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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., May 8, 2017—Williams College will award the annual George Olmsted Jr. Class of 1924 Prize for Excellence in Secondary School Teaching to four outstanding high school teachers on Saturday, June 3, at its annual Ivy Exercises.
The recipients are Cindy Bohland, a biology teacher at Roanoke Valley Governor’s School in Roanoke, Va.; Shannon O’Bryan, a theatre teacher at Lawton Chiles High School in Tallahassee, Fla.; Brittany Reeser, a math teacher at Math and Science College Preparatory in Los Angeles, Calif.; and Robert Sandler, a history teacher at Stuyvesant High School in New York, N.Y.
Each year, Williams seniors nominate high school teachers who played influential roles in their lives and learning. A committee of faculty, staff, and students chooses winners from among the nominees. Recipients of the award receive $3,000, and an additional $5,000 is given to each recipient’s school. The Olmsted Prize was established in 1976 with an endowment from the estates of George Olmsted Jr. and his wife, Frances.
Cindy Bohland, Roanoke Valley Governor’s School, Roanoke, Va.
Gemma Porras ’17 credits Bohland with fostering a class environment where all students could find meaning and relevance in the sciences regardless of their level of comfort in the subject. “Ms. Bohland’s commitment to her students goes above and beyond … Her love of science is infectious and her ability to make class curriculum interesting and relevant to her students inspires many, such as myself, to pursue a career in science. If everyone had Ms. Bohland as a high school teacher, the sciences would be a much more diverse field full of students who hold potential that most teachers don’t take the time or energy to recognize and nourish in high school.”
Since 2002, Bohland has taught courses in the sciences at Roanoke Valley Governor’s School, including Advanced Placement courses and a number of unique electives, such as biotechnology and bioinformatics. She has also served as a chairperson for the science team and held academic development workshops for interested students. Porras praised Bohland for connecting her students with outside research opportunities to further explore their interests in science, while getting valuable professional experience.
Director of Roanoke Valley Governor’s School Mark Levy was equally grateful for Bohland’s work beyond the traditional classroom setting, recognizing that “her students complete uniquely ambitious experiments and find remarkable success in science fair competitions, including two students who have taken their projects to the International Science and Engineering Fair in recent years.”
When asked to reflect on her teaching philosophy, Bohland used her own field of study as a metaphor: “Evolution is a compromise … we are the evolutionary result of trade-offs and compromises. And so is my teaching. As I have implemented new labs and lessons this fall, I have been devoting my energy to crafting the new experience and will spend the next few years modifying those lessons to make them better … Through these experiences, I hope that all my students will leave my class with a love (or, at least, an appreciation) for biology and an enthusiasm for learning. In the end, I know I have been a model for life-long learning.”
Shannon O’Bryan, Lawton Chiles High School, Tallahassee, Fla.
At Lawton Chiles High School, Shannon O’Bryan provided Miranda Hanson ’17 and many of her fellow students a glimpse into their futures; futures that might not have been known or attainable without the drama teacher’s guidance. In her nomination, Hanson recalls O’Bryan’s class as, “the first time I was doing something real, a project which I actually cared about and truly mattered … it was also a place for me to express myself as an individual whose success is measured by more than just standardized testing. In Mrs. O’s world, I was encouraged to create something entirely new and unique: to be my own person and discover paths no one had dreamt of before.”
O’Bryan has been teaching in Tallahassee for the past 17 years, and during her tenure she has worked to “offer a variety of opportunities for students to become actors and technicians, and most importantly … to provide that ‘home’ that was most important to [her] in high school.” O’Bryan says that in her class, “tolerance, acceptance, and teamwork have been as important as excellent acting and technical skills.”
Under her leadership, her students’ experiences in theater extend well beyond the stage. Chiles High School has expanded its course offerings to include technical theater design and production, costume design and makeup, and playwriting. She is also a leader in the school’s charitable efforts. Each year, O’Bryan organizes a film festival for the charity Broadway Cares Equity Fights AIDS.
Kelly Little, Chiles High School’s fine and performing arts chairperson says “Mrs. O’Bryan’s verve, energy, devotion to the craft, and her collaborative processes with students, musicians, choreographers, and parent boosters is evident to any person fortunate enough to attend any of the performances in our auditorium.”
