelor’s degree in history.
After college at the University of Minnesota, he held jobs as a night custodian and a dishwasher. He worked in a bookstore and as a painter for a general contractor. When working as a clerk in the U. of M. Graduate School, he enrolled in creative writing classes.
Bradley soon decided to finish his bachelor’s degree in English, a choice ultimately critical to the lives of countless young poets, writers and even students wary of the pen and empty page.
“My first time teaching a freshman English class was one of the most terrifying moments of my life. I had no experience whatsoever, and only a week and a half of training. I learned by trial and error. I learned from students and colleagues,” says Bradley, speaking of graduate school days at Colorado State University.
“I gradually enjoyed teaching. If someone would have told me that in 1977, I never would have believed them. Never,” he adds. “But it’s rewarding to see someone get the idea, to understand ... and to express themselves.”
Students in Bradley’s classes indeed must pour their hearts out to the instructor through their writing. They must spin their personal experiences into stories with characters, settings, plots and suspense – and they must tell their tales beautifully.
“They have to come see me three times a semester and bring a draft. I show them they have ability. They have incredible stories, just incredible stories,” he says. “Their language has to come alive. Their personality has to come alive with it. We have to feel we’re there with them.”
When the muse is taunting students, Bradley helps them to find inspiration.
“One was writing about why she’s so shy. She came to me with so many drafts,” he says. “I said, ‘Tell me about giving a speech. Why was it was so hard? What did your classmates say? What did your teacher say? A storyteller with shyness is a really good topic.’ ”
A native of Lynbrook, N.Y., Bradley has merged his two academic backgrounds to craft poetry that is historical in theme.
The voracious reader won a National Endowment for the Arts grant to write a book of prose and poetry where he assumes the voice of the obscure 13th century Chinese poet Cheng Hui. He also published a book of poems about a man in hiding in Italy during the fascist years of the earlier 20th century.
Bradley’s students also must read. This semester’s text is “Enrique’s Journey,” the true story of a Honduran boy who journeys to the United States in search of his mother.
“Reading is a very indirect and subtle way to improve their writing,” he says. “I also want them to become critical readers. They will always use that in my class and in other classes and take it with them the rest of their lives.”
Mostly, however, they must write, write, write.
“When you are in Mr. Bradley’s classroom, you feel validated, not intimated,” says former student Marty Fletcher. “He doesn’t care where you come from. Mr. Bradley believes we all share something in common, and that is our story. He instills in the students the importance and the power of their voices.”