Anatomy of a lesson

In science class, award-winning New Dorp teacher turns students into investigators

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Theresa Dunlap Kutza has taught science at at Staten Island’s New Dorp High School for the past 13 years.

After class one recent afternoon at New Dorp High School on Staten Island, health and science teacher Theresa Dunlap Kutza was comically busy.

Buzzing around her room in a festive red sweater, the former nurse collected permission slips for an upcoming class trip to view a live surgery, thanked some students for creating the holiday decorations she’d asked for (photos of famous scientists in Santa hats), and fielded a reporter’s questions about the award she won this month for exceptional science teaching.

“I feel like I got an award for doing something I love!” said Kutza, who has taught at New Dorp for the past 13 years.

When Kutza first moved to the classroom after 17 years working in hospitals, she applied her nurse’s efficiency to teaching, making sure to cover the entire textbook each year. But over time, she realized that to absorb the material, students really have to do something with it.

So now, Kutza, who was one of seven city educators this year to win a $5,000 Sloan Award for Excellence in Teaching Science and Mathematics, has her freshmen handle real oysters and debate the best way to contain Ebola. In her neuroscience class, students study meditation and hypothetical zombie brains. And in anatomy and physiology, Kutza asks them to solve actual medical mysteries.

“She takes everything beyond the classroom,” said Principal Deirdre DeAngelis, adding that faculty and students alike celebrated when Kutza won the award this month, which also brings $2,500 to each winner’s school. “Everyone felt like, ‘You deserve it.’”

Chalkbeat stopped by Kutza’s college-level anatomy and physiology class last week, where students played the part of doctors trying to diagnose a woman’s illness based on a case study Kutza found in a magazine. Below are the highlights from the lesson, which came after a unit on cells.

10:28 a.m. Not one to waste time, Kutza started class promptly at the bell, asking students to describe in their notebooks different kinds of membranes.

That was followed by a brief discussion, where Kutza reminded students of the distinction between serous and mucous membranes.

Kutza helps student Nicole Blake-Ramsay during an anatomy and physiology class.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Kutza helps student Nicole Blake-Ramsay during an anatomy and physiology class.

“If you were to miniaturize yourself and walk along the mucus membrane,” she said, noting its porousness, “you’d be able to get outside of the body.”

10:41 a.m. Now they were ready to meet the sick woman in the case study. After Kutza reminded the students to take detailed notes like doctors do, she read them the story.

The middle-aged woman had lost consciousness in a department store bathroom, surrounded by a pool of bloody diarrhea, Kutza read. Paramedics found her heart racing and her blood pressure dangerously low. Later, it was determined that her blood had lost its ability to clot.

10:46 a.m. The students’ first task was to list clues they had heard. They noted that the woman took antidepressants and had been in good health before the incident, except for one time when she’d suffered similar symptoms.

They also ventured some possible causes. One boy suggested that she might have too few platelets, the cells that stop bleeding, while another said she could suffer from hemophilia, a disorder that keeps blood from clotting.

Kutza then asked them to decide what tests to order or referrals to make.

“You’re the doctor,” she told the students. “What are you going to do?”

10:50 a.m. The students conferred with one another, then recommended ordering a blood count, a colonoscopy, and an investigation into the woman’s

Kutza had her students try to solve a medical mystery that she found in a magazine.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Kutza had her students try to solve a medical mystery that she found in a magazine.

medication, in case it caused any relevant side effects.

They were on the right track. The doctor in the story had, in fact, conducted a colonoscopy, Kutza read, and it turned out that the woman’s medication was part of the problem. Now, Kutza told the students, it was finally time to diagnose the cause of the medical scare.

11:04 a.m. Before class, Kutza had cautioned a visitor that the students might not be able to solve the mystery. Now, she told the class that anyone who did would get extra credit on an upcoming test. She asked the students to deliberate, but within 10 seconds a girl raised her hand.

“It could be a problem with the mast cells,” the girl said, referring to certain white blood cells that produce chemicals that can cause low blood pressure and also stop blood from clotting. Another girl added, “She might have an excessive amount of mast cells.”

They were exactly right: The woman suffered from a rare disease in which the body has too many of those cells, and certain medications can trigger the cells to cause the symptoms the woman experienced. The two girls and the boy who had flagged the antidepressants all received extra credit.

“I’m really proud of you guys,” Kutza said. “That was good.”

After class, junior Noah Putney, who plans to study medicine, said case studies like that remind him why he should care about cells and membranes.

“You get to see how what you’re learning can actually apply to what you’re going to do in the future,” he said.

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.