Brittany Reeser, Math and Science College Preparatory School, Los Angeles, Calif. (previously taught at Dr. Olga Mohan High School, Los Angeles)
Miguel Samayoa ’17 recalls being enthralled by Brittany Reeser’s math classes at Dr. Olga Mohan High School because of the effort and creativity she put into each class. In fact, he was hardly surprised when Reeser took the opportunity “to connect Bart Simpson batting a baseball into his neighbor’s window with how you can calculate the trajectory of a moving object using math” or how she once used a famous scene in The Notebook to supplement a lecture on the difference between acceleration and velocity. This was no surprise, Samayoa explains, because in her classes, “Mrs. Reeser employs her creativity to lighten the mood in the classroom, making the entire experience exponentially more enjoyable and opening the minds of her students to important lessons.”
In her classroom, Reeser values an inquiry-based approach to learning, where students arrive at significant mathematical conclusions through a combination of discourse with their peers and prior knowledge. In her statement on teaching, Reeser explains how she drew on her teaching philosophy in order to connect with her students: “Speaking to my students and actively listening to their ideas, perspectives, and day-to-day life helped me to learn who I am and to become a more confident, empathetic person.” Serving as a role model for curiosity, Reeser has seen her students develop vital skills that “are applicable to any problem, not just problems in math class.”
Reeser’s colleagues are equally supportive of her methods in teaching. Samayoa’s former high school principal, Janette Rodriguez-Pack, valued Reeser’s teaching so much that she asked her to assist her in founding Math and Science College Preparatory, a STEM preparatory school. At Math and Science College Prep, she still teaches AP calculus, while serving as the director of mathematics. Rodriguez-Pack describes Reeser as “relentless in her pursuit toward student learning. To say Ms. Reeser does not take a break is an understatement. She will never be caught sitting behind her desk during classtime. If she is not at the board engaging students in mini lectures, she is walking up and down the aisles checking in on students or sitting with groups helping, challenging, and motivating them.”
Robert Sandler, Stuyvesant High School, New York, N.Y.
Most students discover their academic passion—and if they’re lucky, a topic for a thesis—after arriving at college. Not Aglaia Ho ’17, who credited Robert Sandler and his New York City history class at Stuyvesant High School with the impetus for her research at Williams. “The final project he assigned for this elective—designing a walking tour of a New York City neighborhood—singlehandedly inspired the topic for my senior history thesis, which is about my neighborhood in Forest Hills, N.Y.”
During his now 17-year tenure at Stuyvesant High School, Sandler has worked closely with Principal Eric Contreras, who considers his decision to hire the history teacher to be “the single most important contribution I have made to the education of the students at Stuyvesant High School.” The principal remarked that students consistently come to him for a spot in one of Sandler’s classes, which are overenrolled each year.
Sandler’s devotion to his students is made evident by the lengths to which he goes to make history, as Ho says, “accessible, present, and personal.” In her nomination, she expressed special appreciation for Sandler’s “use of the city itself as a classroom.” In her elective on New York City, Ho and her classmates “went on walking tours to notable New York City landmarks like Central Park, Greenwood Cemetery, and Brooklyn Bridge and historical sites that were generally closed to the public, such as an old out-of-use subway stations below City Hall.”
Reflecting on his teaching experience, Sandler notes that his primary goal in class, whether it’s AP U.S. history, an elective on Jewish history or New York City, has always been to make history come alive: “During my course, they [students] discover that history is an ongoing dialogue, and that scholars often uncover new viewpoints that radically change the way we look at this subject.”
Founded in 1793, Williams College is the second-oldest institution of higher learning in Massachusetts. The college’s 2,000 students are taught by a faculty noted for the quality of their teaching and research, and the achievement of academic goals includes active participation of students with faculty in their research. Students’ educational experience is enriched by the residential campus environment in Williamstown, Mass., which provides a host of opportunities for interaction with one another and with faculty beyond the classroom. Admission decisions on U.S. applicants are made regardless of a student’s financial ability, and the college provides grants and other assistance to meet the demonstrated needs of all who are admitted.